The influence of Dostoevsky

I’ve been reading The Idiot, and the same as with Crime and Punishment, I am now seeing its influences on everything.

I will share just one example, early in the novel. Prince Myshkin, the protagonist and titular ‘idiot,’ is a very open and guileless person, which leads many people who encounter him to doubt his mental health. While waiting to be admitted to a house see someone, he begins chatting in a very open and personal way with the doorman–someone of much lower social standing than himself.

Myshkin talks of an execution he witnessed, and the effects it had on him. He goes into great detail about how he feels the death penalty is torture–more so than any physical torture because while someone is in agony they have no ability to think or worry of anything but that instant in time. On the other hand, a person sentenced to death must spend every moment knowing that the inevitable end is approaching. Every day one thinks ‘in one week I will be dead’ then ‘in one day’ then ‘in one hour’ then ‘in three more streets I’ll be arriving at the guillotine’ then ‘in three more steps i’ll have to lay down’ and on and on, until the final instant when you hear the sound of the blade being released, all of this without any hope, all of it completely inescapable and final.

Myshkin thinks that this is a kind of psychological torture, far worse than any physical torture, and I identify heavily with that sentiment.

This sort of description of an impending execution is very familiar to me in two other books I’ve read.

In one, The Stranger by Albert Camus (Camus, coincidentally, has a quote on the back of my copy of The Idiot) the character Meursault is sentenced to death, and has similar thoughts about the inevitability of his execution, the hopelessness of it, being worse than the actual idea of dying itself. He fantasizes about his executioners using instead a combination of chemicals that would kill a man only nine times out of ten, or even ninety nine out of one hundred times–because then at least there would be hope.

The second book, Invitation to a Beheading, by Nabokov, is entirely about a man waiting his own execution. Contrary to The Stranger, this man has no idea when his execution will be, and spends a large portion of the book trying to find out. Without knowing, he feels, he can think of nothing else, plan nothing else, take no action. However once he learns the date he realizes that not knowing was a luxury. In the final pages of the book his trip to the guillotine echo how Myshkin imagined such a trip would be, and I can not help but believe this was, if not a direct homage, then heavily influenced by Dostoevsky.

I’m sure other such influences abound, and I’m sure I will continue to have fun spotting them!


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