When I had read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor, the author’s familiarity with human emotions of guilt, anger, frustration had overwhelmed me. I had struggled with its slow beginning, but was surely impressed with its gravity.
As I picked up Idiot, my expectations rocketed sky high and I feared whether my thrilled anticipation would spoil the novel. But, as I finished the novel, I have become an even bigger fan of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
In Idiot, the author has outdone himself. The novel is structurally strong and is neatly divided into four parts. The story moves effortlessly from Switzerland to Petersburg to Moscow to Pavlofsk. Settings change, new characters are introduced at regular intervals and yet the underlying thread never breaks, with the narrative continuing at a smooth pace. And, it is no easy job considering the depth of this layered story.
Without doubt Idiot is one of those rare novels, where each word resonates with your soul, each phrase rekindles a long forgotten experience and each chapter becomes an indelible imprint on mind.
Before I tell you more about my experience, let me begin from the very beginning as the first few pages do require a special mention. In stark contrast to Crime and Punishment, here Fyodor begins his tale in a comical, light manner.
The story begins in a third class railway compartment where a Prince, a rich merchant’s son and a cunning accountant are traveling or rather returning to St. Petersburg, their homeland.
Initially, the three gentlemen are complete strangers and try to size up each other on the basis of clothes, looks and manners. I found this part familiar and queer at the same time. Though it is most ordinary for fellow travelers to indulge in light hearted gossip, it is not everyday that a Prince travels in third class and instantly strikes a long lasting bond with his companions. Something similar had happened in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, another stupendous creation that I simply loved and I knew that Idiot has begun on the right track.
The small talk between Muishkin, Rogojin and Lebedeff brings a fourth character into prominence; a lady by the name Nastasia Philipovna, the current mistress of one of the wealthiest man of Petersburg, with whom Rogojin has fallen in love. In fact, Rogojin and Lebedeff are supposed to go to Nastasia immediately after their arrival in town.
The Prince Muishkin, who appears by far the simplest creature, divulges that he is the last descendent of Prokofievna family and is a relative of Lizabetha Epanchin, another well known woman of high society. His sole purpose in returning to Russia is to re-establish contacts with relations of his long dead benefactor Pavlicheff.
During the course of conversation, Muishkin discloses that he suffered from epileptic fits in his childhood and was sent in the care of a doctor in Switzerland. He is presently returning from the asylum and is almost cured of his long disease.
However, the looks exchanged between Lebedeff and Rogojin convinced me beyond doubt that he is nothing more than an invalid.
As the story progressed, Muishkin lands into the household of Epanchins, where his simple trusting nature earns him the name of idiot. And thus, began the 393 pages long story of The Idiot, who is transformed within a day from an abject poor to a filthy rich Prince.
But, will money redeem his reputation? Or will he succumb to his overflowing sensitivity and lose his standing in society? Or will he be swindled by opportunists and left penniless and peerless as in the beginning, embracing the epithet of idiot bestowed on him by every Tom, Dick and Harry?
I was bombarded with these questions as I continued reading the complex novel. Fyodor, in his typical taciturn way swung my loyalties and impressions from one extreme to another, forcing me to bury deeper between the lines.
One of the most striking feature of Fyodor’s novels is that he never minces words. He does not shy away from projecting his protagonist in a negative way. Be it Raskolnikoff of Crime and Punishment or Muishkin of Idiot, his heroes are sightly eccentric though extraordinarily intelligent men of reason and logic, harbingers of truth, who are almost always misunderstood by society.
Prince Lef Nicolaivitch aka Mushkin is no different. At the very first meeting, people assume him an idiot and even call him as such on his very face. But, the narrative clearly shows that the first impressions are invariably wrong. Prince is a man of extraordinary talent – sensitive, creative and intelligent. As he reflected his experience of public execution and social ostracization in the beautiful lands of Switzerland, I became a fan of his good hearted intentions and so did his relations – Lady Epanchin and her three daughters.
As the story progressed, I began to share a part of Muishkin’s tolerance. His sympathetic ignorance of his adversaries’ actions infected me. However, when he made a fool of himself in front of Lebedeff’s bigotry, Baldovsky’s empty threats and Rogojin’s treachery, I could hardly contain my anger and automatically sided with Lizabetha and Aglaya, who probably loved him the most. The ladies scolded him for his follies, yet ran forward to rescue him from others’ derision.
Considering Aglaya’s bias towards Mushkin, the story could have been reduced to a simple love story, had Fyodor not introduced the violent, misunderstood characters of Rogojin and Nastasia. Both of them are perhaps Mushkin’s well wishers and even love him in the core of their hearts. But they are unable to accept his innocence, and pelt him with stones for being too impractical and generous.
Apparently Rogojin is in love with Nastasia, who in turn loves the Prince, but is unable to accept him for the fear of morally degrading this simple soul. Here, Nastasia reminded me of Kiranmayi of Charitraheen. Both are victims of fate, slandered by society and are ready to accept their immoral status instead of living with the charity of man they love.
