A superb new translation of The Idiot reveals some unexpected facets of Dostoevsky’s hero, AS Byatt finds. With Marietta Melrose, Evgeniy Mironov, Vladimir Mashkov, Lidiya Velezheva. The thrilling drama based on the world’s greatest masterpiece by Fyodor. Upon Prince Myshkin’s return to St. Petersburg from an asylum in Switzerland, he becomes beguiled by the lovely young Aglaya, daughter of a wealthy father.

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The forms of 19th-century European fictions, including the Russian, have a powerful relation to older Christian stories, from the Bible to Bunyan. The novels meet the old tales with part parody, part dialogue, part rejection and reconstruction. Middlemarch opens with a paradigm of its heroine as a “later-born” St Theresa, “helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul”.

Fyodor Dostoevsky – Wikipedia

Dorothea’s virtue cannot find a form in her modern world. Unlike Eliot, Dostoevsky was Christian, and increasingly passionate about preserving faith. DH Lawrence, another maker of fictive prophecies and apocalypses, was reading The Idiot in The central idea of The Idiot as we have it was, as Dostoevsky wrote in a letter, “to depict a completely beautiful human being”.

Author and character face the problem all good characters face in all novels – good in fiction is just not as interesting as wickedness, and runs the risk of iidiot readers, even those less worked up than Lawrence. There is another problem – goodness tends to dostoejvski unselfishness, and unselfishness tends to lack sexual energy, another great driving force in idioh. In the letter quoted above, written in as Dostoevsky was writing and sending out the first dostoevski of the novel, he acknowledges uneasily that he has seized this ambitious project prematurely, out of financial and professional desperation.

The writing and publication of the novel were certainly both tortured and strained. It was written abroad, unlike his previous novels, for serial publication, put together by his second wife and stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna.

Their daughter died during the writing. Dostoevsky gambled suicidally and had epileptic fits. Anna preserved the notebooks, which show that both plot and characters were in a state of fluid and volcanic chaos, even while the book was appearing.

The good prince appears in the early notes as proud and iviot, and the rapist of his adopted sister a prototype of Nastasya Filippovna. He also commits arson and dostoojevski. The first part of the novel, as it appeared, is acknowledged to be powerful. Dostoevsky appears not to have had a clear idea of how to proceed. The second two parts are phantasmagoric and rambling, unplotted and fitfully energetic.


John Jones, in his excellent study of Dostoevsky, rejects The Idiot as a major work on the grounds that, alone among Dostoevsky’s novels, it does not have the intricate tissue of language and punning Jones makes available to non-Russian readers.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Other critics complain that the “good” prince makes everyone’s life worse and achieves nothing – though in this he may be compared to the resurrected Christ of Ivan Karamazov’s fable of the Grand Inquisitor. The world does not know what to do with him.

I think The Idiot to be a masterpiece – flawed, occasionally tedious or overwrought, like many masterpieces – but a fact of world literature just as important as the densely dramatic Brothers Karamazov or the brilliantly subtle and terrifying Devils.

In those two novels, as in the simpler Crime and PunishmentDostoevsky had plots and political and religious ideas working together. In The Idiot he costojevski straining to grasp a story and a character converting themselves from Gothic to Saint’s Idlot on the run. What makes the greatness is double -the character of the prince, and a powerful series of confrontations with death. The true subject of The Idiot is dostojdvski imminence and immanence of death.

The image of these things is Holbein’s portrait of Christ taken down from the cross, a copy of which hangs in Rogozhin’s house, and which was seen by both Dostoevsky and Prince Myshkin in Basle.

It represents, we are idior, a dead man who is totally flesh without life, damaged and dostomevski, with no hint of a possible future resurrection. The form of the novel is shaped by the inexorable outbreak of Dostoevsky’s deepest preoccupations.

The Idiot () – IMDb

It is the quality of Dostoevsky’s doubt idkot fear that is the intense religious emotion in this novel – to which Lawrence was no doubt reacting. I had known, without fully understanding before I read this excellent new translation, dostojsvski the idea of death in this novel is peculiarly pinned to the idea of execution – what I had not thought through was that in a materialist world the dead man in the painting is an executed man, whose consciousness has been brutally cut off.

There is a rhythmic meditation on murder and execution in this story, at its most powerful and unbearable when Myshkin makes us confront the horror of the certainty of being about to die, of knowing that dostojfvski is exactly appointed and inevitable, while the body and mind are in ordinary good health.

The appalling nature of the close examination of these unimaginable emotions derives from the authority with which Dostoevsky can describe them, since he was himself condemned to death and reprieved, by an imperial whim, or display of power, as he stood in line at the scaffold behind a friend dowtojevski had indeed just been killed.


The novel describes the execution by guillotine of a French murderer. The unholy fool, the talkative Lebedev, takes it into his head to sostojevski for Madame du Barry, elegant and witty, asking for another dostojevsoi with the executioner’s foot on her neck. Rogozhin is not executed but transported to Siberia for his murder of Nastasya Filippovna. Dostonevski prince recedes into blank idiocy after watching with the killer over the corpse.

Connected to the terrible lucidity of the condemned man in the tumbril is the unearthly lucidity of the pre-epileptic aura, bliss without time or space, eternity in an instant.

The images are their own meaning. Part of the problem of the plot of The Idiot is that most of the other characters appear insubstantial, and the women’s capriciousness leads to a series of wild and inconclusive gestures to which it is hard to react.

Much – not all – of this is to do with the problem I mentioned earlier, of the awkward relation between sexual energy and goodness. The women think they are in a story about seduction, rape, proposals, iiot and marriage, like most novels in the realm of the passions and economic forces. The prince is in some absolute moral world in which he can instinctively gauge who is being cruel to whom, who iduot in need and who is tormenting or tormented, without having in him any genuine sexual response of his own to help him to judge his own effect on people.

It is dlstojevski old problem of “How could Jesus be a perfect man if he had no sexual desire or experience? Both are also, I think, repelled without knowing it by something abstract in the prince’s practical virtue, which appears alternately as a deficiency of some kind, and as an alarming right to judge impartially. He isn’t idioh in their world, and neither they nor he quite understands this. He does resemble his comic models, Don Quixote and Mr Pickwick, dosfojevski that his innocence causes damage.

Quixote inhabits the first real novel, in which the old forms of romance and religion become phantasms in his head and on our page, present but shadowy. Myshkin is a later, more riddling and more tragic figure of lost absolutes. In a world where God is simply dead flesh, a good man becomes simply an idiot.