Hey, here's an idea–—let's start with a little role-play. Pretend to close your eyes (but totally don't close them for real because then you won't be able to read this thing), empty your mind, and concentrate on the sound—ahem—the look of our words.
It's the middle of the nineteenth century in Russia, and on the throne is Nicolas I, a super-duper reactionary conservative tsar. In other words, it's kind of a bad time to be thinking about left-wing socialism, what with the tsar having a pretty itchy trigger finger.
Now imagine a young writer who is part of a forward-thinking group of intellectuals. These guys chat about how awesome it would be to not be ruled by this super-reactionary tsar. Huh, how long could they possibly be able to get away with this? Not long, it turns out—the writer is arrested, quickly tried, and sentenced to death. He and his friends are lined up in front of a firing squad. The soldiers get ready, take aim, and…the execution is called off and revealed as an elaborate psychological torture device.
Now, your imaginative exercise is this: given this insane experience and the four years of almost unendurable hard labor imprisonment that follow, how would you expect this young writer to react? Okay, time is up. Spoiler alert: the writer is Dostoevsky, and all of this actually happened to him. And after this horrific ordeal, he totally abandoned his progressive ideas and became extremely religious. He also combined pieces of Russian Orthodox tradition with the feelings of universal peace and divine love that he sometimes experienced just before his epileptic seizures. (Oh, right, did we mention that Dostoevsky also suffered from epilepsy? Well, he did.) Particularly, he became obsessed with the idea of Jesus Christ as the perfect being. For Dostoevsky, this perfection mainly had to do with the ideals of humility and suffering. And of course, all of this ended up making its way into most of his novels.
So eventually, in 1868, about twenty years after the whole mock execution nightmare, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot. He himself called this his most personal novel, and had a lot of nice things to say about those critics who picked it out as his most interesting work. Why was it so personal? Well, we think it's safe to say that it's because the novel deals with so many of the experiences and ideas that were so close to Dostoevsky's heart. One: Myshkin is an epileptic, just like his author. Two: there is a constant stream of stories about the way people react to the knowledge that they are about to die, which is something Dostoevsky had been thinking about ever since almost being executed. And three: the goodness and perfection that is at the core of the character of Myshkin, who was supposed
to portray a positively beautiful person. There's nothing more difficult than that in the whole world, and especially now. […] There's only one positively beautiful person in the world—Christ, so that the appearance of this measurelessly, infinitely beautiful person is in fact of course an infinite miracle. (Letter from Dostoevsky to his niece Sofia January 1st, 1868, source)
In other words, Myshkin is Dostoevsky's way of addressing that whole perfection of Jesus thing.
But then Dostoevsky starts to worry: how do you write about some super-perfect person? Wouldn't that be kind of an annoying goody-too-shoes guy to read about? So he thinks the idea out further, comparing his Myshkin to characters like Don Quixote or Pickwick, and decides that to be interesting, a "beautiful person" has to also be ridiculous. His letter to Sofia goes on to say: "Compassion appears for the beautiful that is mocked and does not know its own value, and therefore, sympathy appears in the reader too" (source).
Meaning, the way you make the perfect guy relatable is to make everyone around him make fun of him, not realizing how perfect he actually is. So that's what he ends up doing—Myshkin isn't "perfect" in the sense that everyone wants to be him, but he is "perfect" because he is completely simple, uncomplicated, and truthful, which in turn makes the rest of society look super-artificial and hypocritical in comparison.
Alright, level with us, are you now wearing or have you ever worn a Team Edward or Team Jacob T-shirt? Did you worry about whether Joey would end up with Dawson or Pacey? Have you secretly wanted Jonathan Harper to dump that prissy Mina and just dive headfirst into all that hot bride-of-Dracula sex? Well, then have we got a novel for you. Let's just set the Christ stuff aside for a second and think about this book in a totally different light by actually checking out the plot. There, now, see, it's not only about religion and philosophy, right? Instead, what we have here is a way better version of your standard, run-of-the-mill young adult romance, with almost every kind of arrangement of teen relationship angst that you could possible imagine. No, really, stick with us for a second, and we'll just do a romance novel run-down.
First, we've got Myshkin, a guy who is kind of a fragile misfit, but who is sweet and well-meaning. Basically? He's a souped-up version of the classic nerdy nice guy. Second, we've got his polar opposite—the unpredictable and dangerous Rogozhin, who is a shoe-in for the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks part. Third, we've got Nastasya, who is beautiful, kind of mental, with a terrible past and lots of self-esteem issues because of it—think goth cheerleader. And finally, there's Aglaya, the sheltered artsy type who is just about to come into her own as she discovers real love. Talk about archetypes, right?
Not only does the novel give us these characters, it also shows us the most amazing number and combination of romance plots. More than you could shake a stick at, really. No, seriously, go ahead and try to shake a stick at them—you'll look silly. And not just because you'll be shaking a stick at a book. Nastasya has the most straightforward choice. Does she go with the sexy guy who has the hots for her but is kind of unstable and possibly violent? Sure, he might harm her, but then again she has a kind of self-destructive thing going on anyway. Or does she try to overcome her issues and go with the guy who wants to save and change her, but loves her more as a friend than as a girlfriend? That's a tough call.
Myshkin's choice is kind of similar. Does he follow his heart and go with the girl of his dreams? Or does he stick to his principles and try to help the girl that everyone else wants to abandon? Yeah, another head-scratcher.
Aglaya has some decisions to make that have more to do with her family and social situation. Does she say the heck with society's opinions, follow her own ideas, and marry the weirdo Myshkin? Or does she stick to what is right and proper and go with Radomsky or Ganya or any one of the other socially acceptable guys around? Yikes. Glad we're not in her shoes.
And finally there is Rogozhin, whose choice is probably the harshest, and also probably most determined by circumstance. Can he fight his lust for and obsession with Nastasya and walk away from the whole situation? Or is he doomed to give in to all those feelings, along with the crazy jealousy he can't really control?
What happens to us as we watch these characters make and try to stick to their choices? We care because, hey, who doesn't love some complicated relationship drama. We care because we start to really get attached to some of these guys. And of course, we care because we've all been in at least one of these situations before ourselves.
Here's the full text of The Idiot—you know, to make finding quotations easier.
Dostoevsky Research Station
Super comprehensive link-full site for all things Dostoevsky—biography, photos, essay, the whole deal.
The Idiot Restaurant
This restaurant in St. Petersburg is completely inspired by the novel. No info on whether the waiters barge in and start yelling at you and your dining companions.
The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia
Here's the ultimate reference work for our man Dostoevsky.
My Belief: Essays on Life and Art
Check out this commentary on The Idiot by Herman Hesse, a famous German novelist.
This is an awesome Japanese version of the novel from 1951. We wonder how the cultural stuff is translated for the Japanese context. Maybe they just make it a love story.
This is some kind of punk-looking update from Estonia that was made in 2011.
Here's part of a subtitled 2003 mini-series version of the novel—Russian TV, comin' at you.
The Idiot on BBC 7 Radio
Check out this radio play staring Paul Rhys.
Holbein's "Christ's Body in the Tomb"
It's that painting that's driving everybody mad! Mad! Mad, we're telling you!
No, really, it's a Flickr page for people to talk about and share photos that remind them of themes from Dostoevsky's novels.