The Idiot.

I’ve finished Dostoevsky’s Идиот [The Idiot], and I should probably wait and digest it for a while before posting about it, but what the hell, he wrote the novel in haste and sloppily, why shouldn’t I do the same with the review? As you will gather, I have serious problems with it (as have so many before me — Dostoevsky had a special place in his heart for readers who preferred it of all his books, as many artists do for their less-favored works), but I’m certainly not going to call it a bad novel, like The Insulted and Injured — it’s one of his great ones, but it’s the worst of his great ones. Of course, there’s a reason for that: he was desperately scribbling chapters as fast as he could to send them to his publisher for desperately needed money, and he was changing it as he went; his notebooks are full of back-and-forthing over who is related to who and how, and who does what. Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin apparently started out as the same character, for example. I wish it had had the benefit of some serious editing.

Still, it starts off brilliantly; the whole first part (of four) carries the reader along seamlessly from the Prince’s meeting with Rogozhin on the train to the party where Nastasya Filippovna hurls the money into the fire. What characters, what imagination, what energy! And what a letdown when you turn the page to Part Two and discover that six months have passed and the garrulous narrator is babbling about rumors and uncertainty and suddenly we’re plunged into fairly incomprehensible family affairs of uncertain relevance to anything we’ve been concerned with, and everyone goes off to Pavlovsk for increasingly unconvincing interactions.

I would feel more diffident about my negativity if it weren’t supported by two of my favorite Dostoevskyans, Leatherbarrow in his compact Fedor Dostoevsky (“Of all Dostoevsky’s novels The Idiot is the most obviously contrived. […] in the end there is too much in this novel that remains unclear; too much in both plot and character depiction that cannot be explained within even the most extended limits of social and psychological probability”) and Joseph Frank in his massive biography (“In addition to Ippolit, The Idiot is filled with all sorts of minor characters related to the main plot only by the most tenuous of threads”). So tangled is the tale that I gave up trying to explain it to my wife, who had followed my account of the early chapters with interest. I realize that (as Leatherbarrow emphasizes) there’s allegory involved, and Dostoevsky is trying to convey his fervently held views on the corruption of Europe and the necessity of salvation by Russia, but all that stuff is of value only insofar as it provides the necessary scaffolding for convincing characters and plot — it can’t take the place of those things. And both characters and plot get less and less convincing to me, until Dostoevsky rescues it with a magnificent ending.

My brother was way ahead of my in his appreciation of Dostoevsky — he fell for The Idiot in his early teens — so of course I wrote him about my impressions, saying:

…after a brilliant first part, which could have stood as a short novel on its own, it plunges into melodrama, with all the absurd coincidences and random outbursts that entails. He was always fatally drawn to melodrama, and it was his fallback when he couldn’t figure out what to do: “I know, I’ll have a loud knock on the door and a bunch of people will burst in to have a belligerent confrontation! Maybe somebody will pull a knife! Then there will be tears of repentance, pleas for forgiveness, oh, it’ll be wonderful!”

He responded: “I do have to take exception to your disparaging reference to melodrama – some of the best movies are full-throttle melodrama so I think it deserves more respect than it usually gets.” I agreed that was fair:

I’m not so much disparaging it as pointing out the discrepancy between my limited tolerance for it and D’s unlimited love for it. I can appreciate its impact intellectually, and I can swallow a certain amount of coincidence and sudden arrivals and impassioned blurts (“I love you! No, I hate you!!”), but after a certain point I just shut down and can’t swallow any more. I think it’s been compared to opera, and that’s a good comparison; I have a similar reaction to the wilder opera plots, like Il trovatore (Julian Budden called it “a high-flown, sprawling melodrama flamboyantly defiant of the Aristotelian unities, packed with all manner of fantastic and bizarre incident,” which is a good description). Verdi’s music, like D’s prose, carries me along through all the nonsense, but it still makes me cringe.

And it occurred to me that the stereotypical Western image of the crazed, unpredictable, passionate Russian is drawn largely from Dostoevsky; the characters of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov are no more wild and crazy than humanity at large, but Dostoevsky can’t resist wretched excess.

I don’t want to end on a negative note, however. Dostoevsky was, after all, a great writer, and I’ll take as an example a through-line of imagery comparable to Woolf’s use of “purple” in To the Lighthouse (see this post). Towards the end of the first part, Nastasya Filippovna gives a party at which she asks her guests to tell the worst thing they’ve ever done. This produces some excellent stories, and General Epanchin’s involves his quarrel with his ancient landlady when he was a young officer stationed in a small town. He stormed up to her as she was sitting in the entryway and unleashed a torrent of abuse, but she didn’t answer, didn’t even move; he describes the moment: “мухи жужжат, солнце закатывается, тишина” [flies buzz, the sun is setting, it’s quiet]. He goes home and learns that she is dead, and in fact must have been dying while he was cursing her. A few lines later, he reflects that she had been a person like anyone else, she had had a husband, children, a family, and then it all vanished and “осталась одна, как… муха какая-нибудь” [she was left alone, like some kind of fly]. Much later, in the course of the tubercular Ippolit’s interminable “Essential Explanation,” he talks about the fate that is preparing to “раздавить меня как муху” [crush me like a fly]. A couple of chapters later (but still during his “Essential Explanation”) he makes this famous complaint (I quote Eva Martin’s translation):

Для чего мне ваша природа, ваш павловский парк, ваши восходы и закаты солнца, ваше голубое небо и ваши вседовольные лица, когда весь этот пир, которому нет конца, начал с того, что одного меня счел за лишнего? Что мне во всей этой красоте, когда я каждую минуту, каждую секунду должен и принужден теперь знать, что вот даже эта крошечная мушка, которая жужжит теперь около меня в солнечном луче, и та даже во всем этом пире и хоре участница, место знает свое, любит его и счастлива, а я один выкидыш, и только по малодушию моему до сих пор не хотел понять это!

