Critical Evaluation

The Idiot has been faulted for technical imperfections as a novel. Such imperfections do, indeed, exist. The novel begins well—in fact, shows outstanding promise—but as it progresses, the author’s control over his material seems to deteriorate. Consequently, the latter part of the novel, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, appears ill conceived and sloppily written. In all fairness, however, consideration must be given to the circumstances under which Fyodor Dostoevski was working when he wrote The Idiot. He was living abroad with his second wife (the first had died in 1864), moving too frequently to put down roots in any one place. During this period, he suffered severe attacks of epilepsy. His first child was born and died three months after birth. He gambled compulsively, was constantly in debt to his publisher for advances on the novel, and felt intermittent guilt about subjecting his wife and child to privation because of his gambling. Shortly after the death of the first child, whom Dostoevski mourned excessively, his wife became pregnant again, adding more worries and responsibilities to Dostoevski’s already heavy burden. Under these conditions and demands, Dostoevski wrote The Idiot.

The Idiot has also been blamed for obscurity. Without a doubt, it has languished in the shadow of its two more renowned siblings, Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912). That kind of obscurity, however, is an equivocation of the term. The obscurity charge leveled at The Idiot is really one of impenetrability, the inability of the reader to grasp what is happening in the novel. Much of this confusion is simply a failure not of the novel but of the Western mind to apprehend the essence of the Russian soul, for The Idiot is a quintessentially Russian novel. Its uniqueness—and hence its so-called obscurity—derives from the distinctive qualities of the Russian psyche unfamiliar to Western readers. At least seven such qualities can be identified.

First is the concept of Russian brotherhood. It is illustrated, among other places, in Prince Myshkin’s return from Switzerland when he is befriended en route by Parfen Rogozhin, a complete stranger, and on arrival by the Epanchins. The concept, however, is not thus limited. Myshkin’s enduring reputation as “the idiot” with the Epanchins and others throughout the novel evidences an affectionate alliance or brotherhood...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)