What is the difference between simplicity and being an idiot? In different ways, this question is asked over and over again over the course of this book. And can an honest man survive in society - to be precise, Russian society in the 19th century.
Prince Myshkin, the titular "idiot," returns to Russia after spending most of his life in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy. As such, he is sheltered, simple, honest, and odd. Whether these attributes come from his care, his personality, or his illness are a little up in the air. But undoubtedly he does not fit into Russian society, and upsets several apple carts as society people try to figure out what they think of this strange, earnest young man.
On his voyages through the rocky seas of society, Myshkin becomes embroiled in the fortunes of a beautiful young woman, Nastasya Filippovna, whose character was destroyed by her guardian, who took her as his lover, and set her up lavishly. In her realization of what has been done to her, and the irrevocableness of her split from good, she becomes bitter and volatile. She has been courted by men of good name, men of no name, but plenty of money, and even by Prince Myshkin, whose pity for her overwhelms him. One of her suitors, the one with no title to speak of, but plenty of money, Rogozhin, is obsessed with her.
Myshkin also makes the acquaintance of a family of fairly good name, although not of the top tier of society. The youngest daughter of the family, Aglaia, toys with Myshkin and his affections - or does she? Is she more in earnest than even she realizes?The Idiot
examines the superficiality of society at great length, and the pettiness and cruelty with which people react when faced with a man who does not tell lies, who says what he means, who has few of the social graces, but is overflowing with good will and affection. They have learned to put on a false and carefully scripted genuineness, while Myshkin's authenticity throws all this into chaos.
I find Dostoyevsky immensely readable in translation - the two I've read have both been accessible and easy going. I don't know if they were translated by the same person, or not, but these are not books that you have to slog through. The characters are lively and interesting, and the web that poor Myshkin finds himself in often made me worried for him. He is just disconcerting enough, while also being very endearing. But what would a more authentic society look like? If the world were made of Myshkin's, could it survive?