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The Idiot
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Despite the harsh circumstances besetting his own life -- object poverty, incessant gambling, the death of his firstborn child -- Dostoevsky produced a second masterpiece, The Idiot, just two years after completing Crime and Punishment. In it, a saintly man, Prince Myshkin, is thrust into the heart of a society more concerned with wealth, power and sexual conquest than with the ideals of Christianity. Myshkin soon finds himself at the center of a violent love triangle in which a notorious woman and a beautiful young girl become rivals for his affections. Extortion, scandal and murder follow, testing Myshkin's moral feelings as Dostoevsky searches through the wreckage left by human misery to find "man in man." The Idiot is a quintessentially Russian novel, one that penetrates the complex psyche of the Russian people. "They call me a psychologist," wrote Dostoevsky. "That is not true. I'm only a realist in the higher sense; that is, I portray all the depths of the human soul."
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03/08/1999 5:07:22 PM 108 0 "Dostoyevsky's The Idiot is the book Classics Corner will discuss in April. This is one of the longest selections on this year's reading list, but it was one of the top vote getters. Those who were turned off by the total cynicism of Machiavelli will find the Christlike Prince Myshkin a good antidote. I have read about a third of the book, and I have not enjoyed a Classics Corner selection this much since Anna Karenina. But then, I am partial to those 19th century Russian authors.

I hope many of you will be able to join us. Newcomers are especially welcome.

03/24/1999 2:39:50 PM
Hi CCers,
Ann is right about this book. I found it most refreshing after Machiavelli who may have been a great person but a not so great a writer. I discovered that I had read this book before, a long long time ago, but remember but a few episodes here and there. The idea of the childlike person is most intriguing. The way of life of the aristocracy and the moneyed upper crust is quite similar to what I remember from other reading of Russian authors. Reading of this book may turn out to be a major intellectual adventure and only hope that I won't be disappointed later on.
Comparing The Idiot with The Gambler I find that reading the former is far superior. Reading a few biographical notes on the author I note similarities to his main character There is, for instance epilepsy in both the author and prince myshkin. I wonder if D. had some child like qualities similar to the prince. Ernie
03/24/1999 3:10:51 PM
Ernie: Your preview of D's THE IDIOT makes me even more eager to start reading it.

This week I came across an essay from Virginia Woolf's COMMON READER in which she gives some reasons for the high esteem in which she holds Russian fiction. Here are a couple...


Whether he wishes it or not, there is a constant pressure upon an English novelist to recognize the barriers of class and, in consequence, order is imposed on him and some kind of form. He is inclined to satire rather than to compassion, to scrutiny of society rather than understanding of individuals themselves.

No such restraints were laid on Dostoevsky. It is all the same to him whether you are noble or simple, a tramp or a great lady. Whoever you are, you are the vessel of this perplexed liquid, this cloudy, yeasty, precious stuff, the soul...

For nothing is outside Dostoevsky's province; and when he is tired, he does not stop, he goes on. He cannot restrain himself. Out it tumbles upon us, hot, scalding, mixed, marvellous, terrible, oppressive--the human soul...

The simplicity, the absence of effort, the assumption that in a world bursting with misery the chief call upon us is to understand our fellow-sufferers, 'and not with the mind--for it is easy with the mind--but with the heart'--this is the cloud which broods above the whole of Russian literature, which lures us from our own parched brilliancy and scorched thoroughfares to expand in its shade--and of course with disastrous results...


Can this woman write, or what?

Dale in Ala.
03/24/1999 5:04:19 PM
I'm looking forward to joining the discussion on THE IDIOT. I'm about 70 pages into it and I love it! The gentle naivety of the Prince has me charmed, and I can't wait to see where the story takes me. I haven't read any Russian literature in ages, though what I have read I've enjoyed. This is a great chance for me to jump back in!

03/24/1999 8:11:55 PM
I'm so pleased to hear others are enjoying this book. Dale, great, great quote from Virginia Woolf. I think it is that raw, emotional quality that most appeals to me about 19th century Russian literature. These characters really know how to feel -- and, unlike the English, they seem to repress nothing.

03/25/1999 1:15:18 AM
I really want to join this discussion. But the branch library I frequent has no copy. I've stopped by four used bookstores so far, and none of them has The Idiot. What's up with that?

I'm gonna have to stop by the main branch of the library to get this, but I am determined, seeing as I have only managed to read one CC selection so far this year. And I finished F. Scott looooong after the rest of you (it didn't help that the cover looked like a romance, so I couldn't read it in public).

03/25/1999 8:51:17 AM
You cracked me up! Around here, I'd put you right at the top of the "who cares what other (wrong) people think?" list. But I think you're serious? I was surprised, while reading CY in Tony Roma's that a couple of people had never heard of it (and by extension didn't know the author), but surely (surely) everyone knows who Fitzgerald is?

03/25/1999 1:15:48 PM

If you're suggesting that Fitzgerald's name is better known than Mark Twain's to the average person, I must vigorously dissent. Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and (to a lesser extent) Huckleberry Finn are so widely read in schools that it's a dead cert a far larger percentage of Americans have read something by him than something by Fitzgerald. Moreover, a steady stream of film and TV adaptations of Mark Twain's stories helps keep his name in the public mind.

On the other hand, the education of most Americans ends the day they leave high school (if not sooner). There's precious little chance of their even knowing of the existence of a book like Connecticut Yankee--unless they majored in English lit or happened to see a film adaptation.

As for public awareness of Fitzgerald ... forget it! I'll bet if you went out on the main street in any American city and asked the first 100 ostensibly sentient adults you encountered who F. Scott Fitzgerald was, not even two could tell you. No, I think I must side with Theresa in the matter of being cautious about reading a lavender-covered copy of Tender Is the Night in public. On the other hand, why not cover the book with something that disguises its appearance? Me, I'd wrap it in the front page of The National Enquirer, which wouldn't draw a second glance from anyone on a bus.

The real test is going to be this: Who will have the nerve to go out in public, reading a book titled The Idiot? People might think you're reading Danford's campaign biography.

>>Grouchy in So. Calif., who knows of a professional photographer named Fitzgerald who had his first name legally changed to F. Stop (true story)
03/25/1999 5:09:57 PM
I was glad to hear that you hope to join us. When I was reading ANNA KARENINA at work during my lunch break, people looked at me strangely. Most technical types are not into literature, but then I'm not really a technical type--I'm only in it for the money. (G)

Kent, speaking of the National Enquirer, I wouldn't be caught dead buying it, but I will read it if its just lying around. That's what happened today in our break room. There is this photo of O.J. and his latest girlfriend, who looks just like Nicole. But, I guess we are supposed to be discussing THE IDIOT. (G)

03/25/1999 6:28:27 PM
Oh, I would like to read The Idiot too. My only other Russian novel is Anna K., and I too got some strange looks during my lunch hour. I liked it, though, because it let people know that I wasn't what they thought, ""the dumb temp."" I was working during the summer as a receptionist at a computer company.

03/26/1999 12:31:26 AM
I wish I could scan the cover of my edition of Tender is the F. Scott. Kent is right - it's lavender, with a couple on the front - reminiscent of those old Harlequin romances - before romances got all hot and steamy.

The title certainly doesn't help to dispel the romance impression, either. And I would have to call this book a romance, so I don't know why I was so snobby. I guess I just didn't want people to think I read formula romances, as opposed to litrachur.

Theresa, still looking for The Idiot
03/26/1999 12:33:14 AM
Hey all of you! Got a big kick out of your comments and observations. Dale, V. W. sure has a way with words. Remarkable! Yes, the Russian writers go to the core of people and society and - call a spade a spade. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by raw and undisguised emotion especially it is evil. Yes I am continuing with my reading and keep appreciating the book. As to F. Scott Fitzgerald I had an interesting experience not long ago. I ran into a retired MD acquaintance. I had mentioned to him our CC group and he asked me what we had been reading lately. I mentioned Tender is the Night and he also had read it and could recall the names and the action without any difficulties. Then we discussed the subject matter and Zelda. He had total recall of all the things that happened, etc. I really felt badly about my inability to recall names even while reading a book. Well some guys have it...Ernie
03/26/1999 5:04:07 PM
We would really like to have you join us. Barb Moors and I are big Tolstoy fans. I remember liking Dostoevsky very much when I was young, although the only thing I have read of his in recent years was THE GAMBLER here on CC.

03/26/1999 5:57:12 PM
I have an important question, though. Are you expected to have finished the book by April 1, or do you supposedly begin reading it in April and discuss as you go along? If it's the former, I guess I had better get busy.
03/26/1999 10:01:54 PM
In my experience, some books get read by the 1st of the month and some books don't and we just discuss them as we go. I've just started reading The Idiot so I'll be discussing it as we go. Start right in and I'll be there with you; I'm one of the slower readers here.

The only other thing I've read by Dosteovsky was The Gambler here on CC and it wasn't my favorite. However, I love what I've read so far of The Idiot. The writing seems clearer to me. I'm wondering if this is a result of the particular translation I'm reading, which is done by Alan Myers, or if it's thought to be true of this book in general, as compared to earlier works.

Given my love for biography, I must admit that I'm more than a little intrigued by the fact that both the Prince and Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy. When I read about D before, it was arresting to me to imagine having seizures at a time in history when noone understood the cause or how to control them. I've read before that D. thought that he was insane at various points in time. It must have had an enormous effect on him and on the perspective of his writing.

I'm truly looking forward to this discussion.
03/27/1999 1:09:57 AM
Isn't it true that the discussion starts on the first--but when anybody starts reading is up to them.

Ruth, who discovered that the local public library doesn't have The Idiot. What idiocy.
03/27/1999 9:01:06 AM
I think that sums it up beautifully, Ruth.

03/27/1999 9:40:37 AM
Barb: I did a lot of research recently for a magazine piece on epilepsy and the newest treatments, and found out some interesting stuff...

--Hard to believe, but epilepsy is the second most common neurological condition, preceded only by headache; descriptions of epilepsy go as far back as recorded history.

--Up until the 1950s and 60s when they were struck down by federal laws, many restaurants and other public accommodations had policies excluding epileptics from even entering.

--Before medical science started figuring out the biological basis of epilepsy, different cultures throughout history put their own interpretations on it. One of England's kings had an epileptic son who was never allowed to be seen in public, period.

--Some cultures believed a seizure was the result of demon possession, so they drowned or hanged repeat sufferers. But other societies referred to epilepsy as ""the sacred disease."" They thought the sufferer was blessed by God with ecstatic, visionary states and as a result the person was reverenced by the community as a prophet and holy person.

I'd like to know what the popular attitude toward the disease was in Russia during Dostoevsky's time.

>>Dale in Ala.
03/27/1999 2:04:37 PM
So far, I can't find the bit of reading I did about Dostoyevsky's attitude about his disorder. My memory (always risky) says that it was treated as a form of insanity, with a touch of the demons belief in the background.
Many of the children I teach have seizure disorders and that tends to be the way of classifying it now instead of epilepsy. I think that is done because there are so many different types of seizures that have been identified in the past twenty years or so and they want to move it out of the one big category. However, grand mal seizures, that most of us think of, can be very scarry things. I can't imagine experiencing them and not having any knowledge of their cause and no hope of controlling them. I'll keep looking for my source of prior information.

03/27/1999 3:12:30 PM
Damn. I wish you people hadn't brought up the subject of epilepsy. It's rekindling my interest in writing a book on medical history--a project I've been trying to forget because it would be such a monster research job.

Basically, my plan was to write chapters on the histories of individual maladies--such as epilepsy--as seen through the eyes of the sufferers. Part of my plan was to include a lot of anecdotal material, particularly about famous people, such as Dostoevski. The amount of fascinating material available is staggering, and some of the stories about individual sufferers (e.g., Rousseau's bladder problems) are almost beyond belief.

I don't know much more about Dostoevski's epilepsy than what has already been written here; however, a reference book I have here says that Freud attributed D's condition to his ""Oedipus complex,"" in combination with the stress he suffered when his father was murdered in 1839, leaving him friendless and penniless. Does that sort of thing bring on epilepsy?

Incidentally, Mark Twain's youngest daughter, Jean, suffered from epilepsy. She's the daughter who died from a heart attack, apparently brought on by a seizure, on Christmas Eve, 1909. Mark Twain himself died four months later.

>>Grouchy in So. Calif., who wonders how the epileptic Julius Caesar would have fared in tsarist Russia; would the Russkies have made allowances for the fact that the word ""tsar"" came from his name?
03/28/1999 6:51:41 AM
Obviously, I would be interested in that book, Kent, since D's epilepsy interests me so much. I think I'm most interested in how it affected his writing and how he survived when so little was known about what he was experiencing.

Again, I'm not a doctor, but in college and in in-service training at work, I've been given a lot of information about epilepsy. It's a neurological disorder. I think that this is one of those times when Freud tried to apply some of his basic premises to a condition which had nothing to do with them.

I often wonder what will be known about some of these conditions 50 years from now. When I was in college 30 years ago (which seems like about a year ago to me), it was stated as irrefutable fact that autism was caused by a cold, unloving mother. And, we believed it. Now, that theory is treated with disdain. And, I often think about the mothers who suffered from that ignorance. Now, it is felt that autism is a neurological disorder and that theory feels accurate to me in terms of my experience with autistic children. Currently I'm wondering about the cause because there has been a huge increase in their numbers in the last 5 years or so.

