The Idiot Background

The Idiot Background

The Idiot is a novel published by the man some consider the greatest literary figure in Russian history, Fyodor Dostoevsky. The title is ironic; titular Prince Myshkin is only thought to be an idiot by those around him who mistake his natural innocence and Christ-like goodness for ignorance and stupidity. Despite working on the novel over the course of a year and a half, the focus of criticism toward it has been errors typically related to novel written to meet a tight deadline: the introduction of underdeveloped minor characters, plotlines that fizzle out without climax or conclusion and temporary loss of pace in in the middle section.

Despite the fact that the story told in The Idiot does get bogged down by needless plot complications, at heart the story is one of theme. What would happen in the modern world if a figure of goodness and light in the mold of Jesus Christ should appear? How would a society raised to worship the image of Christ through the teachings of religion actually treat someone who manifested those qualities which make Jesus so unique as a human? It is precisely because of the deep and universal resonance of this theme that The Idiot has been even more popular for adaptation by other artists than more well-know and better constructed Dostoevsky novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Jerzy Kozinsky’s celebrated novel (and acclaimed film based upon it), Being There, is just one of the literary works that takes The Idiot as the starting place for examining this theme of a Christlike innocent thrust upon a world supposedly informed by the message of Jesus, but which reveals the chasm between theology and reality. The universality of The Idiot beyond its immediate Christian frame of reference can be demonstrated by the number of non-Christian artists who have been moved by its theme to address the novel either through direct or allusive adaptation as well as the number of countries in which adaptations have been produced in the native language. Akira Kurosawa directed a version which at one point was intended to be a two part film running more than 250 minutes. In 1992, a Hindi version was telecast as a four-part miniseries.

Less universal, perhaps, are those elements which form another major point of contention for criticism. The novel’s inability to maintain its pace and lapse into a narrative quicksand of sorts through the middle is often blamed on Dostoevsky’s failure to polish his didacticism into a more artful means of slamming what he viewed as a major issue that Russia was simply avoiding facing up to. That issue was the growing European-style materialism infecting Russia’s middle class and the effect this spiritual emptiness was having on the moral foundation of the country. The outrage against a growing indifference to idealism is portrayed in his main character as the inevitable end result if such indifference were allowed to continue on its inexorable path without being addressed: a society in which morality had transformed from the ideal to being ignored before finally becoming an object of ridicule.

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