What is the use of all your nature to me—all your parks and trees, your sunsets and sunrises, your blue skies and your self-satisfied faces—when all this wealth of beauty and happiness begins with the fact that it accounts me—only me—one too many! What is the good of all this beauty and glory to me, when every second, every moment, I cannot but be aware that this little fly which buzzes around my head in the sun’s rays—even this little fly is a sharer and participator in all the glory of the universe, and knows its place and is happy in it;—while I—only I, am an outcast, and have been blind to the fact hitherto, thanks to my simplicity!

Towards the end of that chapter, the Prince reflects that Ippolit’s «мушка» [‘little fly’] echoed his own feeling when he had been ill in Switzerland. And the payoff comes at the very end of the novel, when Rogozhin takes the Prince into a curtained-off alcove to see Nastasya Filippovna (my translation):

Князь глядел и чувствовал, что, чем больше он глядит, тем еще мертвее и тише становится в комнате. Вдруг зажужжала проснувшаяся муха, пронеслась над кроватью и затихла у изголовья. Князь вздрогнул.

The prince gazed and felt that the more he gazed, the deader and quieter it became in the room. Suddenly a fly awoke and started buzzing, darted over the bed, and became quiet at its head. The prince shuddered.

For that, I’ll forgive much.


  1. I know I have mentioned before that The Idiot is my father’s favorite novel. He is a medical doctor, and the main character’s battle with epilepsy is what sets the novel above all Dostoyevsky’s others in his estimation.

  2. Almodóvar has taught me that the most excessive melodrama is just fine, if treated with love and respect. I haven’t read The Idiot, so I can’t say if it’s comparable.

  3. Frye defines melodrama (very neatly in my view) as “comedy without humor”. He says that if we had Aristotle’s book on comedy[*], it would probably say that the comic emotions are sympathy and ridicule (corresponding to the tragic emotions of pity and fear). Melodrama, then, is all sympathy and no ridicule: the overall shape of melodrama is that of comedy (a character falls from a previous state, then rises again) but what people think of as the main attribute of comedy, namely Teh Funny, is missing.

    [*] Of course, it was eaten by Jorge Luis Borges back in 1327, as Umberto Eco tells us.

  4. Dostoevsky’s melodrama almost always goes beyond melodrama. Every passionate moment is turned to 11 and (almost) all characters behave, or at least talk, a bit crazy. Probably, F.M. thought that otherwise it is not worth writing… It’s a bit like characters from heroic epos were made to play in bourgeois tragedy, Russian style.

  5. @John Cowan: Borges lived to a venerable age, but he was not that Venerable.

  6. It was metempsychosis.

  7. “it was his fallback when he couldn’t figure out what to do: “I know, I’ll have a loud knock on the door and a bunch of people will burst in to have a belligerent confrontation! Maybe somebody will pull a knife! ”

    Is this a deliberate riff on Raymond Chandler- “This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter…”

  8. Is this a deliberate riff on Raymond Chandler

    Not consciously, but I’m familiar with the Chandler quote, so I may have had it in the back of my mind.

  9. True, but his spiritual ancestor Jorge of Burgos was there in The Name of the Rose.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Idiot is easily my favourite among Dostoevsky’s great novels. Who cares about melodrama when it’s Dostoevsky?

    I suspect Hat is right that D is the fons et origo of the Stereotypical Russian Novel Character though. (Along with Charles Dickens, of course.)

  11. The Idiot is easily my favourite among Dostoevsky’s great novels. Who cares about melodrama when it’s Dostoevsky?

    You and my brother would get along well, and Dostoevsky would love you both.

  12. @John Cowan: Hence my “Venerable” joke.

  13. I had forgotten to mention in the post that as I was reading the novel I kept being reminded of Trollope’s Lord Fawn, in particular as played (brilliantly, of course) by Derek Jacobi in The Pallisers. So I went looking for an image and googled up this page; about halfway down you can see a photo of him as Fawn (with extravagant facial hair) on the left, across from one of him in I, Claudius. But further up that page (first photo on the left) my eye was caught by a photo labeled “Diane Cilento & Derek Jacobi in The Idiot at the Old Vic in 1970.” Yes, that’s right, he played Myshkin (a fact which I could not possibly have known). Submitted for your approval, as Rod Serling used to say.

  14. I wonder what real surname Dostoyevsky had in mind inventing prince Myshkin.

    Most likely guess would be princes Myshetsky, an ordinary and quite boring real princely family which gave Russia many governors, generals and bureaucrats.

    If he was going for the sound analogy, instead of literal root, then I guess it’s Naryshkins. They didn’t really had princely title, but they did extremely well otherwise – Peter the Great’s mother was Naryshkina, for example.

    Going a little deeper into history, there used to be a boyar family named Koshkins back in 15th century. That’s really cool analogy, because Myshkin derives from Russian word for mouse and Koshkin is derived from Russian word for cat.

    Unfortunately, Koshkins became Romanovs in 16th century (yes, those Romanovs), so they couldn’t be heroes of Dostoyevsky novel….

    …unless Fyodor Mikhailovich based his prince Myshkin on the Tsar or his cousins which strikes me as unlikely.

  15. Why do you think Dost was thinking about the noble families? Maybe it’s just something as simple and blunt as a play on “as quiet as a mouse”.

  16. Yes, although the parallel with Koshkin might have amused him.

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