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MonkeyNotes-The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
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Literary/ Historical Information

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote Idiot at a time when he was disturbed both in body and mind. He had had an attack of epilepsy and his mind was restless. The revolutionary and rebellious spirit that he had possessed in youth gave way to philosophical outlook and idealism. Suffering had ennobled him. His struggle and experience as a prisoner haunted by death mellowed his fiery temperament and urged him to create an ideal character who embodied goodness. Thus, during his stay abroad and after his marriage to Anna Gregorievna, he wrote Idiot. "He began notes for the novel on 14 September 1867 in Geneva, where he stayed until the end of May 1868; continued them in Vevey from June until the beginning of September 1868; in Milan until the middle of November; and he finished the novel in Florence, where he stayed through January 1869."

Idiot presents a few of Dostoevsky’s biographical sketches and anecdotes. Prince Myshkin has traces of Dostoevsky in him. He is a patient of epilepsy like his creator and also an idealist like him. He voices the author’s views on suffering, capital punishment and creativity. Dostoevsky deviated from the main plot of the story to reflect his ideas through the Prince and other characters in the novel.

Why Dostoevsky called his protagonist an idiot is not clear? Could it be because Myshkin had suffered from a mental illness or that he was a simpleton? The word ‘Idiot’ is derived from the Greek ‘idiotes’ which means a "private person, a common man, an ignorant uninformed person." It is possible that Dostoevsky named Myshkin an ‘idiot’ because he was essentially a private person, ignorant of the ways of the world and the representative of the common man.


Tolstoy’s War and Peace influenced Dostoevsky, while writing Idiot. In the words of Robin Feuer Miller, "Dostoevsky's preoccupation with the legitimacy or illegitimacy of his hero may reveal a partial influence of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where Pierre Bezukhov, just returned from Switzerland, is established as an illegitimate son. Myshkin, like Pierre, has just returned from Switzerland. Both men receive an inheritance, which suddenly changes their expectations. Each has an overriding sense of mission in the world. They share minor personality traits as well. --- There are other hints of Tolstoy’s influence on The Idiot. The idiot is Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin. The name and patronymic are Tolstoy’s own, and Myshkin, or "mousekin" is a kind of antonym to Lev(lion) and even to Tolstoy(stout, heavy)."

The Idiot is not Dostoevsky's best novel. In fact a few critics have called it a "great failed novel" because of the complexity of thought and action in the novel. However, through The Idiot, Dostoevsky has proved himself to be a master psychologist probing the minds of his characters and viewing their actions accordingly. In the words of Harold Rosenberg it is "one of the most animated novels in literature, action in it is vitiated by the ambiguous condition of the actors, expressed in fantasizing on different levels, from Hippolit’s nightmares to General Ivolgin’s "memories." Dostoevsky succeeded in creating a world reverberating with action and reaction that gripped the reader’s heart.

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