03/28/1999 2:58:10 PM
Barb, This discussion is of special interest to me since I recently finished the book: Madness on the Couch by Edward Dolnick. Most everything you said agrees with what the author has to say especially the section dealing with autism and blaming the mother. It is not surprising that Freud would attach some sort of ""Freudian meaning"" to all the mental disorders he ran into. The disorder called epileptic equivalent is quite interesting as I had a friend, now deceased who had it. This lady was a Psychologist who specialized in research, head of a University Research department. She would on occasion hallucinate when our group had lunch, seeing people and talking to them. These spells only lasted a couple of minutes. One time while driving her car, she told me, she followed another car to its destination and had an interesting talk with the occupant, driver. She told me that as a little kid she ran into a swing and received a serious head injury. She was a terribly bright, well organized and very productive woman who lost her husband just a few years after their marriage and who died from natural causes in her fifties.

There are quite a few people who become epileptic after brain injuries. Others are born that way and some people get it after high fever. A number of the saints had visions during their seizure and as Dale stated were considered the mouthpiece of god. However there must have been many more on the opposite side, who were considered possessed by the devil. (You can't always win). We now have excellent medications readily available to control epilepsy. Ernie
03/29/1999 4:46:07 PM
I spent a short time at Border's two days ago reading a bit in Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work by Konstantin Mochulsky, translated by Michael A. Mindran. This book was written in 1947 but seems to be a fairly definitive biography though I didn't look long enough through the intro to find out why.

I did find a section fairly early in the book regarding D's epilepsy and Freud's view of it. D's father was reported to have been a fairly difficult man. While his wife was alive, there are conflicting reports as to how difficult he was. He definitely seemed to go through bouts of depression. D was always viewed as a handful by both parents. After his mother died, there seems to have been general agreement that the father turned into a ""monster"" who beat his peasants, etc. Finally, the peasants turned on him and killed him. After this murder, D is said to have changed from lighthearted youth to an unsociable, contemplative, frequently depressed young man.

Dostoyevsky's conflicts with his father had been reaching a peak just before he died and it was said that D felt a great deal of guilt about his death, that he was particularly shocked by the manner of it. Freud's theory was that there are both organic and ""affective"" types of epilepsy. He felt that the oppressive nature of D's childhood coupled with the means of the father's death caused the seizures, making it affective epilepsy. He specifically felt D's reaction to the way his father died, and his guilt about his relationship with him, caused the seizures. One of the many problems with this theory is that there are records of Dosteovsky's seizures in his childhood.

It seems so clear-cut to me that Freud was wrong that I was surprised when my husband argued with me about it this week-end. He had a lot of training as a social worker, and some training as a public health worker, prior to going into law. So, he has enough background to argue knowledgeably on this issue. His training leads him to believe that anything can have a psychological basis, so he's convinced that there is some chance that Freud could have been right. My feeling is that stress and fatigue can cause someone who is already an epileptic to have seizures more often and of a greater intensity but that psychological factors would not cause them in the first place. Also, the term ""affective"" epilepsy is not used today, to the best of my knowledge.

Whew! Sorry to talk so long about this single issue concerning Dostoyevsky, but it took up a bit of time around here this week-end.

03/29/1999 5:02:58 PM
That's very interesting, Barb. I checked out some books on Dostoevsky from the library. One of them has an article on his epilepsy, but I am putting off reading it until I finish THE IDIOT.

It seems to me that Freud had lots of theories about everything, but most of them were just that. Mental illness has much more of a biological basis than he ever knew. I am sure that environment also contributes to these problems, but a genetic predisposition is usually a prerequisite.

03/29/1999 5:35:57 PM
All: Here's a brief bio (w/photo) of Dostoyevsky I found, which helped me get the chronology of his works a little clearer in my mind. Did this guy go through the mill, or what?


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhaylovich (1821-1881), Russian novelist, one of the greatest of all novelists, whose fiction has had profound influence on the modern intellectual climate. He was born in Moscow.

In his early works, Dostoyevsky explored the humiliations and consequent behavior of the underprivileged, but in 1849 his literary career was disastrously interrupted. He had joined a group of young intellectuals who read and debated French socialist theories forbidden to be openly discussed in czarist Russia. A police informer slipped into their secret meetings, and the entire group was arrested and taken to a place of execution, presumably to be shot. At the last minute they were reprieved, and the punishment was changed to penal exile.

Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia and to serve afterward as a common soldier. In The House of the Dead (1861-1862) Dostoyevsky described the sadistic beatings, the filthy conditions, and the total lack of privacy among the convicts. Released from prison in 1854, he was sent to a garrison town near Mongolia.

Later, in collaboration with his brother, Mikhayl, Dostoyevsky launched a monthly periodical called Time. When it was suppressed because of a supposedly subversive article, the brothers started The Epoch, another short-lived review, in 1864. The beginning of Dostoyevsky's philosophical novel Notes from the Underground (1864) was published in the first issue. In the monologue of the nameless narrator of Notes, Dostoyevsky presented, for the first time in the history of modern literature, the alienated antihero.

The following years, spent abroad to escape creditors after Dostoyevsky inherited his brother's debts, were marked by physical hardship and poverty but great productivity. He completed the novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-1869), and The Possessed (1871-1872) and returned to Russia in 1873 a world-renowned writer. His last novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), was completed not long before his death.

Dostoyevsky's later novels are endowed with symbolic worlds where heroes, pervaded by the tragic sense of life, search for truth and self-fulfillment. Dostoyevsky anticipated modern psychology by his exploration of hidden motives and intuitive understanding of the unconscious, manifested in his characters' irrational behavior, psychic suffering, dreams, and lapses into insanity. He also prepared the way for the subjective approach of much 20th-century literature and for existentialism and surrealism.
03/29/1999 5:39:38 PM
All: Here's a brief bio (w/photo) of Dostoyevsky I found, which helped me get the chronology of his works a little clearer in my mind. Did this guy go through the mill, or what?


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhaylovich (1821-1881), Russian novelist, one of the greatest of all novelists, whose fiction has had profound influence on the modern intellectual climate. He was born in Moscow.

In his early works, Dostoyevsky explored the humiliations and consequent behavior of the underprivileged, but in 1849 his literary career was disastrously interrupted. He had joined a group of young intellectuals who read and debated French socialist theories forbidden to be openly discussed in czarist Russia. A police informer slipped into their secret meetings, and the entire group was arrested and taken to a place of execution, presumably to be shot. At the last minute they were reprieved, and the punishment was changed to penal exile.

Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia and to serve afterward as a common soldier. In The House of the Dead (1861-1862) Dostoyevsky described the sadistic beatings, the filthy conditions, and the total lack of privacy among the convicts. Released from prison in 1854, he was sent to a garrison town near Mongolia.

Later, in collaboration with his brother, Mikhayl, Dostoyevsky launched a monthly periodical called Time. When it was suppressed because of a supposedly subversive article, the brothers started The Epoch, another short-lived review, in 1864. The beginning of Dostoyevsky's philosophical novel Notes from the Underground (1864) was published in the first issue. In the monologue of the nameless narrator of Notes, Dostoyevsky presented, for the first time in the history of modern literature, the alienated antihero.

The following years, spent abroad to escape creditors after Dostoyevsky inherited his brother's debts, were marked by physical hardship and poverty but great productivity. He completed the novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-1869), and The Possessed (1871-1872) and returned to Russia in 1873 a world-renowned writer. His last novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), was completed not long before his death.

Dostoyevsky's later novels are endowed with symbolic worlds where heroes, pervaded by the tragic sense of life, search for truth and self-fulfillment. Dostoyevsky anticipated modern psychology by his exploration of hidden motives and intuitive understanding of the unconscious, manifested in his characters' irrational behavior, psychic suffering, dreams, and lapses into insanity. He also prepared the way for the subjective approach of much 20th-century literature and for existentialism and surrealism.
03/29/1999 5:44:45 PM

Thanks for taking the time to write out that very interesting stuff about D's E.

I'm not qualified to comment authoritatively on anyone's explanation of D's condition, but I know enough about Mark Twain's daughter, Jean Clemens, to say that the intensity of her epilepsy seems to have risen and fallen with her mental state through a series of family crises and strains. My intuitive inclination is to agree that Dostoevski had epilepsy from his youth, if not from his birth, and that his father's exceptionally nasty death merely aggravated it severely.

>>Grouchy in So. Calif., who, during his college days, once took a midterm examination in the same lecture hall as a fellow student who had a major epileptic seizure (grand mal?) and had to be carried out, looking as if she had rigor mortis; perhaps the stress got to her (that class was Psych 1A)
" 14 67 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/29/1999 6:18:45 PM 109 0 "Thanks, everyone, for the great info on D. I'd be an idiot not to read the next selection.

" 14 58 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/30/1999 9:10:32 AM 110 0 "All: Oops...I botched the attachment with D's picture, as you've no doubt noticed. Here's another try...

(Robt: Got a kick out of your note. One of the readers' reviews at the Amazon site said, ""After I've read this book, if someone calls me an idiot I will consider it an honor."")

>>Dale in Ala.
" 14 148 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/30/1999 7:47:53 PM 109 0 "Yikes, Dale. Wouldn't want to run into this guy in a dark alley, would we? Although most Russian writers of that period appear a bit mad - I believe it musta been part of their schtick. Like American women poets of the 50s who felt compelled (by art?) to off themselves. I know I'm being a bit flip, but I'm right, aren't I? Madness as a sort of conformity.

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/30/1999 9:57:54 PM 114 0 "Dostoevsky is pretty fascinating, isn't he? According to a footnote in my edition (Oxford World's Classics), the ""friend"" who the Prince describes as being condemned to death and awaiting his sentence, allowing himself two minutes to talk to his comrades, two minutes to think about himself and one to look around himself for the last time was probably based on D's experiences when he was condemned to death but the sentence was commuted at the last minute.

Also, I was fascinated by the description of the execution scene that the Prince described early in the book. I was absolutely there

Barb...amazed at how much more I like this than The Gambler. " 14 214 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/31/1999 5:43:38 AM 114 0 "I don't know how CR's discuss specifics of the books and indicate possible spoilers, but I thought I would just mention that I am going to refer to some specifics of Chapter 2. How does one handle ""spoilers"" even if they are only ""potential""?


To be sure, Myshkin's indictment of capital punishment is rendered with such passion that knowing Dostoevsky's personal experience (courtesy of my Bantam Classic edition), I was not surprised. Myshkin says ""Perhaps there is some man who has been sentenced to death, been exposed to this torture and has been told 'you can go, you are pardoned'"" And certainly, the criticisms Myshkin issues are very personal ones, as he offers in support of the inhumane nature of capital punishment the torture of facing CERTAIN death and the loss of all hope. And we are left with no doubt as to Myshkin's stand on capital punishment when he says that ""To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself."" (and most likely Dostoevsky's as well...based again on knowledge of his experiences. However, I suddenly am very conscious of attributing the views held by characters to the author. Now, I wonder how often I have done this and been wrong.).

I, too, had that feeling of being there as Myshkin related the details of the guillotine execution. Rather chilling.

""Everything in moderation, EXCEPT for reading.""
" 14 22 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/31/1999 6:27:54 AM 119 0 "Katie,
You asked how we handled ""spoilers"". Well, you did it just fine. Since I don't know if any of us have finished yet, why don't we just say how far along we are, and that there may be spoilers, then discuss. I've just started Part Two. I really like this book. I haven't read any Dostoevsky in a long time. I read Crime and Punishment when I was about 19 (that obviously has dimmed in memory) and Brothers Karamozov probably sometime in my twenties. Maybe it's the translation, or may Mr.D was a natural screenwriter, but I can really see just how people are acting and reacting. His psychological insights or spot on. There is one point toward the end of Part One at Nastassya's birthday party where (I don't have the book at the computer so I'm making up spelling of names) Totsky is playing the ""game"" that sounds a lot like Truth or Dare. People are supposed to tell the absolutely worst thing they've done. Nastassya doesn't look at Totsky, but fiddles with the ruffle on the sleeve of her dress. Little details like this make me know just what she is thinking to herself.
I agree about the description of the execution scene. It was so vivid, I felt I was there, not just there, that I was the one climbing the steps to the guillotine.
" 14 58 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/31/1999 11:19:54 AM 119 0 "Theresa: You're right...Dostoevsky is exceedingly grim of visage, isn't he? Although, next to my favorite portrait of Tolstoy (attached), D. looks like a downright Rotarian.

>>Dale in Ala., who can be grim of visage himself, especially before a quart or two of morning coffee

" 14 39 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/31/1999 6:58:35 PM 122 0 "Barb & Ann,

I'll speak up here as part of the medical community regarding epilepsy. It's often genetic (unless trauma induced, chemical induced, etc) so D. was probably born with it. It did not manifest itself until the stress of his father's death lowered his threshold for the seizures.

