The Idiot- Book Review

idiotI’d like to take a moment after all that ranting to just praise one of my favourite books of all time. It is literally one of the best books ever written, so forgive me for all the gushiness that is about to ensue.

I read once that Dostoevsky thought this book was a failure- and to an extent he is right. It’s definitely not a perfect book. The whole thing is rather disjointed and the plot is all over the place. Then, at the end, it just fizzles out. It’s actually quite anti-climactic. But in a way these failings are kind of perfect, because they reinforce Dostoevsky’s message. The whole book, after all, is about failing. I have always loved the fact that The Idiot is a failed book about failure.

No one could argue, however, that the characters are unsuccessful. Dostoevsky masterfully exposes human nature. It is nothing short of brilliant. He perfectly balances motives with crimes and personalities with actions. Even the villains are sympathetic. And, on the flip side, even the hero, Prince Myshkin, has flaws. In fact, his greatest failing is that he is too saintly. It is because of this goodness that he fails. Myshkin is thus an idiot in more than one sense- partly because of his affliction, and partly because he is foolishly noble. Somehow, Dostoevsky manages to show that perfection is in itself an imperfection.

What is even more incredible is how Dostoevsky managed to pull this off. Normally characters of this calibre can end up seeming sickly sweet. Yet somehow, this was a character I fell in love with. Perhaps that is due to his affliction. The references to epilepsy are phenomenally moving and serve to make Myshkin yet more sympathetic. Furthermore, his perfection underpins the greatest tragedy of all: that humanity will inevitably destroy all that is good in the world. It is because of his goodness that he is doomed to fail.

Not only are the characters sensational, but the insights are profound. Dostoevsky writes beautiful philosophy. What struck me most is his explanation of Ganya’s motives. Dostoevsky explains that everyone is trying to be original. Ganya simply thought the only way he could be original was through money- which of course is his failing. It is natural that one would think money gives you freedom and Ganya believes that this freedom will allow him to finally buy originality. (Ironically, his part-time nemesis represents completely opposite ideals and actually achieves originality through his goodness). He fails, of course, to achieve this- but then the novel is about failure. Again, this highlights the sense of catastrophe overshadowing the book. And that is why the book is so perfect.

Rating: 5/5 bananas

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