The Idiot Characters
by Elif Batuman

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The Idiot Characters

Selin

Selin, the central character of The Idiot, is a descendent of Turkish immigrants and a freshman at Harvard University in the mid-1990s. Early in the novel, she shows an interest in learning different languages, taking a Russian class where she meets the novel's other central character and her love interest: Ivan. Selin is portrayed as intellectual, yet naïve in her some of her social interactions. Whilst she learns and speaks several languages throughout the novel—Russian, Hungarian, and ESL—she still struggles to communicate with her peers. In the novel, she states she is "overwhelmed, by things of unknown or dubious meaning, things that weren't commensurate to me in any way." This inability to decipher meaning extends toward her relationship with Ivan, whom she finds herself confused by for most of the novel. One might argue this is ultimately why she is drawn to foreign languages: they increase her ability to communicate in ways previously inaccessible to her. This is, after all, a coming-of-age story, and foreign languages provide mechanisms by which she is able to express her still-forming identity.

Ivan

Ivan, Selin's love interest, is portrayed as bland yet enigmatic—someone whom other characters struggle to make sense of. With the novel taking place in the mid-1990s, they are just recently learning how to use the internet, and so he conducts his relationship with Selin mostly over email. Whereas Selin is drawn to language and literature, Ivan is obsessed with math, explaining "his favorite thing about math was that the relationship between thinking and writing was so direct—you wrote math just the way you thought it." Language in The Idiot is shown as constantly shifting in meaning (such as when Selin becomes fascinated by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that suggests the structure of a language determines a native speaker's perception), and Ivan's interest in math suggests that he sees the world in more black and white terms than Selin does—a source of tension later on. He finds conversation trivial and, as a result, comes off as harsh and unfeeling. This only furthers his struggles in communicating with Selin, as demonstrated through their emails.