One of my patients is a delightful 19 year old college student whose twin sister began having ""petit mal"" seizures as a child. My patient, while dieting and studying for exams and ignoring her need for sleep, had a grand mal seizure. Based on EEGs, etc, she was not diagnosed as a ""classic"" epileptic, but that she has the tendency for seizures when under stress. She'll be on medication for a while, but most likely not all her life. In essence, her seizure disorder (the PC term for epilepsy) is a genetic predisposition brought on by stress.
Meanwhile, I've taken a little break from THE IDIOT, but am rarin' to finish it up. I, too, was enthralled by the guillotine scene, and the question of what one is aware of as the blade slices down, for that split second before death...

" 14 80 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 03/31/1999 7:35:48 PM 124 0 "I'm on Chapter 11, in Part 1. Tomorrow I begin my Spring Break so I should be able to cruise along pretty quickly.

Thank you, one and all, for all the research on Tolstoy and epilepsy.

I have the Bantam classic edition, too, so I read about Tolstoy waiting to be executed. I found the scene in the novel fascinating, but really my favorite part so far was when Myshkin first meets Madame Epanchin and her daughters.

BTW, to make matters almost as confusing as the names in a Russian novel, I have been signing on as ""Helen,"" but I am really Elaine.

" 14 98 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/01/1999 1:05:51 AM 122 0 "Dale,

Now that I know what Rotarians in Alabama look like, I may stop posting my doctored photos because I can't possibly compete with the real thing.


In the matter of spoilers: I'm usually too dense to pick up on subtle warnings, so I like to see spoilers labeled loudly and clearly, and perhaps with lines separating them from other text so I can see at a glance where they begin and end. Here's an example:


Christ dies at the end of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

The South loses the Civil War in Gone with the Wind.

The ship sinks at the end of Titanic.

>>Grouchy in So. Calif., whose jokes always die before they reach their punch lines
" 14 148 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/01/1999 1:23:25 AM 124 0 "Dale - Tolstoy looks more sad than dangerous to me - Dost looks like he could get mean.

I have a postcard above my desk of Tolstoy with the long beard, posing in a peasant shirt with his hands in his belt. Doesn't look too happy in my picutre either. I have this postcard next to ones of Zora Neale Hurston with a big old grin and a hat cocked to one side; Oscar Wilde posing as Little Lord Fauntleroy; and Nadine Gordimer, Robertson Davies, Czeslaw Milosz and Kurt Vonnegut all sitting in a horsedrawn carriage, apparently ignoring each other. The color proof of your book cover hangs just below.

" 14 4 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/01/1999 2:51:47 AM 121 0 "The talk about the guillotine in The Idiot sent me searching for a recent The Straight Dope column that made a big impression on me. 'Course, it might be one of those ""had to be there"" deals, but if your interested:

" 14 58 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/01/1999 8:49:12 AM 120 0 "Theresa: Wow. I'm delighted to be in such good literary company on your wall. Your mention of the authors ignoring each other reminds me of a talk that Vonnegut once gave at a writing conference.

""The term 'writers conference' is itself an oxymoron,"" Vonnegut told the audience. ""Writers cannot confer. They can only drag themselves past one another like great wounded bears.""

Some truth there, I think.

>>Dale in Ala.
" 14 58 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/01/1999 8:58:21 AM 123 0 "Anne: Thanks for the additional epilepsy info. I wasn't aware of the ""threshold"" phenomenon, but it certainly makes sense in the cases we've been talking about.

At the risk of telling some folks more than they want to know (reading it is not obligatory {G}) here's the magazine piece I did recently on the subject:


When Neurons Misfire:
Exploring Epilepsy

By Dale Short

For Karen, it begins with the sensation of a roller coaster ride--her stomach rising suddenly into her throat as if on a steep downhill run, though she’s standing on a level sidewalk at the time. For Robert, it starts with the overpowering scent of dry leaves burning in autumn, even if he’s walking through a green field on a warm spring day.

But what comes next for them, and for the 40 million other people worldwide who suffer from the disorder, is dramatically similar: twitching or convulsions, the sense of being dissociated from their surroundings, and perhaps a blackout that can last seconds, or hours--the hallmarks of an epileptic seizure.

Apparently, epilepsy is as old as humankind. A long list of historical figures are known to have experienced its effects, from Julius Caesar to Vincent van Gogh to George Gershwin. For a long time, physicians accepted the fact that even the most advanced medications couldn’t cure epilepsy, only control it. But nowadays the UAB Epilepsy Center--the largest of its kind in the Southeast--is making history of its own, with new drugs and leading-edge surgical procedures that offer many patients the promise of being seizure-free for life.

“Basically, an attack of epilepsy is like a short circuit in the wiring of your house,” says Edward Faught, M.D., professor and vice-chairman of neurology who founded the Center in 1985. “It’s the result of a pulse of electricity--in this case, in the brain--traveling someplace where it shouldn’t go.”

Derived from the Latin epilepsia, meaning “to lay hold of” or “to seize,” epilepsy plays no favorites with age or other demographics. Seizures in newborn infants are not uncommon, and many patients stay on medication their entire lives. Surprisingly, one person in 12 will suffer some type of seizure during their lifetime, though relatively few of them are diagnosed as epileptic.

Seizures can be triggered by a wide range of factors, including traumatic brain injuries, tumors, reactions to certain medications, and even sleep deprivation, but epilepsy refers to a pattern of repeated seizures with no identifiable outward cause. It’s the second most common neurological disorder, outnumbered only by strokes. More than two million Americans have been diagnosed with epilepsy, and some 43,000 of them are Alabamians.

For a tiny and impersonal series of electrical glitches, epilepsy can have a devastating effect on patients’ lives--and like most mysteries, it’s been met with some wildly divergent interpretations throughout the centuries. A number of ancient cultures referred to it as “the sacred disease,” one bestowed by the gods on favored people, while in medieval Europe it was considered a sign of demonic possession. One of England’s kings had a son with epilepsy, and as a result the boy was never seen in public.

Even as recently as a generation or two ago, many Americans weren’t much more enlightened on the subject. In the 1950s, more than a dozen states still had laws that prevented epileptics from marrying. Up until the 1970s, restaurants and other public accommodations had the right to prevent them from even entering the premises.

Ruben Kuzniecky, M.D., director of the UAB Epilepsy Center, credits the Epilepsy Foundation of America for its role in an effective public education campaign that has helped to correct misinformation and update attitudes about the disease.

“In the past 20 years we’ve seen tremendous advances in our knowledge of epilepsy,” Kuzniecky says. “One example is the discovery of a genetic basis for some cases of the disorder, tracing it to specific chromosomes in the body. On the other hand, with new imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we can find causes for a lot of the seizures that might have puzzled us before--lesions in the brain, very small tumors, slight vascular malformations, and so on.

“If you look hard enough with MRI, you can generally identify some physical factor in at least half of the patients who have experienced seizures, thus ruling out epilepsy.”

Only about 20 percent of epilepsy is thought to be genetic. Typically, when it runs in families, the age of onset is between six and 15. Those children frequently “outgrow” their epilepsy at puberty or shortly beyond. While the mechanism of such cases isn’t completely understood, according to Kuzniecky, “Evidently some genetic product is either switched on, or switched off, at a certain stage in the child’s development.”

Though drugs are still one of the most effective means of treating epilepsy, many of them haven’t lived up to their earlier promise: “Some previous studies suggested that up to 70 percent of cases could be controlled by medicine alone,” says Kuzniecky. “But looking at the long-term figures, at how many recurrences there are, it ends up that only about 35 percent of patients remain really controlled after three years’ time.”

Drug therapy for epilepsy dates back to the 1850s, when an American physician named Charles Lockhart documented the effectiveness of bromides against the disorder. They remained the preferred treatment for several decades, until the arrival of barbituates such as Phenobarbital. The first major breakthrough, of compounds aimed specifically toward epilepsy, was the drug Dilantin in 1937, which is still prescribed today.

Though a number of new drugs were introduced from the 1950s through the 1970s, many of them fell from favor because of their unwanted side effects. Progress with epilepsy medications came to a virtual standstill for more than a decade, with no new drugs being introduced from 1978 to 1993. Now, five new medications have been approved in the past five years--with Faught as principal investigator on two of them--and a number of others are in the works.

“There’s a great deal of variation among individual epilepsy patients,” Faught says, “and as yet we don’t know enough about the biology involved to reliably match a particular patient with a particular drug up front. Much of the work with medications is trial and error. So it’s not a case of the new medicines replacing the old, but rather that they give us a lot more treatment choices than before.” In fact, since 1987 the Center has involved more patients in clinical trials of anti-epilepsy medications than any other facility in the world.

Typically, seizures occur when a burst of abnormal electrical activity in the brain becomes both synchronized and repetitive, spreading to drown out the natural give-and-take among neurons. Drugs such as Dilantin and the newer Tegritol, introduced in 1974, work by detecting the seizure activity and containing it before it gets out of hand. “Technically, the drugs don’t ‘prevent’ seizures so much as they augment the brain’s natural ability to shut down abnormal functioning,” Faught says. “They might allow the first two or three impulses to pass, but then if more neurons start firing too rapidly they shut them down.

“No drug is perfect, of course, and most all of them have some carry-over effect. But the better ones tend to have fewer side effects on the central nervous system, and especially on cognition, because of their specificity of action as opposed to just sedating or tranquilizing those areas of the brain.” This is especially important for patients, since drowsiness and fuzzy thinking are their most frequent complaints about epilepsy medications.

While children and adults respond similarly to anti-epilepsy drugs, albeit often in different combinations, Faught says one area that’s been overlooked in the past is medications designed especially for elderly patients: “Older people don’t tolerate the central nervous system type of drug as well as young people do. They’re far more likely to experience problems with their cognition or balance.” UAB is currently involved in a five-year cooperative study with the Veterans Administration, to find new treatments for patients above age 60.

Advances in surgical techniques to treat epilepsy are another promising arena. Neurosurgeon Frank Gilliam, M.D., who directs the Epilepsy Center’s surgical outcome program, says that more than 500 patients have undergone surgery at the center, with a success rate that puts UAB among the best in the world. Patients are typically discharged in 48 hours, with about a third requiring only a 24-hour stay.

Before a typical surgery, patients are admitted to the Center’s seizure monitoring unit where their anti-convulsant drugs are decreased long enough for seizures to occur, which are then monitored with electroencephalograph machines. These, along with high-resolution MRI scans, allow a three-dimensional reconstruction of the abnormality in the brain that’s causing the seizure. Surgeons, knowing the exact location, can then remove the tiny section of the brain where problems begin.

“The length of hospitalization is obviously a significant factor in today’s managed care system, from an economic perspective,” says Gilliam, “but more importantly it’s encouraging for patients to know that their recovery period won’t likely be prolonged or difficult. The most common after-effect is headache, which improves greatly within three or four days, usually requiring nothing stronger than Tylenol. Otherwise there’s some local swelling, but that’s about it. Any problems with memory, speech, or vision are very rare, occurring in only about 3 percent of cases.”

A pair of Canadian physicians, Wilder Penfield and Herbert Jasper, are considered the fathers of modern epilepsy surgery. Working in the 1930s at Magill University in Montreal, where Kuzniecky would later study, Penfield and Jasper achieved results far ahead of their time, with 60 percent of their patients reporting a reduction in seizures. An intricate line-drawing that Penfield made, showing which functions of the body are controlled by which areas of the brain, is so accurate it’s still used today in neurology textbooks.

“Their outcomes are even more impressive when you consider the state of technology at the time,” says Gilliam. “Their EEG machine recorded only four channels, while EEGs today have 128 channels. Still, they were very good at diagnosing epilepsy and pinpointing its location.”

Both UAB’s technology and expertise are setting new standards in the field. Patients come from all over the world, including Scandinavia, Latin America, and half of the continental United States, but some three-quarters are from the Southeast. Seventy percent of UAB surgical patients are free of seizures after their recovery.

“Though on the surface it seems like a 10 percent increase over Penfield and Jasper’s day,” Gilliam says, “it’s actually far more than that because relatively few people were qualified for their surgery, whereas we serve a much broader population. Many of our patients who are candidates for surgery today would not have been candidates, just 10 or 20 years ago.”

Among the program’s many success stories is Duran Campbell of Atlanta, who underwent surgery at UAB in 1994. Campbell had been diagnosed with epilepsy 10 years earlier, at the age of 19, when he suffered a major, or grand mal, seizure on Halloween night and ended up at his local emergency department.

In the years following, Campbell recalls, his physicians “tried about every drug in the book” to reduce his seizures. None of the medications helped, and some of them actually made his condition worse. At one point he was having as many as 20 episodes a day. “It got to where my whole life was controlled by waiting for a seizure,” Campbell says. “I’d wonder, ‘Will it happen while I’m going down these stairs? Will it happen while I’m holding my baby?’""

His one bright spot was the possibility of surgical intervention, but the hospital in Georgia determined that the seizures were happening in both halves of his brain, which ruled out surgery. “I specifically remember the words ‘No hope’ being used,” he says, “and that I’d have to ‘learn to live with it.’ It really hit me hard. It was like my life telling me, ‘Strike two.’”

