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NA305912 - DOSTOYEVSKY, F.: Idiot (The) (Abridged)

Fyodor Mikhail Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Mikhail Dostoyevsky



“I know for sure that if I had two or three secure years for this novel… I would write a work that they would talk about for a hundred years.” So said Dostoyevsky as he struggled to bring The Idiot into existence, and sure enough it has lasted longer than the hundred years he predicted. In his creation of Prince Muishkin, The Idiot, a character seeking perfection and yet fraught with ambiguity, Dostoyevsky anticipated the universal metaphysical unease of succeeding generations, and produced an unforgettable masterpiece.


Fyodor Mikhail Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow in 1821. His father was a physician and he was the second son of seven children. After leaving school he studied at the Military Engineering College in St Petersburg, graduating as an officer. His first story was published to great acclaim in 1846, but in 1849 he was arrested and sentenced to death for his involvement in the ‘Petrashevsky circle,’ a group of naïve, radical intellectuals who modeled themselves o French socialists such as Fourier. The Tsar ordered a public ‘execution’, an eloquent account of which is given by Prince Muishkin in The Idiot, and at the moment of execution the proceedings were halted and the sentences commuted to hard labour in Siberia.


In 1862 Dostoyevsky travelled abroad and met Mlle Suslova, whom he subsequently married, and became addicted to gambling, which plunged him into debt.  It was his second wife, Anna Grigoryevena who helped him out of his financial difficulties. He returned to Russia in 1873 and died there in 1881. His most important works were: Notes from the Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1865-66), The Gambler (1866), The Idiot (1869), The Devils (1871), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).


The task of abridging a great and complex classic like The Idiot, swings one between job and despair. The despair comes from trying to convey the inherent complexity of the work, the job form the searing moments of clarity and revelation. But this struggle is nothing when compared to the gargantuan problems Dostoyevsky faced when writing the book. He went through at least eight plans and many variations of each plan. Just before submitting the first part to his publisher, he destroyed most of what he had written and virtually started writing the novel again. It was written in Geneva, Vevey, Milan and Florence, between bouts of gambling, grinding poverty and recurrent epileptic fits.


After four years in a Swiss clinic where he was treated for epilepsy, Prince Muishkin returns by train to St Petersburg. On the journey, he meets Parfyon Rogojhin with whom he strikes up a friendship and who tells him about the beautiful Nastasia Phillipovna, who he is in love with.


On arriving in Petersburg, the prince, penniless and bedraggled, goes to find a distant and wealthy relative, Mrs. Yepanchin. She and her husband and their three daughters befriend this strangely naïve and sickly character, and he goes to lodge with General Yepanchin’s secretary, Ganya. Ganya wants to marry Aglaya, one of Mrs. Yepanchin’s daughters, mostly for her money, but is also involved with the notorious Nastasia Phillipovna who is living under the protection of Totsky, a man she does not love. Prince Muishkin pities this neurotic and emotional woman and, during a bizarre incident at her birthday party, offers to marry her. Instead, she runs off with Rogojhin who also turns up at the party. Later, when Nastasia leaves Rogojhin, he swears to kill Prince Muishkin, as he is convinced that Nastasia is in love with him.


Prince Muishkin becomes the victim of an extortion attempt, but when he successfully refutes the charges, he offers to give money to his accuser, thus confirming Mrs. Yepanchin’s view that he is ‘an idiot’. Meanwhile, Aglaya falls in love with Prince Muishkin and, after hiding her feelings at first, she is eventually engaged to him. At a party to celebrate the betrothal, Prince Muishkin commits the ultimate social blunder of having an epileptic fit. Aglaya and Nastasia strike up a correspondence, and Aglaya asks Prince Muishkin to visit Nastasia with her. After a hectic and turbulent argument, Nastasia faints, Prince Muishkin runs to her aid and Aglaya, feeling rejected, flees and refused to see Prince Muishkin.


Nastasia aggress to marry Prince Muishkin, but at the very last moment, she is swept away by Rogojhin. Prince Muishkin pursues them to Petersburg. After a long search, he finds Rogojhin and although he fears for his life, nothing could have prepared him for the final brutal end. Even then he is still able to forgive, but at a very high price.


Dostoyevsky wanted desperately to write a novel about a ‘good’ man but feared he was not up to the task, and in the initial plan Muishkin was a proud and demonic figure. Dostoyevsky’s notebooks show an author desperately in search of a subject through countless changes of plot and characterization, but it was in its seventh plan that he finally found his ‘beautiful’ Idiot. However, the character retains layers of ambiguity that remain from the complicated process of his creation. His humility can be seen as overbearing and, in the end, destructive and Muishkin is finally left devoid of being: a demented idiot. His epilepsy is also crucial. It is both his salvation and a limitation; it prevents him from following through completely his ideas, from being taken as a fully participating member of the society in which he finds himself. He is both part of the world, and yet part of another metaphysical plane, revealed to him at the onset of a seizure. SO baffling and opaque is the character of Prince Muishkin that he embodies the whole range of human existence, and readers will puzzle over him and the true meaning of this book for many years to come.


Notes by Heather Godwin

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