Between the Language and the Relationship in
“The Idiot”
by Elif Batuman

Notes, Apr 07

    This is a novel with a very simple plot and very provocative thoughts. Selin, the main character and the narrator of this novel is starting her freshman year at Harvard and she is faced with a lot of opportunities. As a young woman, she needs to decide many things for herself and has all the freedom in the world to do so, as well as full support from her mother. We know that Selin is the daughter of Turkish immigrants and wants to become a writer. She signs up for a major in linguistics and attends classes in philosophy and psychology of language. Everything is set up for her and she is ready to start, but she is also very confused, going through the process of self-discovery. It seems like everyone else around her has a lots of opinions on everything and career paths they want to follow.

    Selin follows two people in her life: Svetlana and Ivan. They both seem to really want to hang out with her and care for what she has to say, but they also need Selin just for their words to have some meaning. This is because Selin is the one who is taking every word into consideration and both Svetlana and Ivan have a lot of opinions about life, literature and art. Both sides depend of each other, Ivan and Svetlana as the ones who are sending the messages and Selin as the one receiving them.

    “It was a mystery to me how Svetlana generated so many opinions. Any piece of information seemed to produce an opinion on contact. Meanwhile, I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history and nothing happened. In high school I had been full of opinions, high school had been like prison, with constant opposition and obstacles. Once the obstacles were gone, meaning seemed to vanish, too. 

    We see that Selin almost never speaks her mind when talking with others, maybe because she always tries to choose the perfect few words to speak the truth. The most interesting part in this novel is not the strange love relationship between Selin and Ivan nor her relationship with others, it is her relationship with the language. For Selin, the words and their real meaning are the roots for self-exploration and finding her voice between the other talented students. But, what is the real meaning? (“Why don’t any messages come to me clearly?”) She described this to Ivan as a vertigo of “falling out of language”. Maybe the reason for the sleepless nights and low appetite is not Ivan, but all the languages (English, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and later Hungarian) that are failing her.

    Svetlana is the complete opposite of Selin. Coming from Yugoslavia, Svetlana openly speaks about the influence that the Tito government had on her family. She does not seems to have problem discussing all the traumas, phobias, neuroses and dreams that she is facing. Unlike Ivan, Svetlana’s messages are very clear and send direct signs. Even though Ivan is the complicated character, the one who needs to be analysed (“I read Ivan’s messages over and over, thinking about what they meant.”), for me, Svetlana is much more interesting and provocative. She can give much more in conversation because of her straightforwardness. It may appear that Ivan is the mysterious one, but he is just a stereotype. Also, it appears that Svetlana is the only one who seems to understand Selin:

    ”You think your language is an end to itself. You don’t believe the stands for anything. No, it’s not that you don’t believe – it’s that you don’t care. For you language itself is a self-sufficient system”.

    When it comes to Ivan, all the signals are confusing. His every word is a potential for joy or disaster, “I took a lot of effort to assimilate the meaning of those sentences – to push them through my brain. I felt every lever, graphemic, morphological, and semantic, and the all hurt“. It’s clear to us how much Selin loves Ivan from the way she is trying to understand him. They both invented their own language in their emails. So, we can see both sides of Ivan, Ivan from the emails and Ivan the tall Hungarian math student. Ivan is often described as a sadist who uses words in order to intentionally hurt her. Because she looses the confidence in her own words, Ivan is the only one who is moving her somewhere and forces her to take action, even though that means moving to give English lessons in a Hungarian village.

    “I nodded. It was true that I wanted to be unconventional and say meaningful things. At the same time, I felt strongly that the problem was bigger than that. Something basic about language had started to escape me. “ 

    We can see two parts of Selin, how is acts in front of others and her inner thoughts and memories. For this reason, we, as a readers, know that she can be too hard on herself and it’s very normal at that point to get ”lost in the translation”. Selin is always asking herself questions and writing is a big part of her coping mechanism for the outside world and her inner thought and feelings.

    Selin believes that she is an idiot. She questions everything, from her future as a writer to the lyrics of the song ”I miss you like the dessert missed the rain”. The problem with the language also becomes a problem with her control. How can she have control over her life when it is impossible for her to understand the signals from her friends. The idea is the control belongs to whatever holds the real meaning. This novel emphasizes the importance of language and how the ability to choose the right word at the right time shapes us as individuals. It also explores how language is deeply connected with the self-esteem as well as depression.


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