The Idiot

by Elif Batuman

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

The Idiot is set in 1995, where we find our narrator, Selin Karadag, navigating the minefield of her freshman year at Harvard. It is important to note that both the author and her main character, Selin, share several important commonalities: both are daughters of Turkish immigrants, and both attended Harvard.

Selin’s quest throughout the novel is to learn what books really mean. She dates this back to memories with her mother. She has moments where she sees the world as a novel (in terms of roles and plots) and sometimes describes situations as if she were writing them out. At one point she says, “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book. I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.” It can be argued that The Idiot, however, has no definitive point or meaning. Batuman purposely embarked on this literary ploy, writing a novel seemingly full of random observations while the main character is preaching that all books have meaning. Selin experiences frustration with the literature professors at Harvard: “I wasn’t interested in society, or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant. That was how my mother and I had always talked about literature.” She states that “every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.”

The Idiot is a novel not just about self-discovery, but also about the struggle to truly invent oneself when one feels as if all the “roles” available are repetitive and predictable. The way in which Selin describes the world around her dramatizes the confusion that we all face as we grow into adulthood. She expresses frustration during freshman orientation, when she is repeatedly told the mantra “you are now a little fish in a big sea.” While the phrase is meant to be motivating, Selin expresses her constant agonizing over it. The way in which she absorbs such relatable annoyances makes for subtle and playful insight into communication, language, and her own growing consciousness that she is doomed to be a writer.

Selin's love interest Ivan, is a Hungarian mathematics student whom she falls for over his innate emailing abilities. Her interactions with Ivan perfectly capture adolescence and the humiliating confusion surrounding young love on the cusp of adulthood. Selin’s confusion here goes beyond matters related to intimacy and is more existential. “I was surrounded,” Selin says, “overwhelmed, by things of unknown or dubious meaning, things that weren’t commensurate to me in any way.” For Selin, communicating with people is painful. She struggles to understand herself and others and finds inanimate objects more comprehensible than people.

The Idiot replicates the feeling of those years when a young person believes they haven’t yet accomplished what is expected of them and isn’t sure if this is the world’s fault or their own fault entirely. With Selin as the vessel, the author tells a relatable story of self-discovery. From her awkward encounters and insightful observations, readers can instantly draw parallels to their own awakening into adulthood. Batuman follows Selin along her journey regardless of whether readers deem it interesting or not, which makes for a rare mode of storytelling.

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