What could have prompted me to first read "The Idiot" at age 13 on a beach vacation with my family I can not recall. What I do recall, however, is that I was fully engrossed day after day in a world of ideas, people and places far beyond my experience. Having now just "re-read" it 39 years later (following Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov), I know I couldn't possibly have digested all of its ideas at that age: atheism vs. Christianity; nihilism vs. a dying social order; Eros vs. charity; truth vs. artifice; id vs.ego and superego. And yet, I also sense I know what captivated me even then.
The characters in this novel, though usually explained as symbolic of the ideas they represent, are yet the most vividly realized characters I had ever "read" then, and still. The real-time manner in which they are drawn and followed is as if the author simply recorded their actions and conversations as and where they happened. We get to know who these people are, not through narrative description, but, as if by "candid camera", observing what they say, withhold, do, and fail to do. What emerges are fascinating, at times frightening and at times affectionate portraits of real and troubled humans: Lizaveta, the flighty, but loving society mother; General Epanchin, the successful but utterly conventional man of the house; Aglaya, the childish but delightful beauty who resents her sister's and parents' expectation for her; Ganya, who wants money and love, but plays the wounded martyr while more obviously blaming his father for his failures at both; Ivolgin, the pathetic figure of an aging man who aches for dignity and respect but who's former glory is long gone and mostly imagined; and Lebedev, the likeable sycophant and name-dropper.
The more central characters to the events, the murderously passionate Rogozhin, and the self-scorning beauty Nastasya, are more starkly drawn. But even those portraits are created not through direct thought narration or narrative description, but by the author's leading us to read between and behind the lines of their words, conversations with others, and public "displays".
As for the Prince himself, he is often said to symbolize the human side of a Christ-like man. That, of course, is true; but (as can also be seen in Aloysha, the hero of The Brothers Karamazov), he is as much child-like as he is like a Christ. The Prince's honesty, naiveté, trust, and simple affection for those around him, are all qualities that he seems to maintain as a man because he is really only entering the "adult" world of social Petersburg after a long and sheltered upbringing among younger children in Switzerland. When he enters this tangled world of adult competition, insecurity, envy, ambition and intrigue, though much older, he's in the most essential ways still the child that was sent by his benefactor to Switzerland for help with his illness.
One comes away with the strong impression (reinforced by the portrait of Aloysha, hero of Brothers Karamazov) that Dostoevsky saw children as embodying the ideal of spirit that we strive to maintain or regain as adults. The prince's obvious affection for the loyal young boy Kolya and the compassionate young girl Vera, in this book, and similar bonds between his hero Aloysha and the children in Karamozov Brothers, show Dostoevsky's admiration for the child in man.
The Idiot shows what happens when a simple, trusting and exceptionally compassionate child-man enters the more corrupt world of human adulthood without the experience to navigate, or even to perceive, the traps and snares laid by more worldly humans whose innocence has been chipped or stripped bare by ambition, envy, greed, despair or old age.
On another level, The Idiot is an allegory for the Christ story itself- with Prince Myshkin coming from the Swiss sanatorium into the "the world" of Petersburg with a mission to live among, love and save its people. The complications of heart and mind when his human emotions unexpectedly collide with the more selfish and less willing of those around him are at the center of this story of a second coming re-imagined.
One might be left, at the awfully tragic end of this novel, with the idea that Dostoevsky himself was of the same mind as Ippolit, the suicidal atheist, who his hero befriends of compassion. That is, from the disastrous conclusion, one might think that Dostoevsky believes that Holbein's painting (central to the story) of the disfigured and lifeless body of Christ the corpse, shows the impossibility of a divine spirit in (and after) a wretched human existence. Yet, it is with such affection that he describes the many and contradictory (and often delightful) sides of the "ordinary" people in this story, that I felt the opposite: that is, that Dostoevsky recognized not just in the tragically compassionate Prince, and the young Vera and Kolya, but also in the few and fleeting glimpses of love, friendship, compassion and even real dignity of the fallen or struggling others, that there is a redemptive force that underpins the human experience. If there were any doubt of that after reading this novel, it is laid to rest in the Brothers Karamazov, whose likewise tragic denouement yet ends on a note more obviously reflective of Dostoevsky's ultimate optimism.
Crime and Punishment, a psychological crime story, showed Dostoevsky's incredible genius for "writing" the inside of the human mind. Brothers Karamozov was a morality tale that laid out, on a grand scale, yet in great detail, the most essential questions of good and evil, id and ego, life and after-life. For me, The Idiot did what both of these other great novels did, but was the most captivating of the three, because it was so human, intimate and real in its characters' discourse, actions and exposition. It was much less overt than the Brothers Karamazov, and less psychologically analytical than Crime and Punishment. But of the three, the timeless characters of "The Idiot" last most indelibly in the mind.