Travelling the World with Books

A blog in which I describe a literary project to Travel the World with Books. I will include synopsis's of the books, historical context, conversations with my reading partner and my thoughts on the books. Feel free to comment any thoughts or recommendations for foreign books I can read.


9. 7th June 2018

Today I thought I’d talk about some of my thoughts on The Idiot, the book I’m reading at the moment. Now I’m about 75% of the way through it I feel more comfortable talking about the characters and plot etc. I wanted to discuss the main character. The whole purpose of the book is to, in the words of Dostoevsky, ‘portray a positively good man’. This man is the prince (though he is not an actual prince, it is just a name) who is also ‘The Idiot’. This is at first a contradiction - the first two pieces of information you get about this character is that he is the perfect man and that he is an idiot. You have to keep in mind though that the use of the term ‘idiot’ in this context is far removed from how the word is used now-a-days. When the prince is referred to as an idiot by the other characters, which happens often enough, it is not because he is stupid or has done something mean or unhonorable; it is because he is unaware of social norms, ulterior motives and hints. This brings us nicely to the next point. Dostoevsky is in effect saying that the perfect man lacks awareness. When then thought first entered my mind I was struck by how relatable that is for me, in the sense that I often think of my high awareness as a bad thing, though you’d usually consider it a good thing. An example of this is that the prince says what he thinks and does what he wants, sometimes oblivious to how those things might be perceived by others, and with no consideration at all of what society expects him to do (usually stay quiet or sugar coat his words). Yet for myself, I often find myself not doing what I want because if all these things I just listed - awareness is stopping me from doing what I want. There are many other examples of other forms of awareness hindering me, and lack of them advantaging the prince, but I think I have amply explained myself. This concept has echoes of the popular quote ‘innocence is bliss’. I think that Dostoevsky weaved his support of this concept into the other characters too. A general rule for the novel is the more they’ve seen, the more unhappy they are. This can also be said for awareness too. In fact there is a section at the start of part four where the author talks directly to the reader about one of the characters, Gavrila Ardalionovich. The essence of the chapter is this - ‘like most people in the novel, and in real life, there is nothing original about Gavrila. Yet unlike most like him, who simply live their lives plainly and contently, Gavrila is painfully aware of his mediocrity, yet had not the mental power to change it. This is the primary cause of his rather sizable anguish.’ This is another thing Dostoevsky prescribes to the perfectly good man - originality. Not wacky or crazy, nor today’s slightly insulting ‘different’, but a desire to think like and for oneself and an ability to act unlike others. I think again this is very true - it takes a strong person to do this.

   My finally point is on how Dostoevsky paints the backdrop to this perfect focus. To further the art metaphor, if I were to paint a white square on a light grey background it would have a rather less striking effect as if I were to place my square upon a black canvas. Though Dostoevsky's background contains various different shades, there is difference enough to make the focus even more interesting. What I mean is that Dostoevsky shows us all the bad people in Russian society of the 19 century - the thieves, the scammers, the selfish ones and the abusive ones; all in close proximity to the square of the prince. We have Rogozhin, a jealous, sometimes violent and arrogant man, who got his fortune through inheritance not hard work (another theme of The Idiot); Lebedev, who will lick the shoes of anyone willing to give him money and is very good at persuasion and flattery; General Ivolgin, a drunk, who is in large debt; Nastasya Filippovna, a woman who shows her affection to men by tormenting them, controlling them, and running away from them. The list goes on,  but you can really tell Dostoevsky is trying to provide contrast to the prince’s goodness with the other characters. Another opportunity this presents is how the prince interacts with there people - not hating them or getting angry, but seeing their good sides (though this is sometimes because he is unaware of the extent of their bad sides). Again another trait of the perfectly good man - charity and compassion.

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