By chance, one of his doctors met Kuzniecky at a medical seminar and described Campbell’s condition. Kuzniecky told him UAB might be able to help, and Campbell was referred here. Using a specialized type of MRI scan, physicians at the Center found that while the seizures did involve both lobes of his brain, they were originating only in the left hemisphere, which made him a candidate for surgery after all.

Five years later, Campbell is still free of seizures. For the past five months, he’s been medication-free as well.

“My life is nothing like it was 10 years ago,” he says now, in an interview at his Georgia home. “I tell people about my condition whenever I can, because I’m thinking there may be another Duran Campbell out there, in the same fix I was, believing that there’s no hope.

“That’s one of my main goals now, letting other epilepsy patients know what’s been done for me.”


" 14 4 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/01/1999 9:19:42 AM 127 0 "Dale,
Very interesting. Thank you.

" 14 98 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/01/1999 3:06:27 PM 126 0 "Tonya,

Thanks for calling attention to Cecil Adams's Straight Dope website. I was a big fan of his weekly column when it appeared in the now defunct(?) L.A. Reader. I've recently browsed his books again and wondered what became of him.

Years ago he wrote a column on a letter I sent to him, but I didn't even know about until one of my sons spotted my name in his second book. (So much becoming famous by having your name in print. In fact, in 20+ years, only one person has ever told me that he saw my name in the Guinness Book of World Records, where it still reappears occasionally.)

>>Grouchy in So. Calif., whose attitude--in case you hadn't noticed--bears more than a coincidental resemblance to Cecil's
" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/01/1999 6:19:50 PM 133 0 "Thanks for the medical information, Anne. It seems that stress activates so many potential mental and physical problems. The experts tell us that a certain amount of stress is a good thing, but for most of us it is difficult to find that optimum amount.

Dale, thanks so much for posting your article. Do you perchance choose the topics of your articles based on what you are reading at the time?

I have finished THE IDIOT (drum rolls, please -G-), but I am still digesting it. This is a novel of big ideas and fascinating psychological insights, which should provide lots of material for discussion.

There is an almost overheated, semi-hysterical quality to the outbursts of many of the characters which I found quite unusual. From what I have read, Dostoevsky was under tremendous pressure while he wrote this and had major problems with his epilepsy. I'm still reading up on this and will post more this weekend. Of course there is always a danger in trying to explain too much of a work of art in terms of the author's personal experiences when he wrote it (a danger which I generally manage to ignore - G -). However, in this case, I do think it affected the structure of the novel.

Katie, I too was struck by the description of the execution. I think I have more conservative views regarding capital punishment than most people here. However, Dostoevsky's description, which was based on personal experience, gave me a much greater understanding of what death row inmates must go through with the constant appeals and stays of execution.

This book was published serially, and I see no problem with discussing it as people read. Sometimes I wait to read the notes until I have finished a book, but this is such a long book that I think it is best if we just dive in.

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/02/1999 7:47:58 AM 125 0 "Thank you, Ann and Dale, for such good medical information about epilepsy. Dale, your column must be enlightening a lot of people. I was particularly interested in the part on surgery. That hasn't been used with any of the children with seizures I've taught, except one boy whose seizures were actually caused by a large brain tumor.

I'm on pg. 145 on The Idiot, but, like Elaine, am counting on my Spring Vacation (which starts today--hooray!) to give me more reading time. My husband is astonished that I consider anything by Dostoevsky to be a page-turner, but that certainly is my impression so far. The Prince's meeting of Ganya's family was certainly an interesting little tableau. It reminded me of a Russian Eugene O'Neill play.

I would like it if we can discuss this as we go, as well. And, it helps me if writers capitalize PLOT SPOILER to give me a big warning.

Ann, I'm amazed that you've finished this already. You are an infinitely faster reader than I am. I picked up a short biography of D at the library last night. It will take self-discipline to keep me from reading that before finishing the book{g}.

" 14 107 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/02/1999 1:48:39 PM 126 0 "I also have been thinking a good deal about the emotional intensity displayed by many of the characters in the book. Wonder if this is part of the Russian culture or idiosyncratic of D.
On one of my trips to Europe my wife and I were witnesses to a tremendous emotional outburst by a customer in a small store. Then, I remembered that Europeans frequently deal with a situation by first covering up their feelings. Being superficial, everything is fine if not wonderful. However their threshold is low and when it is reached they blow up about even some minor and ridiculous issue. It is usually emotion mixed with drama and this is how I view some of these outbursts related in The Idiot. It may be added that epileptics in mental institutions are known for their supposed meanness and their blow ups. Ernie
" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/02/1999 4:54:43 PM 129 0 "Ernie,
I spent a summer in the Soviet Union many years ago. At that time, it was difficult for Russians to associate with Americans without arousing suspicion, so most of my time was spent with the other Americans and the Russian teachers, although there were some Russian Jewish kids who hung out with the Americans. I was there for a summer language institute in Leningrad, which is a beautiful city. From what I saw (and it was very limited, I admit), the Russians did not seem to be overly emotional, in public at least. However, I too have wondered if, as a people, they are more emotional than Americans. If you can judge by their literature, they are veritable volcanos in comparison to the British. Tolstoy's characters are also very blunt and rarely hide their feelings, although his books don't have all the blow-ups that seem to characterize THE IDIOT. I think that you are right that it is related to D's epilepsy.

Barb, I am a pretty fast reader, thanks to the years I spent as a history major. I had to plow through the material to survive. However, I also have more time than you. That four day work week is a real life saver. Dostoevsky appeals to me because he is strong on character development, very perceptive about psychology, and tries to deal with some of the big questions. The strongest part of this novel is at the beginning. It seems to get stuck a bit part way through, but it continued to hold my interest.

" 14 80 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/02/1999 7:07:25 PM 131 0 "I was also struck by the high emotional drama of the novel. I keep thinking of the Virginia Woolf quotation that was posted earlier about why she likes Russian authors.

I'm at the very beginning of Part 2.

I'd like to talk about the scene at the end of part one, and how it relates the theme of honesty in this novel. Myshka is portrayed as the refreshingly honest character, and yet in a way he was being deceptive by not revealing the fact of his inheritance. And I just don't know what to think of Nastasya. I can be pretty gullible, so I was fooled when she agreed to marry Myshka. Only after she changed her mind did it make more sense in keeping with her character that she would do this. In terms of honesty, again, I loved the premise of their petit-jeu, that you must tell the truth, and that they know people will not tell the truth. It then becomes a clever little trick to reveal something you have done which is wrong, while at the same time putting yourself in a bad light. It all reminded me of a horrid little drinking game called ""I Never."" In ""I Never"" you state something you have never done, and anyone in the group who HAS done it has to drink. Really, the motive is to brag about past exploits.

" 14 107 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/04/1999 4:55:34 PM 123 0 "Barb, you are so right when you call this book a page turner. I am the slowest of slow readers, but I am making good progress. Dale, thank you for your very informative article on epilepsy and its treatment. Ann, you don't disappoint by having finished the book already. You have always been ahead of the rest of us.
I am happy to see all sorts of new names on the CC board. Welcome! Hope you enjoy it and remain with us.
Coming back to my recent reading, I was fascinated by D.'s description of a typical ""Aura"" followed by the actually seizure. The aura, I have been told is characteristic of the grand mal type.
I still am fascinated by the intensity of the story and this must be characteristic of much of Russian writing. Sometimes the emotionality gets to me, I feel I can't take much more of it. But... I still go on.
Ann, you may not have seen these outbursts while in Russia because they mostly take place in the home and more rarely in the more public places, like the store incident that I described. But Austrians are probably not as much given to outbursts of that sort than Russians as it may be part of their culture. Barb, hope you enjoyed your school break. We had two teen age grand daughters with us as well who enjoyed their Spring Break and we enjoyed their spirit. Ernie
" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/04/1999 6:33:13 PM 126 0 "I've spent a wonderful Easter day doing very little except reading, dyeing Easter eggs with my teen-aged sons and fixing dinner. It's nice to be able to tell other readers that and know that they will appreciate what a gem of a day it has been.

I also was struck by Dosteovsky's description of the aura, Ernie. I've read about it before and had it described by one other person who has gran mal seizures, but I've never heard the effects put quite this way. It reminded me a bit of the description of religious euphoria in Salvation on Sand Mountain which we read last year on Constant Reader. This book described fundamentalist snake handlers, but that euphoric state seems common to a lot of religions. I wondered if the chemical/neurological effect experienced just prior to a seizure is similar in some way to the point that seems almost self-induced in times of incredibly intense emotion.

I was also fascinated with the way in which D used the longer period proceeding the seizure to produce a dream-like state. It reminded me of more modern fiction in which worlds overlap or characters go in and out of states of consciousness. I've read before that he is one of the forerunners of modern writing techniques, particularly psychological fiction, and I can certainly see it in this book.

Barb...on pg. 307 and plugging along....
" 14 224 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/04/1999 7:46:46 PM 129 0 "This may be no more than my imagination, but the description of the aura preceding the seizure reminded me of the mind set of the prisoner awaiting execution in the first part. There was the same sense of timelessness, even of time standing still, then the one terrifying instant just before the seizure or the blade.

In fact, the whole action of the novel seems not dictated by temporal considerations, but by the inner emotional progress of the characters. The narrative is not advanced so much by worldly events as the movement of the minds and emotions of the characters.

I think that's why it's not an easy read for me. I keep waiting for some THING to happen, when the action is taking place in a whole other realm.
" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/04/1999 10:17:30 PM 127 0 "Elaine,
You questioned Myshkin's honesty in not revealing his inheritance. I think that Myshkin's character is the most interesting thing about this novel. He is obviously a Christ like figure, whose major ""flaw"" (?) seems to be his unlimited, but incredibly naive compassion for others. He is an innocent, who cannot successfully function in the real world. So what does that say about the real world?

Most of the time I liked the Prince, but at times his childlike character and the way he allows the other characters to laugh at him and humiliate him (especially Aglaya) really disturbed me. I don't think the Prince was dishonest because that would have involved intentionally misleading his new friends. His thought process very often seems scattered, and I think he was too absorbed in everything else that was going on to think about it. Maybe the fact that money held no importance for him makes this easier to understand.

Natasya is a very disturbed woman, which will become more and more clear as the novel progresses. The game was interesting. It reminded me a bit of those awful job interviews where they ask you to talk about one of your weaknesses. At this point people say something really dumb, like how they are just too conscientious. The characters playing the game were also trying to turn something supposedly ""bad"" into a story of some good they ended up doing as a result of it.

David, I agree that almost all of the action in this novel takes place in the characters' minds. This is supposed to be the most weakly plotted of D's major novels, and he had great trouble deciding what he should do with his characters. He was writing under a great deal of pressure and was reworking the plot as he went along.

Much of the pressure was financial. His writing was the only source of income for him and his wife, and he was also supporting his stepson from his first marriage and his dead brother's family. The novel was published serially, and he had to finish the different installments in order to have money to live. He and his wife were living abroad and moved five times while he was writing THE IDIOT. During the course of it, they had their first child, a little girl whom D adored. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 3 months, and both D and his wife were heartbroken. To add to the pressure, D still had not conquered his compulsive gambling problem, and he also lost money at the roulette tables.

His epilepsy was also a major problem for him during this period. These attacks were not always severe, but they often left him depressed, irritable, unable to remember things, and obsessed with terrible feelings of guilt. He wrote that Natasya's famous birthday scene at the end of part one cost him two fits. He was incapacitated by a severe attack the night his wife went into labor, and he was late with the final installment of this book because of epileptic attacks. It is difficult for me to imagine writing under such circumstances, but perhaps these mental disturbances actually contributed to the psychological insight which is so characteristic of his writing.

D bestowed his epilepsy on the Prince. This disease is what makes people think that he is a ""fool."" The descriptions of the disease are based on D's own experience. I have read that one thing that is very unusual about D's ( and Myshkin's) experience with the disease is that feeling of absolute contentment and happiness right before a major attack. This is not a common experience for epileptics.

Well, I have rattled on too long, but sometime I would also like to discuss Frued's pseudo-analysis of the psychological origins of D's illness. (Gosh, my prejudices must be showing. - G -)


" 14 80 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/04/1999 11:20:23 PM 88 0 "I just finished the chapter in which Myshkin has his seizure. I was feeling a little bit sleepy while I was reading it, and this added to the overall effect.

I didn't make that connection with the ""waiting for execution"" scene, but that makes a lot of sense. I wonder if D. felt that the two experiences had a strong connection for him. Also, does an aura feel like a near-death experience?

I have a friend who gets seizures and I THOUGHT she told me that she frequently gets auras without having the seizure, though her seizures are always preceded by auras. Is this accurate or am I just confused?
" 14 39 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/05/1999 8:37:25 PM 82 0 "Elaine,

I can only really relate to migraine auras here, but many people get one without the other, and many get the two together every time. I get migraines, but never auras...

I agree with David's assessment of why the book moves slowly for him. In the first section I could hardly believe SO MUCH happened during the span of a single day. We met so many characters and were afforded such insight into their personalities, and nothing really happened except alot of shouting!

I'm back into it now after a brief hiatus, and hope to finish within the week. This book is so unlike what I normally read that it is a bit of a struggle to be patient with it. But I believe I'll be rewarded in the end!