On the other hand, Muishkin can hardly understand his own feelings. He is in awe of beautiful Nastasia, calls her a mad woman and yet is ready to marry her, if only to protect her from moral degradation. Nastasia scuffs his pity and pretends to marry Rogojin. But, in her heart, she loves the Prince, and unable to make up her mind runs from one man to another.
And, caught among this whirlwind is Aglaya, a hot headed bright girl, who slowly falls in love with Prince. But, she too is unable to voice her true feelings. In her girlish innocence, she strives for Prince’s attention by deriding him with her sarcastic jokes and even tries to make him jealous by associating with Gania and Evgiene. As the prince is too naive, all her subtle tactics fail and with each chapter, she becomes more and more aggressive and confused.
Towards the end, Aglaya even confronts Nastasia in a desperate bid to possess the Prince. This particular scene made me wish that Sarat Chandra should have arranged a similar meeting between Paro and Chandermukhi in Devdas. Though the characters of two novels vary and the soft, self evasive Muishkin can hardly be compared to haughty loser Devdas. Yet, I could sense an underlying similarity between the two stories and would have loved the confrontation between a noble girl and a fallen woman. Must say, Fyodor has handled the situation much better.
As the story moved from one to the other character, I had a feeling of sitting in a merry-go-round where each person has a different view yet is moving in the same periphery as others.
As if this complicated love story was not enough, Fyodor also took it upon himself to expound on religious dogmas and philosophical ideals.
Though, most of the questions that dogged the characters like rapid spread of railways, newly found liberalism and nihilism and prophecies of Anti Christ are now a thing of the past and we hardly ever denote time to these issues, yet these debates provided a periodic appeal to this classic novel.
His discussions are sombre and enlightening, but do end up slowing the pace of novel. I found the third part slowest, as a large portion of narrative concentrated on philosophy and hot headed debates. Here, again, I found Fyodor’s love for macabre coming to the fore. If a mare was mercilessly flogged in Crime and Punishment, in Idiot innocent monks are devoured by a cannibal.
But, Fyodor is a clever writer. He punctuates the disgusting episodes with light banters and then moves on to a sombre suicide note, giving me no time to recover my sanity. Final expression (suicide note) voiced Hippolyte’s frustration. He is just 17 years old and a chronic victim of consumption. He is sure to die within weeks, and in a desperate bid to garner sympathy and affection, he reads his confession and makes a failed attempt at suicide.
But, as often happens, he ends up becoming the butt of jokes, derided by society for his dramatic antics. And, Hippolyte is left even more morbid, begging for mercy killing. We may consider Euthanasia a modern concept, but I was stupefied by Fyodor’s detailed cry for the same, two centuries earlier!
It goes without saying that was floored by the multi pronged novel, but unfortunately I cannot say the same about the end. The climax began well, it was fast, humorous and engaging. But, as the actual end approached, the novel that began on a comic note became too tragic. In a way, Fyodor completed the cycle of life. The story that began with Rogojin and Muishkin discussing Nastasia ended with both of them renewing their bonds in a morbid way, with the spirit of haunted woman guiding them. But, still as a connoisseur of romantic endings, I was left slightly unsatisfied.
The Prince who was acknowledged by everyone as an idiot, but who constantly made others look much inferior by the dint of his intellect, was finally reduced to an invalid in the end, thus proving the society right, much to the chagrin of sensitive reader in me.
Notwithstanding the damp ending, which I think all Fyodor fans should accept as a norm rather than exception, the novel is simply brilliant. It is sarcastic, ironic, caustic, yet very honest and true portrayal of human vices.
Fyodor’s vivid description of public execution and voicing the actual thoughts of a dying man left me speechless. I have never read a more comprehensive, sensitive depiction not even in the novels of stalwarts like Tagore and Tolstoy.
Though, I did have my share of slight niggles. A prominent one is the haphazard use of call name and good name of a person in the same breath. I think, it would be brilliant, if a cast of characters is given at the beginning of the novel, so as not to confuse the many ‘Vitches’
Further, I could not get the joke on ‘Poor Knight’ or ‘Women Question’. The detailed postmortem of works of Pushkin, Gogol and other Russian writers of Fyodor’s time was also incomprehensible to me. But, here, the fault lies with my limited knowledge and extended reading time rather than Fyodor.
All in all, Idiot is a novel, I would love to re-read, as it has too many facets and colors which escaped my attention due to the longish time I took while reading it. Idiot took me more than a month to finish, but has made me a fan of Fyodor’s writing prowess for an entire life!
At times, I found it hard to keep reading and was constantly distracted by other lighter reads such as A Matter of Time, Divine Justice and Arranged Marriage. But, strangely I just could not give up on the Idiot. I was again and again enamored by Fyodor’s neutral yet involving tale.
I would definitely love to go on another outing with the brilliant writer:)
Title : The Idiot
Written By : Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translated by : Eva Martin
Edition : Kindle
No. of Pages : 393