The Person Behind the Face: Review of Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot’

By Samantha Bertolino

Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot” tells the story of Selin, a Harvard freshman, and her experiences with life, language, and love.

The title Batuman chose is emblematic of Dostoevsky’s 19-century novel, in which Knyaz Myshkin’s goodness and simplicity fool others into believing that he lacks intuition and intelligence. In much of the same manner, Batuman’s central character, Selin, appears at times to be kind and uncomplicated, while in fact, she possesses quite a strong sense of awareness. To the casual eye she is merely a quiet girl, but we as readers know this is a symptom of her introspection. She classifies the people she encounters, and examines herself in the context of this “big sea” which she has newly become a part of. It is easy to say that Selin remains removed from almost everyone she encounters; even from the reader at times. But this condition serves only to strengthen her connections with the few she does choose to open up to.  

Selin’s way of thinking separates her from others more than marginally. She often experiences a sort of existential confusion, something which is intrinsic to most teenagers and young adults. When she begins correspondence with a classmate over email, Selin finds she can identify with another person for the first time since arriving at Harvard. Her classmate, Ivan, responds to her emails with the same refreshing sense of awareness and philosophy. As Selin becomes more reliant on his messages, she is eventually forced to admit — not only to Ivan but to herself as well — that she’s in love. This admission invokes a thought proposed earlier in the semester by Selin’s close friend Svetlana: “There could be two kinds of love. There is one rare kind that just naturally exists between certain people. Then there’s the more common kind that’s constructed.” Though Selin never mentions this again, it’s clear that she is struggling to understand the kind of love that exists between her and Ivan. On the one hand, she feels an overwhelming attachment to him and his way of thought, and strains to filter “sounds and syllables” through his consciousness as a means of getting closer. On the other hand, she worries this may be an unrequited love, which has been constructed by her consciousness alone. Ivan’s hesitance to love her back — or at least to love her beyond the realm of written text — does nothing but further raise the question: Is their love the natural kind or not? Ivan remains an ambiguous and often elusive character, and it becomes increasingly difficult to embrace him the way Selin does. 

This is in part due to the narration. In fact, Selin’s love and longing remain somewhat removed. Perhaps this is a reminder that no one can see – or even understand – another person’s love. Only Selin can truly understand how she feels, and this fact – though romantic in its implications – serves only to alienate the reader. Without Selin’s understanding of Ivan, how are we to accept him? We can’t. And this is a painful realization, one which makes us resent the narration just a little bit. But perhaps it’s an allusion to Selin’s own existential crisis. She notes at one point that “consciousness could likely be a trap,” and in a very real way, this appears to be true. She seems so trapped within herself — within her love — that she refuses to let go, even after Ivan subtly rejects her time and time again. And Ivan is trapped as well; so much so, that he refuses to let his true self — the self he shows to Selin — come out and live. He chooses instead to stay with a girlfriend whom he “only sometimes loves.” It’s impossible to decipher whether their love is constructed or not, but it is clear that both are painfully confined by their own sense of consciousness. And much like the title indicates, Selin is also confined to our perception of her and the love she holds for Ivan. Behind the mask, though, there is so much more, so much that we will never quite understand.  

Samantha Bertolino is the Long River Review fundraising assistant and a poetry panel reader. She can be reached at

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