" 14 148 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/06/1999 12:21:22 AM 89 0 "I'm only on Chapter 10, but enjoying this book very much. Maybe what we perceive as extreme emotionalism of the characters is due to different literary expectations? It's possible we expect writers to depict ""realistic"" emotional expression, but that in D's time and milieu, the depiction of human emotion served a purpose other than realistic illustration of human action - maybe more to illustrate his underlying philosophical themes. So maybe he wasn't trying to accurately depict the manner in which people actually behaved.

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/06/1999 10:39:31 AM 89 0 "I'm on page 433 now and feel like I'm wandering around in someone's surreal dream. However, I'm so fascinated by it that I can't wake up. I'm in the middle of Ippolit's ""Necessary Explanation"" and found my skin crawling during his recounting of his nightmare involving the scorpion-like monster. I usually won't let myself read this kind of stuff because it pops up in my own dreams later, but, like the execution scene, I couldn't tear my eyes away from the page. I was absolutely there with him.

Also, does anyone else have the Oxford World Classics edition that has the Holbein painting detail on the cover that Ippolit describes after he sees it hanging on the wall in Rogozhin's house? I didn't realize that it was the same one when the Prince made reference to it earlier. However, Ippolit's description is made even more striking when you have the actual painting in front of you. Ruth, I don't have a scanner (or, at least, one that is currently working). If you have this painting in your files, could you post the face?

Barb " 14 109 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/06/1999 12:13:59 PM 89 0 "Barb, I'm following this discussion and enjoying it very much, but I have to admit I sat this book out. So, I need a little more info to see if I can locate the Holbein :) like the title of the painting?

My flatbed scanner's broken at the moment, but if I have it on a slide, I can have it up in no time.

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/06/1999 3:35:41 PM 94 0 "I'm sorry, Ruth. I should have included it in the first place. It's Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein. My book says that it was painted in 1521. If you can post it here, I'll post what D's character says about it. Thanks!

Today I read Ippolit's (who is dying of tuberculosis) thoughts about being terminally ill and committing suicide.

Now to begin with, there is this curious consideration: by what right, by what motive, would anyone think to dispute my right to these two or three weeks that I have left? What business is it of any court of law? Who actually wants me not only to be condemned, but to behave nicely while I endure the term of my sentence? Surely no one really wants that? For morality's sake? I could understand that if I was the picture of health, and attempted my life when it 'might be of use to my neighbor' and so forth, then morality might reproach me in the old-fashioned way for disposing of my life without asking permission, or some such reason. But now, now when my sentence has already been read out to me? What sort of morality is it which not only demands your life but your last gasp too, as you yield up the final atom of your being....

I'm not sure how much more contemporary this could be. And, that last sentence absolutely resonates.

" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/06/1999 5:20:48 PM 102 0 "Theresa,
I have been reading parts of Joseph Frank's DOSTOEVSKY: THE MIRACULOUS YEARS, 1865-1871. Frank seems to have written the definitive biography of Dostoevsky. It is a multi-volume set and includes much literary criticism and analysis, in addition to information about D's life per se. It is extremely readable.

Apparently, many of D's contemporaries were also disturbed by what they saw as the lack of ""realism"" in THE IDIOT. His friend Maikov wrote him that ""the chief criticism is the fantasticality of the characters."" In response, D explained his theory of ""fantastic realism."" (Gee, does this term remind you a bit of ""magic realism,"" although D's version seems to be much darker?). Here is what he responded to Maikov:

""Oh, my friend, I have a totally different conception of reality and realism than our novelists and critics. My idealism--is more real than their realism. God! Just to narrate sensibly what we Russians have lived through in the last ten years of our spiritual development--yes, would not the realists shout that this is fantasy! And yet this is genuine, existing realism. This is realism, only deeper; while they swim in the shallow waters...""

Frank explains that certain incidents and characters from THE IDIOT were taken from real life, which is one reason why D did not think this criticism was valid. But he also explains that D was searching for a the deeper reality beneath the surface. Frank writes:

""But realism for Dostoevsky never meant the acceptance of the factual and literal in itself; it meant, rather, its transformation in the light of what he called the 'beginnings and ends' of factuality, its significance in a larger framework of moral-religious meaning; and as for these 'beginnings and ends'--'all this is still,' as he wrote, 'as yet fantastic for humankind.'

I think D was treading new ground here, although it is always difficult for us to appreciate how an author's work was received by contemporary readers.


" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/06/1999 5:29:23 PM 105 0 "Barb,
I have a copy of the picture, but it is in black and white. The description of it I read says that you can see from the colors that the body is decaying.

Your comment that you felt like you were experiencing someone's surreal dream really captured the experience of this novel for me.
Ippolit is a fascinating character. I think we wrongly expect someone who knows he is going to die to behave much better. Ippolit, who is only 18, is bitter at what he will miss and angry at everyone else because life will go on for them. I suspect these feelings are very realistic, although Ippolit is certainly more open about expressing his feelings than most people. He makes a pretty good case for the right to die, don't you think?

Anne or Ernie, isn't TB quite contagious? I wondered about Ippolit spreading TB to all of these people.

What does everyone think about Aglaya? Personally, I fail to see the attraction.

" 14 58 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/06/1999 9:23:42 PM 97 0 "I agree with whoever said that the first section of THE IDIOT is almost all talk and no real action. For some reason this doesn't bother me as much as it would in the hands of some other author. It's such GOOD talk. Amazing, to me, how effectively Dostoyevsky shows Myshkin's simple integrity and guilelessness, by contrasting it with the trivialities and tempests-in-teacups of an upper class family.

And as others have pointed out, the accounts of being so near execution are so intense it's almost like mainlining the words instead of reading them, if that makes any sense. Gee, but this guy can write.

As for his contemporaries' criticisms that the characters were ""unrealistic,"" it brings to mind one of my favorite Faulkner quotes: ""A lie well-enough told is truer than any truth..."" Also, one of my favorite Flannery O'Connor quotes, when somebody asked why her characters were so often ""exaggerated"" and ""grotesques."" Replied Flannery, ""When one writes for the blind, one must write large.""

>>Dale in Ala.
" 14 109 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/06/1999 11:58:36 PM 101 0 "Sorry Barb and Ann. Holbein's Christ in the Tomb is not a picture I have in my slides. A web search came up zilcho, too, except that I found out that the painting is in the museum at Basel. I could do a search through my art books, but since my flatbed scanner's on the fritz,I couldn't post it anyway.


" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/07/1999 8:02:55 AM 104 0 "Thanks for trying, Ruth. It is a very disturbing picture. When the book has been laying around our house, each member of my family has made some comment about recoiling from it. Ippolit's comments on its contrast with traditional Christian pictures of the crucifixion, as well as his fascination with it as he himself is dying, struck home with me.

I was also impressed by the realism of I's resentment of death, Ann. This was very much the reaction of my father-in-law a few years ago when he was dying of leukemia though he didn't show it until he was too ill to express it verbally. He had moments of intense anger the day before he died. I think part of this was because he had done so many things right, in terms of his health, while others around him, including his wife, had not and were living past him. I could relate to these feelings and to the panic he seemed to feel at the end far more than the acceptance that one is supposed to feel.

Dosteovsky seems to have stripped off all the protective layers over emotion. But, none of what he finds there can be expressed in simple language because it is far from simple. I like more minimalist kinds of writing, like Raymond Carver's though I've read that he hated that label. However, it doesn't keep me from loving wandering through D's labyrinths.

I don't think that I understand Aglaya, Ann. I do like the fact that she is rebelling against the traditional female restrictions that have been placed on her. D emphasizes at the beginning of the book that she is intensely physically beautiful, moreso than either of her sisters. And, her family has chosen to give her more education than is traditionally given to young women in Russia. However, the result seems to make her more like a bull in a china shop than anything else. You know, both Nastasya and Aglaya are women who are supposed to be very intelligent, have had access to more education than is normal for women in Russia and, yet, are stuck in the same traditionally restrictive environment with no real way out.


" 14 148 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/08/1999 2:02:53 AM 100 0 "Thanks for the information, Ann. I guessed right that D was trying for ""deeper"" philosophical truth in his depiction of his characters' emotions. But I can understand why his approach provoked criticism. So I guess D's contemporaries expected realism just as we do.

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/08/1999 8:03:01 AM 98 0 "When I checked back over my note of 4/7, I found that the last sentence in my first paragraph lost its last half. It says something to the effect that ""When my family members have seen this book laying around the house, e...."" And, the rest is gone. I haven't edited it to add the rest of the original sentence because I want to see if everyone else is getting it this way. I've noticed this in other people's notes sometimes too and asked about it in the Webboard Questions conference, but no one else seemed to have had the same experience.

Is it just me who lost this bit?

" 14 109 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/08/1999 11:21:54 AM 104 0 "I got the whole sentence, Barb. And BTW, Agfa has replaced my malfunctioning scanner, so I could scan that painting if I could find a copy. However, I don't think I have one even in my books. It's a painting I don't remember ever seeing. Holbein's mostly known for his portraits.


" 14 224 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/08/1999 3:41:26 PM 102 0 "The painting can be found on the Web at:

Click the option ""Artchive"", then select Holbein from the list .
" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/08/1999 5:17:07 PM 101 0 "Wow, David, thank you. I only had the detail of the head on my book cover and that part is in shadow. This is a very startling painting. I've also saved this website, by the way.

The following is Ippolit's description of the painting:

The picture shows Christ, just taken down from the cross. I believe artists usually depict Christ, whether on the cross or taken down from it, as still retaining a trace of extraordinary beauty in the face; they seek to preserve this beauty in him, even during the most terrible agonies. There was no hint of beauty in Rogozhin's picture {a print of the painting was on R's wall}; it is an out-and-out depiction of the body of a man who has endured endless torments even before the crucifixion--wounds, torture, beatings from the guards, blows from the populace when he was carrying the cross and fell beneath it, and finally the agony of the cross, lasting six hours (according to my calculations at least). Of course it is the face of a man just taken down from the cross, that is, it preserves a great deal of the warmth of life; nothing has had time to stiffen, so that suffering still lingers on in the face of the dead as though it were still being experienced (this is very well caught by the artist); still, the face has not been spared in the slightest, this is nature unadorned, truly how a corpse must look, whatever it may be, after such agonies.

He goes on to question how his disciples could have believed that he would have risen from the dead when he looked like that, forgetting that this is Holbein's conception of how he looked. However, I find the description, as well as the painting, makes me think about the crucifixion in the same horrified manner that I did as a child.

" 14 109 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/08/1999 6:57:48 PM 106 0 "Thanks, David. I did a search and came up with nothing. How'd you find this great site? I've bookmarked it.

Barb, this is a rather disturbing version of the dead Christ, but Dostoesvsky (or Ippolit)doesn't know his art history very well. True, most versions that show Christ dead or crucified do show him amazingly calm and beautiful, but there are many others that try to convey the horror of such a death. Right off the top of my head, I can think of two---Mantegna's Dead Christ and the crucifixion from Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. The Grunewald is truly horrific.

" 14 224 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/08/1999 7:26:30 PM 108 0 "Ruth:

We librarians have secret ways of finding these wonderful web sites. In this case, my younger sister told me about it...
" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/08/1999 10:13:51 PM 104 0 "David,
Thanks for finding this wonderful site! Not only is the Holbein picture there, but so are the other two pictures Ruth mentioned. Are you still reading THE IDIOT? If so, what do you think about it?

Dostoevsky saw the original Holbein picture in a museum in Basel, Switzerland, not long before he started THE IDIOT. It made a very deep impression on him, and he had a hard time tearing himself away from it. I think that those blank, dead eyes are the most horrible part. Unlike most pictures showing Christ after he is taken down from the cross, he is completely alone. This painting gives me a feeling of complete desolation.

If Myshkin is a Christ figure, and I don't think there is much doubt about that, Ippolit seems to present the counter argument against Christianity. Even Christ, who was divine, was defeated by death, so what is the point of life? Ippolit comments:

Here one cannot help being struck with the idea that if death is so horrible and if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them, He who overcame nature during his lifetime and whom nature obeyed, who said Talitha cumi! and the damsel arose, who cried, Lazarus come forth! and the dead man came forth? Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up--impassively and unfeelingly--a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being! The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated, and this idea is suggested to you unconsciously.

Pretty, bleak, huh? What I like about Dostoevsky is the fact that he is not afraid to explore philosophical issues from multiple viewpoints, even when that forces him to explore the darkest parts of human experience. His characters are full of conflicts and contradictions, which is why they interest me.

Theresa, we discussed his emotionalism and theory of fantastic realism. I think these characters are real in that they express out loud feelings that we recognize as true, even if we are too reserved or too inarticulate to do so ourselves.

Ippolit is an unusual character. At first I had a great deal of sympathy for him, but after awhile it wore thin. Even so, I was appalled by the way the other characters treated his declaration and threats. They laughed ""maliciously"" at him and would have liked to ignore him altogether. I think they just wanted him to go away.

