“It is better to be unhappy and know the worst, than to be happy in a fool’s paradise.”
After spending four years in a Swiss clinic where he was treated for severe epilepsy and ‘idiocy’, Prince Myshkin returns to Russia on a cold November morning. On the train he meets a man named Rogozhin who is obsessed with a fallen femme fatale, Nastasya, who was the mistress of an aristocrat, Totsky. Prince Myshkin visits the house of the Yepanchins where his only distant relation Madame Yepanchin is married to the respected and wealthy General Yepanchin. The couple have three daughters, the last being the most beautiful but haughty and capricious Aglaya who will have a significant role in the prince’s life.
The general’s assistant, Ganya is in love with Aglaya but plans to marry Nastasya, as he has been promised a large sum of money by Totsky if he does so. On the night that Nastasya holds a party where she will announce if she will marry Ganya or not, the prince tries to convince her against it and offers to marry her. Rogozhin appears at the party with his gang and it is with him that Nastasya runs off. Months later Prince Myshkin pays Rogozhin, where his epileptic seizure saves him from getting stabbed by Rogozhin. The prince’s compassion, naivety and kindness opens him to people’s manipulation and false claims to his small inheritance, yet he is always willing to help. He falls in love with Aglaya while he also holds a compassionate love for Nastasya. Aglaya is in love with him too but she won’t admit it, often mocking him. However, her family treats him like her fiancé and he is invited to a dinner party where the general’s acquaintances who rank high in society are also attending. He has a severe seizure and is thought of by the family as an unfit match for Aglaya. The love triangle does not end well for those involved; one dies, the other’s mental state crumbles and the other runs off with a count and is later abandoned.
The story is set in a world of moral corruption, selfishness, money as a weapon of power and manipulation, against altruism, love and beauty. This pretty much represents not only the Russian society at the time but the real world we live in. People’s mockery of the prince’s illness and labeling of it as idiocy shows an ignorance and misunderstanding of mental illness that has always existed and still does in society. His kindness and care are also taken advantage of and people do not hesitate to manipulate him for their own benefit. Humanity tends to do so with people who are selfless and openly honest. Money plays such a big role; who has the most and who can acquire things like love with it. We see this with the different amounts offered in a bid for the beautiful Nastasya. I read Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, prior to reading The Idiot and one has to give it to Dostoevsky for his clear insight into the human psyche. I love the way all the characters depict the different characteristics and the different aspects of society itself. Prince Myshkin is the ideal human form of goodness, selflessness, kindness and positivity. The reality that Dostoevsky does not hide from us is that this same man with all his good qualities, does not succeed in changing the world he enters with all these positive qualities. Instead, his life and that of those around him end up mostly in destruction. There are different types of love that we see in the characters, for example Prince Myshkin’s compassionate love for Nastassya is different from the obsessive and corrosive love that Rogozhin has for her.
Dostoevsky’s ability to represent different perspectives in equally good measure and to bring to the surface both psychological and social themes in their purest form, is absolutely praiseworthy. The story, along with many that he has written, exhibit an astounding measure of talent and boundless beauty in his style of writing. It’s a long story but worth its length. It is definitely proof of how and why Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the most influential writers of all time. Lovers of classic literature, Russian or not, will devour this one.