Barb, I know what you mean about fear and anger being such a real part of dying. When I was much younger I read Kubler-Ross's book ON DEATH AND DYING. I naively thought that almost everyone went through those 5 stages, which ended in acceptance and a kind of ""good"" death. I saw the other side when I actually watched people close to me suffer from terminal illnesses. Maybe the reaction of the other characters is not that surprising either. Ippolit is exhausting , and I think there is a natural tendency for people to want to avoid the dying. Now I wish that I had driven the 360 mile round trip every weekend when my father had terminal cancer, but at the time I remember having to force myself to make the trip.

Do you notice how many times it is suggested that the characters is this book are ""mad?"" (i.e.insane) The Prince repeatedly concludes that Natasya is mad, it is suggested that Ippolit's illness has perhaps made him mad, Aglaya is referred to as ""the mad girl,"" Ganya calls his father ""an old man who has obviously gone out of his mind,"" etc. Also, hysterical laughter seems to play a big part in these peoples' lives. The Prince, Natasya, Ippolit, and Aglaya are all described as laughing hysterically. I wonder what it all means.

Barb, good point about Aglaya being frustrated by her lack of opportunities as a woman. Still, it was hard for me to follow her extreme mood swings, from seeming to admire and even love Myshkin, to being ashamed of him. Of all the main characters, she rang the least true.

P.S., Dale -- I loved the Flannery O'Connor quote.
" 14 148 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/09/1999 12:30:06 AM 105 0 "Wow, David, that is such a cool site! I love it. You're in, man (not that anyone is ever out here, but you're really, really in).

Theresa, whose copy of The Idiot is not graced with this picture on the cover
" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/09/1999 7:38:05 AM 101 0 "I finished The Idiot yesterday. I think I will remember this Spring Vacation for a long time as dominated by Dosteovsky's world. I am very glad we read this book and find it infinitely preferable to The Gambler, my only other Dosteovsky read though I can see the same writing style. Maybe I like it better because D seemed to be trying hard to illustrate ideas in which he believed fervently. The atmosphere in The Gambler seemed hopeless with no greater idea to save anyone.

I think that the Prince was definitely a Christ-like figure but one who couldn't survive in the Russia he found when he returned from Switzerland. He was a less appealing character to me as the book progressed (and I noted that you said the same, Ann), but I think that is because he is disintegrating under the pressures of trying to survive in Russian society and with the money that he inherited.

The introduction to my edition is excellent and written by William Leatherbarrow. He says that the theme of this novel was a long-cherished idea of Dosteovsky's, but that he avoided writing it earlier because he didn't feel that he was ready for it. He wrote to his niece ""The idea of the novel is my old favourite one, but it is so difficult that for a long time I did not dare attempt it; and if I have attempted it now, it is really because I found myself in a desperate situation...."" He was afraid that it had failed in the end but I think that is because his standards for this one were probably impossibly high.

According to what I'm reading, D felt that the society that the Prince entered was hopelessly European influenced. Leatherbarrow says, ""Into an almost apocalyptic depiction of a contemporary Russia beset by the evils of materialism, egoism, and political opportunism and dominated by the ethics of self-interest and personal wealth, Dosteovsky introduced the idealized figure of Myshkin, untouched by these failings and driven by the conviction that 'meekness is a mighty force' and that compassion is 'the most important, perhaps the sole law of human existence.'""

Dosteovsky may be the most interesting of the Russian authors. He had far more barriers to his writing than either Tolstoy or Turgenev (my other two favorites). He and Tolstoy both have heart-felt political and religious beliefs which translate themselves into their writing though they are both able to portray the characters with feelings opposite to their own effectively. I'm skimming a short biography of him by Alba Amoia who seems to be fairly well respected, but I agree that the biography you are reading seems to be the definitive one, Ann. I would love to take all those volumes on. I need another 30 years or so added to my life just for reading!

" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/09/1999 11:29:06 PM 93 0 "Barb,
I am so glad that you liked THE IDIOT. That means that I might be able to tempt you to read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (his masterpiece) and THE DEVILS (which I think is sometimes translated as THE DEMONS or THE POSSESSED). I read THE BROTHERS K when I was in college, but that was so long ago that it will all seem fresh to me. That's one of the few ""advantages"" of growing older -- everything old seems new again.

I liked THE GAMBLER better than you did because of the insight it gave me into compulsive gambling. Not being a risk taker myself, it remained an absolute mystery until I read this book and discovered that the adrenalin rush and high are the most important motivators --not the desire for money. D showed such a clear understanding of the disease that it is hard to believe that it was many years before he could break himself of this compulsion.

I would like to own this Joseph Frank biography of D. Maybe I'll put it on my Christmas list (G). However, it includes so much literary analysis that I think I need to read more of D's work before I read too much of it. Otherwise I'll never be able to clearly separate my own opinions from the author's.

I think that both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were very fortunate in their wives. As you know, D met his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, when he hired her to take down the dictation of THE GAMBLER. She was 20 and he was 44. From what I have read, D was a good person (he seemed to have a much more highly developed sense of responsibility towards others than most writers), but he was difficult to live with. In addition to the epileptic attacks, he was irritable, stayed up all night writing, constantly lived on the edge of financial disaster, and sometimes lost what little they had at the roulette tables. Anna seems to have recognized his genius, and, according to Frank, had tremendous patience with him. As for Tolstoy's wife, even though he rejected her in the end, I can never forget all those children she bore him and the seven times she copied out WAR AND PEACE by hand.

You mentioned D's feeling that Europe was corrupting Russia. The culture of the upper classes, with their emphasis on the French language, was so different from that of the Russian middle and lower classes. I suppose some of this hostility towards Europe was the result of his disapproval of these aristocrats. Of course, he also strongly disapproved of the western liberal ideas which were taking root among the more radical young people. And I think that some of his ideas about the superiority of native Russian culture were simply the result of homesickness. He lived abroad during the whole time he was writing THE IDIOT, but he hated being away from his country. He was afraid that if he returned to Russia, he would be thrown into debtor's prison.

Prince Myshkin would have had an even harder time being accepted in the United States than he did in Russia, don't you think? That meekness of his, his willingness to completely accommodate himself to others, and his failure to stand up for himself just wouldn't have gone over at all in the land of rugged individualism. Franks says that the concept of Christian humility was very important in the Russian Orthodox Church, so maybe Myshkin was more understandable to D's Russian contemporaries. Then again, maybe not. No one in the book seemed to appreciate him.

So, Barb, were you surprised by the ending?

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/13/1999 4:14:38 PM 109 0 "Actually, Ann, I will definitely vote for more Dosteovsky in the future and I wouldn't have prior to reading The Idiot. I thought I remembered that Classics Corner had read The Brothers Karamozov while I was just lurking but maybe it was just Crime and Punishment. Alba Amoia, the author of the book about D that I've read a bit of, refers to the period during which he wrote Brothers as his ""zenith"" so I'm particularly interested in reading that one. However, I'm game for anything of his now.

By the way, this book by Amoia is very much a capsule version. She makes references to Frank's work throughout and recommends it. The biographical part is only about 35 pages long and then she goes on to discuss all of his writing. It is a good quickie route for me but I'd love to read the Frank books.
Yes, I was surprised by the ending. Were you? What about everyone else? I'm such a hopeless optimist that, until I noticed the blurb on the back of my book which made reference to ""Myshkin's mission ending in idiocy and darkness"", I even hoped that he might end well. Somewhere in the back of my mind was lurking the thought that neither Rogozhin or Natasya could end happily. I couldn't imagine a believable ending in that direction. However, I hoped that Aglaya would somehow come to her senses and make some sort of relationship with Myshkin.
There was so much disintegration of personality in this book that I'm surprised that I hoped for anything else.

Two things that I've read make reference to Mary Magdalene type of figures in the book in relationship to Myshkin's Christ-like figure. The author of the introduction to my edition refers to the young girl Marie in Switzerland in this manner. And, Amoia feels that Nastasya has some MM-qualities. What does everyone else think?

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/13/1999 4:31:46 PM 109 0 "Forgot about a couple of other points you made, Ann. Yes, I think you are absolutely right about Myshkin being even more out-of-place in the U.S...intriguing thought. It's one of those ""What would happen if Christ came back today?"" sorts of questions. I don't know enough about Russian culture to know how he would have been received there.

Also, from what I've read about Dosteovsky, he changed many of his ideas after serving time in Siberia and living closely with true criminals. Leatherbarrow, in my intro, says:

Firsthand experience of the criminal mind had convinced him that earthly paradise was not to be achieved through rational progress or liberal social reform. The sort of depraved human souls he had encountered in prison would not respond to enlighted humanism; they could be retrieved only by the complete moral transfiguration of the sinful individual through religious experience. What was needed were not 'good' institutions or 'good' political systems, but positively good men. Through the darkness of his Siberian torment Dostoevsky had been sustained by his copy of the New Testament and his developing religious conviction. He had returned to freedom as a writer with a religious mission, anxious to persuade his compatriots that the religious spirit, lost in the West's headlong pursuit of political and material progress, was still alive in that unspoiled Russian past so scornfully dismissed by Turgenev.

Does this jive with what you are reading? I've also read that D was negative about the liberal philosophies being espoused in the late 1800's, but I'm having trouble finding specifics. It sounds like he was very sympathetic with the plight of the serfs. So, I don't think he was against their freedom. However, he seems to have wanted more status quo than most other intellectuals of that time.

It's also interesting to me that he is quoted as saying that ""...the main idea of the novel is to depict the postively good man. There is nothing more difficult than this in the world, especially nowadays."" He seems to think that this type of man would be their salvation and yet Myshkin comes to so sad an end. That may be partly why he was so dissatisfied with the book.

" 14 29 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/13/1999 5:35:50 PM 109 0 "

A fascinating posting. (Somehow, ""a fascinating post"" didn't sound right.) The following quote from Leatherbarrow scares me:

""Firsthand experience of the criminal mind had convinced him that earthly paradise was not to be achieved through rational progress or liberal social reform. The sort of depraved human souls he had encountered in prison would not respond to enlightened humanism; they could be retrieved only by the complete moral transfiguration of the sinful individual through religious experience. What was needed were not 'good' institutions or 'good' political systems, but positively good men.""

This is, most probably, a clear and reasonable explanation of D's experience and the change wrought in his thinking. I am troubled by the ideas, by the faint implication that D's achieved world view is a kind of truth.

It seems to me that the doctrine of ""nothing but religion works"" smacks too much of The Church Dictatorial, the religious right over all.

Accepting that the ""rational progress or liberal social reform"" we have achieved, leaves us with more than a sufficiency of ""depraved human souls,"" history still shows that no single doctrine or system by itself will transform human nature. IMHO.

Pres, who is troubled by his inadequacy with this subject.
" 14 58 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/13/1999 6:20:34 PM 113 0 "Barb & Pres: I'm wondering whether substituting the term ""spiritual"" for ""religious"" might be closer to Leatherwood's (and D's?) intent, or if I'm trying to retrofit history through my own biases.

I think both are referring to a change of heart and nature and behavior that's outside the reach of social institutions, and with that part I agree. Organized churches successfully provide this transformation for some people, but in other cases create more problems than they solve.

I remember a comedian once impersonating a new convert of some fundamentalist group: ""I used to be all messed up on drugs,"" the man says earnestly, ""but that was before I found the Lord.

""Now, I'm all messed up on the Lord.""

More than a kernel of truth there, I think.

>>Dale in Ala.
" 14 67 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/13/1999 7:37:49 PM 116 0 "Dale,

Your retrofit fits with me.

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/14/1999 5:16:13 PM 113 0 "Pres,
I understand exactly what you're saying. I don't think that Dosteovsky's views fit with that of the religious right; I don't even know that Leatherbarrow is stating them accurately. However, I do get the impression that Dale's interpretation of spirituality comes closer to what I perceive that he thought. I also get the feeling that Dosteovsky was relatively conservative for a writer in that period of time.

" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/14/1999 11:05:28 PM 105 0 "Barb,
You have raised so many interesting questions. I don't have time to respond to them all tonight, but I did check out what Frank had to say about D's religious convictions.

D came from a deeply religious Russian Orthodox family. Frank uses the word ""pious"" to describe them. His paternal great-grandfather and grandfather were Uniate priests. This group uses the Orthodox rites, and its priests are allowed to marry, but they recognize the authority of the Pope. D's father attended the seminary, but ended up becoming a doctor, instead of a priest.

From what I have read, D was personally not much interested in organized religion. He gives Prince Myshkin a diatribe against the Catholic Church in THE IDIOT, and it is apparent that D definitely had no use for that particular organized religion. D's faith was much more personal, than formal, in nature. He was a true believer in both God and Christ, but because he was also a deeply analytical person he was never able to suppress all of his doubts. This was true even though he recognized that faith could not be justified by reason. His near brush with death encouraged him to think much more about the meaning of life and the eternal questions than most people, and his religious concerns and beliefs crop up repeatedly in his writings.

The following is a quote from a letter which he wrote around 1854, shortly after he ended his penal servitude in Siberia, which explains the basis of his beliefs:

""I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt, I am that today and (I know it) will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet, God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm; at those instants I love and I feel loved by others, and it is at these instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred for me. This Credo is very simple, here it is: to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and more perfect than Christ; and I tell myself with a jealous love not only that there is nothing but that there cannot be anything. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.""

Pretty powerful, huh?


" 14 63 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/15/1999 2:27:23 AM 109 0 "ANN

After I read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (sp?) some 40 years ago, I felt that Dostoievski had come with a new religion, and the book served as an introduction. It seemed an investigation might prove interesting, but alas, I procrastinated, stuck to my dilettante ways and never pursued it.

" 14 58 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/15/1999 9:02:34 AM 112 0 "Ann & Edd: Speaking of new religions, do I remember that Tolstoy in effect created one during his final years, and that he had a large following as a spiritual leader after he had stopped writing fiction?

A few years ago I picked up an intriguing-looking novel titled THE LAST STATION: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year, by Jay Parini, but have not had a chance to read it yet.

>>Dale in Ala.
" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/16/1999 9:16:17 AM 109 0 "Edd,
It has been 30 years since I read THE BROTHERS Karamazov, and I don't remember much -- which is why I would like to read it again. (G) There are very strong religious themes in it. The book contains THE LEGEND OF THE GRAND INQUISITOR, in which Christ returns to earth and confronts the most powerful cardinal in the Catholic Church, a 90 year old cardinal known as The Grand Inquisitor. The latter is really an ""anti-Christ"" figure who is at heart an unbeliever. He argues that Christianity is too difficult and foreign to man's nature, so the Church has ""improved"" on it by putting more emphasis on material happiness and taking away the right to choose between good and evil for the masses. This section of the book is very powerful writing because D was willing to give both sides equally powerful arguments. That's what I like most about him.

Tolstoy, on the other hand, became very spiritual late in life. He rejected material possessions and taught a doctrine of peace, love, and non-resistance to evil. I don't know how ""religious"" he was. Barb, can you help us out here? I know you have read quite a bit about him. I don't think he believed in Christ as a divine being, or maybe even in an after life. In contrast to D, he also became very didactic and rejected all literature (including his own great works) that did not serve a moral good.

" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/16/1999 10:00:31 AM 111 0 "Barb,
Back to THE IDIOT---

You asked about Marie, the young girl in Switzerland at the beginning of the book, and Natasya, the beautiful but tormented ""heroine"", being Mary Magdalene type figures. There is an online index to the Bible on the internet, so I looked up what the New Testament had to say about Mary Magdalene. The only specific references are that Christ cast out 7 devils from her (which must mean she had been really, really bad), that she was one of the women who ministered to Jesus, she witnessed the crucifixion, and Jesus appeared to her shortly after the resurrection.

Traditionally, she is also identified with Mary, the sister of Martha, and with a fallen woman, who rejected her past to follow the all-forgiving Christ. You Bible experts out there (Cathy Hill, Dale?) keep me honest here.

Both Marie and Natasya were technically ""fallen"" women, although they had been taken advantage of by unscrupulous men rather than being prostitutes or sexually promiscuous. I agree that Myshkin's tremendous compassion for both of these women, who were completely rejected by society, was meant to reflect Christ's treatment of the sinners and outcasts in the Bible, and particularly Mary Magdalene.

The section at the beginning of the book seemed to be especially designed to set up Myshkin as a Christ-like figure. Not only was there the story of Marie, but there was great emphasis on his wonderful relationship with children. There are several places in the New Testament where Jesus says that we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven:

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.


Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Myshkin was very childlike and innocent. I often admired that, but also became very frustrated with those characteristics, as did almost every character in the novel. There is a fine line between being good and innocent, and being a fool -- hence, the title, THE IDIOT. I guess I would have expected a Christ-like figure to demonstrate more sophisticated intelligence and social savvy, as well as a sense of humor and irony.


Was I surprised by the ending? I fully expected Rogozhin to murder Natasys Filipovna because that possibility was mentioned several times in the book. He was totally infatuated by her, but she would never be able to resist tormenting him because she hated her sexual side and, by transference, anyone who desired her in that way. However, I was surprised and very saddened by the Prince's decline into true idiocy. I never expected much of Aglaya. She would not have made Myshkin happy. Maybe D couldn't think of any other way to end the book. Possibly this was meant to be analogous to the crucifixion. Like Christ, Myshkin sacrificed himself for others, specifically, Natasya. Even though this did not save her, he did give up his life. By the end of the book, as you pointed out, his personality had disintegrated. At that point, I don't think Prince Myshkin really existed any more.

" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/17/1999 7:54:30 AM 105 0 "Really interesting notes, everyone. I've been proceeding at a dead run all week in my ""real life"" just signing on here long enough to read the CC notes and thinking about them as I go.

That's a fascinating excerpt from Dostoevsky's letter, Ann. So much for any comparison to the religious right. I can't imagine any of them thinking at that abstract a level, let alone articulating it so well.

Regarding Tolstoy and religion, I'll try and tell you what I remember from all of my reading about him, but if I get it wrong, correct me, anyone. Tolstoy started thinking intensely about spirituality, an afterlife, etc, while he was writing Anna Karenina. There's a section toward the end of that book in which Levin (who ranks at the top of my list of favorite literary characters) goes through his own crisis on this subject and resolves it through acceptance. In essence, if I remember correctly, he says that God is not a subject that can be questioned or intellectualized, it simply exists. Levin finds a lot of peace in that. Personally, I found it inadequate at the time, despite some beautiful language.

After he finished AK, Tolstoy immersed himself in study of the Bible and interpreted it in a very literal sense. He, then, also tried to become very involved in the Russian Orthodox Church. However, he found so many contradictions between what Christ was quoted as saying in the Bible and the practices of the Church that he eventually left in disgust. He was very vocal in his writings about the hypocrisy he found and eventually he was excommunicated.

As he began to carve out his own religious beliefs, talking and writing about them with others, he began to have followers. One man was chief among them and he took on the organizational quality. He was also Tolstoy's wife's chief rival as she saw the family fortune being swallowed up by the religion. Tolstoy continued to take Bible teachings very literally and felt, at an intellectual level at least, that any use of time or money for anything other than following Christ's teachings was wrong. His tremendous ego made absolute adherence to these ideas difficult and he was frequently accused of hypocrisy himself.

I'm hazy on his actual beliefs at the end, Ann, and I think it is because they continued to evolve. However, I do think that he always believed in Christ and an afterlife. I know that you did a lot of reading about him too. Did you find something other than that?

Talking about Tolstoy makes me want to go back and read something by him. This is dangerous; you are returning me to my obsession again{g}.

" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/17/1999 9:22:04 AM 107 0 "Barb,
Thanks for the information about Tolstoy's religious beliefs. I don't know where I got the idea that they were more philosophical than religious at the end. I'm probably all mixed up, but since I work a block and a half from the main library, I'll see if I can check out some of the biographical information there. The book on Tolstoy I was reading was by A.N. Wilson, but I only had time to read parts here and there on aspects that interested me -- a rather dangerous approach.

Why, Barb, you know you can always interest me in Russian literature.(G) I would vote for another selection by Tolstoy, especially if it was from his earlier period.
I like both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, although they are very different from each other.

You are right that D's religious beliefs and doubts were far too complex to be acceptable to the religious right. I do think that he had an underlying core of belief, perhaps stemming from his religious childhood, that made it impossible for him to reject God and an afterlife, no matter how much he was tormented with doubt. While Ippolit rages against the unfairness of his fate and the impersonal, eternal power which he holds responsible for his impending death, he does not reject the idea of God and a life to come:

Religion! I admit the existence of eternal life, and maybe I always have admitted it...

...And yet I never could, try as I might, imagine that there is no future life and no Providence

Although he does not reject these ideas, he does say that man has no possibility of understanding them and therefore cannot be held responsible for adhering to the supposed laws of Providence.

Ippolit seems to be Myshkin's dark alter ego. Although at times I felt that he belonged in a mental ward, he has some very interesting things to say.

Two other characters which I thought were particularly well-drawn were Mrs. Yepanchin and Ganya Ivolgin. (Yepanchin seems to be transliterated in most editions as Epanchin. There are so many ways of transliterating Russian names, that the spell checker might as well just give up). What did you think of these two?
" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/18/1999 9:47:31 AM 99 0 "I liked the way Dostoevsky drew Ganya's character too, Ann. It was so real with all of the little foibles of humanity. Sometimes, I think these nonheroic characters are more interesting and they must be more complex (and maybe more fun) to create. I never quite understood how he became so efficient and effective during the investigation of the man who was claiming part of the Prince's inheritance. It didn't seem to fit with the rest of him.

I was never sure that I understood Mrs. Yepanchin. Then again, maybe that was the point, that she didn't understand herself. She seemed to be constantly pulled between the new ideas, which would allow her daughters more options and intellectual growth, and the old ideas which would keep them ""safe."" Actually, I guess that's pretty realistic, isn't it? She just seemed almost hysterical about it a good deal of the time.

A couple of things that I've read talked about Rogozhin as a symbol for Satan working in opposition to Myshkin's Christ-like figure. Leatherbarrow talks about him as a dark alter-ego to Myshkin with ""Myshkin's Christian compassion thrown into relief by Rogozhin's satanic passion."" What did you all think?


" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/18/1999 8:36:38 PM 102 0 "Did we lose everyone else who started this book, or are some of you still working your way through it?

If you did quit, I would be curious to know at what point you stopped and why. I can understand that Dostoevsky doesn't appeal to everyone's taste. It probably helps to be a little off center yourself to appreciate him. (G)

" 14 224 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/19/1999 7:47:43 AM 103 0 "I finished the Idiot this weekend, and am still trying to get my thoughts together.

To tell the truth, I don't see Myshkin as a Christlike character. His outstanding characteristic is not just his own openness and honesty, but a complete inability to see the dishonesty, hypocrisy, and evil in others.

Dostoyevsky seems to believe in the basic goodness of man; I keep going back to Lebedyev's story of the 13th century cannibal who felt compelled to confess his sin, or Ippolit's act of kindness toward the doctor, an act performed by a dying man for a complete stranger for absolutely no reason.

What Dostoyevsky condemns is not people themselves, but a society which encourages hypocrisy, which encourages people to go against their own natures in a pursuit of materialistic, unspiritual goals.

In such a society, naive persons like Myshkin are doomed to disenchantment, perhaps even insanity.

I think that Myshkin truly loves Agalaia, but truly pitied Nastasya. In the values that were the basis of his thought, the welfare and happiness of others took precedence over his own. Hence, in the climatic scene with the two women, he chose Natasya's happiness over his own, and he could not understand why Agalaia did not feel the same way.

Perhaps these are ludicrous comparisons, but I am reminded of Isaac Asimov's robots who could be rendered immobile and ""killed"" by presenting a moral dilemma which they could not solve on the basis of their programming. Also, of a line from the Don McLean song ""Starry Starry Night"": ""This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.""
" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/19/1999 8:46:31 AM 109 0 "David,
Thanks so much for posting your insightful comments. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in these old classics that I tend to monopolize the conversation, but what I like best about CC and CR is that other readers help me appreciate the book from a different slant, pointing out things I would never have seen otherwise.

""Starry, Starry Night"" is one of my favorites, and that line, ""This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you"" perfectly sums up Myshkin. Not viewing Myshkin as a Christ-like figure certainly helps with the problem I had of reconciling his naive and unsophisticated personality with my image of Christ. I did see some religious parallels, especially at the beginning with the fallen Marie and his relationship with the little children, but you could be on the right track there. In any case, I think I pushed the Christ analogy too far.

I agree with you that Myshkin pitied Natalya, but loved Aglaya (why I still can't figure out, other than the fact that she was a ravashing beauty -- I suppose that's enough). His goodness was his fatal flaw, wasn't it? Were you surprised by his disintegration at the end? That really stays with me.

From what I have read, I think that D very much saw contemporary society as a corrupting force. But if men are basically good, and men make up society, can we really blame society for corrupting our better nature? I guess we could discuss that one for a long time. Any opinions?

You brought up the incident of the cannibal who was compelled to confess. I must admit that I really had trouble understanding what D was getting at with that whole segment. I liked the episode showing Ippolit's acts of charity towards the doctor and his family. It added another dimension to his character, which I wouldn't have expected. As I have mentioned before, I really enjoy the fact that D's people are so complex. Except for Myshkin, no one is totally good or totally bad.

I'm glad you mentioned Asimov. His I,ROBOT (a science fiction classic) is on our reading list for later this year. I haven't read any of his books, but I am looking forward to it.

" 14 29 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/19/1999 12:13:02 PM 118 0 "

Re your posting, #88 of this thread: Very good stuff.

" 14 22 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/19/1999 4:10:34 PM 119 0 "I've just this minute finished The Idiot and read all the notes. As soon as you guys started putting spoilers up, I stopped reading the thread for a while. David, I find it interesting that you mentioned the robot comparison. Early on in the book, Myshkin reminded me of Data in the Star Trek series. Innocent, logical and totally naive. I could even see Brent Spiner in my mind's eye when Myshkin would talk. But later on, that feeling kind of dissipated. I had a hard time understanding any of the women. Maybe it's just the society, or it could be that D valued very different qualities in women than I do. The only one that I really liked was a minor character--Vera Lebedev. She was faithful and hardworking and seemed to keep the household together. Not frivolous or hysterical. I suspect frustration must have played a large role in the way women acted in D's world.
" 14 224 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/19/1999 10:11:54 PM 118 0 "Sherry: I quite agree that Vera Lebedyev was probably the one woman in the novel who could have really made Myshkin happy. Yet, there never seemed a possibility of romance between then, even though I constantly felt like shouting at Myshkin to wake up and see the obvious!

Why was there no attraction between them? Was it a class thing? Was he unable to conceive of having Lebedyev as a father-in-law? Or was he simply more in need of helping unhappy women like Natasya or Aglaia?

Ann: I don't fully understand Myshkin's attraction to Aglaia. I don't think it was strictly beauty; as I recall, the point was made early that she and Natasya were quite alike in beauty.

Of course, he never actually committed himself to her. It was just expected that he would; rumors flew about them. But I think there may be a point here, about the evils of basing our lives on what society expects of us rather than following our true natures.

I've found that passage from Lebedyev's drunken tirade about the villainies of railways and cannibals that so impressed me:

""There must have been an idea stronger than any misery, famine, torture, plague, leprosy, and all that hell, which mankind could not have endured without that idea, which bound men together, guided their hears, and fructified the springs of life. Show me anything like that force in our age of vices and railways.... And dare to tell me that the ""springs of life"" have not been weakened and muddied beneath the ""star"", beneath the network in which men are enmeshed....There is more wealth, but there is less strength.""

D never specifies what this ""idea"" is exactly, but it seems important. The problems of man seems to arise when this idea is lost; when the pursuit of material wealth replaces the pursuit of spiritual wealth; when the desire to fit in with superficial manners in polite company replaces having ones own convictions and ideas; when surface emotions replace deep feelings. Perhaps Myshkin's final insanity is a product of this conflict, as he tries to hold on to this value while also trying to fit into polite society. (However, another cause might have been the crushing realization that evil does exist as embodied by Rogozhin--who could well a Satanic figure that others have pointed out.)

And I'd better quit now before I start getting really long-winded and start putting on airs--D wouldn't like that!
" 14 25 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/20/1999 4:41:16 PM 116 0 "It was great to log-on and find the notes from David and Sherry. This is why I love having more people in on the discussion. Especially in a book as complex as this one, it multiplies my perceptions.

It occurred to me after reading David's note that nothing I've read of Dosteovsky's actually refers to Myshkin as a Christ-like figure. He only refers to him as a ""positively good man"" trying to exist in contemporary society. However, the academics seem to have a field day with it and it's a very easy view to adopt. Your description of how you saw Myshkin very much fits my own initial impressions, David, though you expressed them much better{g}.

Sherry, I think that Dosteovsky's characterizations of women are probably not his strong point. His female characters seem less like real people than his male ones. I've read that many of his female characters reflect the traits of Polina Suslova, a young Russian feminist author, who Dosteovsky pursued for many years but who always rejected him. Tolstoy, on the other hand, always surprised me with the understanding that he seemed to put into female characters, even though I didn't find much evidence of that when I read about his private life.

" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/20/1999 9:18:54 PM 119 0 "David,
I love that last line of the passage you quoted: ""There is more wealth, but there is less strength."" That says a lot about our current society as well.

I thought Vera definitely showed signs of interest in Myshkin, but he was oblivious to her. She seemed to be the only completely sane woman in the bunch. It looked like Vera was pairing off with Radomsky at the end, which was a step up the social ladder for her.

Sherry, was this a reread for you? If I remember correctly, you nominated this book.

Barb, I agree about Tolstoy and women characters. He certainly got Anna Karenina right. Regarding your question about Rogozhin and Satan, I thought he was too nebulous a character to represent the devil. For me ""Satan"" conjures up images of an extremely clever and manipulative person, who is completely in charge of himself and constantly attempts to extend that control to others. Rogozhin didn't seem in control of anything. He was possessed, possibly by Satan, but more likely by his own infatuation/lust. I see him more as an example of fallen man than the devil.

What do you rest of you think?
" 14 22 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/21/1999 8:00:03 AM 119 0 "No, Ann, it wasn't a reread. And I suppose I did nominate it. I had no idea it was so long, but why should I have been surprised? I read BK and C&P years ago and thought it was time I read something else of his. When I nominate things for CC, since you don't put a limit on the number of nominations, I seem to get carried away.
" 14 107 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/22/1999 12:15:12 AM 121 0 "Ann, you wanted to know how far along the rest of us progressed. Well I finished last night and am presently thinking about the book. While most everything in The Idiot is dramatic, the end is even more so. I found it painful to read how the Prince regressed to his former self. The key event toward the end is Myshkin turning away from his bethroded and is immediately taken in by his former girlfriend which in turn leads to the bitter end.
At times, reading this book I thought that the majority of the characters were either crazy, schemers or liers. The rest of them not exactly normal, were unstable unreliable or untrustworthy. The prince stood out all right. At one point I started to wonder if the social-psychological interaction is a reflection of Russian Culture. Some of the other Russian authors came to my mind who described similar social climate and personalities. Well, perhaps these people are quite different from the Westerners.
One more thought, to what extent does this book reflect D's personality, his life experiences? Were there similarities between D. and Myshkin? I read somewhere that D. spent his last years in a very depressed mood. So my next project is to read some biographical material. Ernie
" 14 224 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/22/1999 7:31:01 AM 123 0 "The most obvious similarity between D and Myshkin is their epilepsy, but I wonder if there are other parallels. Certainly D, with his radical opinions and gambling addiction, would not be seen as having the same sort of personality as Myshkin. And, when Myshkin speaks of the criminal saved from execution at the last moment--something which happened to D--he does so in a dispassionate, third person manner that would indicate that he would never have undergone such an experience personally.

One thought that occurs to me has to do with the stigma of epilepsy. D was subject to seizures; D was hardly a saintly figure; therefore, people stricken with epilepsy are basically evil, if not actually possessed by the Devil. In reaction, D creates Myshkin to dispute this stereotype.

An earlier poster made the point that Rogozhin, instead of being a Satanic person, was simply possessed by his passion. This seems accurate to me now as well; Rogozhin was motivated not so much by the desire to corrupt others as to satisfy his own corrupt feelings.

This idea of good vs. evil in D's thinking makes me anxious to read The Brothers Karamazov and explored D's account of a confrontation between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor. (It is a long flight from Detroit to Seattle...)

Madness, indeed, seems to run rampant throughout the Idiot: Myshkin, Rogozhin, Natasya, Aglaia, General Imogin, Ippolit, Mrs. Epachin, Ganya--all exhibit symptoms of varying severity. Many others, such as Lebedyev, go out of their minds with drink.

I wonder if consistent characteristics can be found among these, as well as the few characters who are somewhat ""normal"" on a regular basis, such as Varya, Ptistin, or Vera Lebedyev. One thought that comes to mind is the first chapter of part four, where D describes happy people who, while not original, realize their worth and place in society and are able to accept it, without feeling they need to live up to society's ideas of what they should be.
" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/22/1999 9:53:13 PM 126 0 "Interesting notes, Ernie and David. Ernie, I think that while Dostoevsky's fictional world is, of course, heavily influenced by Russian culture, it is unique unto itself. Russian critics of his own time complained that it was too fantastic. Still, it is hard to think of any 19th century English or French writers coming up with books quite like this, isn't it?

The biographical material I read said that D put aspects of himself into all of his characters, the bad as well as the good. I think that David is right that the main similarity between Myshkin and D is their epilepsy, and this was a big one. His epileptic attacks exhausted D, interfered with his memory and made it difficult to work. Sometimes they made him feel that he was in danger of losing his mind, or becoming an idiot. On the other hand, that moment of almost perfect contentment directly before an attack that Myshkin described was also taken directly from D's personal experience. So was the description of the man who faced what seemed to be certain death and was reprieved at the last minute. Myshkin sometimes was the mouthpiece for D's most cherished ideas, such as his faith in the greatness of the Russian people (he was really something of a chauvinist), or his prejudices, such as his intense dislike of the Catholic Church.

However, in most respects, I think that D's personality was very different from that of Myshkin. D aspired to Myshkin's goodness, but he seems to have been a far more irritable and difficult man to live with. He also lacked Myshkins naivete and inclination to expect the best of people.

David, I hope you can hold out on reading THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV until next year. I think if we nominate it for the 2000 reading list in December, it has a good chance of getting on it. When I read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and CRIME AND PUNISHMENT many years ago, I don't remember thinking that most of the characters were living on the edge of a nervous breakdown, like I did with THE IDIOT. These books are also more tightly plotted than THE IDIOT.

David, I liked your observation that the more balanced characters were those who were not ""original"", but who recognized their own self-worth and were content with their place in society. Characters like Ganya and Natasya had so much pride and cared so much what society thought about them that they were pretty much doomed to unhappiness -- a lesson for our own times, I think.

Ah, Sherry, you have such good taste in the classics that I would hate to restrict your nominations to one or two. I'm glad you suggested THE IDIOT. I will never forget Prince Myshkin or the cost of being a truly good and compassionate person in the real world.

" 14 107 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/27/1999 11:03:23 PM 116 0 "As happened to me before, I wrote a lengthy and hopefully well thought out comment and at the end was disconnected. I probably took too long on the internet. Someone asked if TB was very contagious and the answer is yes, it is. However in our book nobody seems concerned about this point. But I did get some interesting and perhaps relevant comments from a doctor I discussed a patient with. The toxins in the body of the TB infected person frequently lead to delusions and hallucinations. My patient was suffering from such, though he did not have these problems prior to his illness.
Ippolit appears to be a very angry and very exhibitionist person. He is seen as making the most of his condition and made suicidal threats which are received with contempt by his audience. Myshkin, of course, takes the matter seriously.
Incidentally, I am quite puzzled about the course of Myshins disorder. He starts out being either retarded or pseudoretarded and after disaster struck his marriage plans he falls apart again and becomes an idiot. Well I could accept regression or depression. The description of his condition is atypical but interesting all right. I also wonder about D's luck with women. I don't recall a healthy satisfying relationship that any of his male characters were involved in. What do the biographers say on this point? Ernie
" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 04/28/1999 7:46:29 PM 118 0 "Ernie,
Thanks for the information on TB. Maybe at the time THE IDIOT was written people were not aware that TB was contagious. I think you told me once that when you were a boy in Vienna, the disease was very common.

Myshkin's end was unusual wasn't it? I was under the impression that people thought he was an idiot when he was very young because the epileptic fits were so frequent and so disruptive. When the doctor in Switzerland got the fits under control, he could lead a fairly normal life, but he was so naive and good hearted that many presumed he must be a fool. In your psychological practice, did you ever encounter patients who seemed to suffer such a complete and apparently irreversible disintegration of their personality? In Myshkin's case this seems to have been brought on by the trauma of Natasya's murder. It seemed totally real to me in the context of this book, but I don't know how likely that would be in the real world.

I don't know much about D's first marriage, which ended when his wife died. I believe he started out very much in love with her, although they drifted apart. He always felt obligated to support his stepson from this marriage, even though the young man took advantage of him. At the age of 44 he married a woman young enough to be his daughter. From what I have read, this second marriage was quite successful. D loved her and she provided a great deal of stability and emotional support. She recognized his genius and was devoted to him, although she did comment that she didn't feel the passion for him that she might have felt for someone closer to her own age. Barb probably has additional information. I think she said that he was infatuated with a mistress at some point, and that this woman was the model for some of his female characters.

Unlike many geniuses, D seems to have had a very strong sense of family. He was absolutely devastated when his baby daughter died while he was writing THE IDIOT. Another child, a little boy, died after a prolonged epileptic fit. He was extremely close to his older brother and insisted on supporting his family after he died, even though this caused him great financial hardship.


" 14 148 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 05/11/1999 12:57:32 AM 63 0 "I finally finished this one. The first half flew - the last 350 pages draaaaged along. I don't know why - I liked many aspects of this book, but something about the lengthy humorous asides just turned me off. I had the same problem, but worse, when we read Gogol's Dead Souls last year.

I don't think it's that I don't like Russian writers - I liked D's Notes from the Underground and The Gambler, and Crime and Punishment years ago. And Turgenev is my fave.

Don't have much to add to the discussion, except that I was reading Hippolite's thesis at the time the Littleton shootings occurred, and his state of mind seemed eerily similar to that of those boys in Colorado. Except something let them act out much more brazenly - maybe because there were two - so they could egg each other on?

" 14 133 April Book: The Idiot by Dostoyevesky 05/11/1999 6:12:35 PM 67 0 "Theresa,
I think many of us had a similar reaction to THE IDIOT -- the first part was really absorbing, but then it lost momentum. After awhile, I felt like the characters just kept treading the same water. Finally D decided he had to wrap things up in order to meet his deadline, and they stumbled to a conclusion. I have read that this is the least well plotted of D's major works, and from what I read, I agree. Don't get me wrong--I still liked this book very much, but I don't think it fully lived up to the promise of its beginning.

I fully expected Rogozhin to kill Natasya, so that didn't surprise me, but I was surprised that the Prince's personality disintegrated at the end. What did you think of this development?



Feodor Dostoevsky
Feodor Dostoevsky

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