One of the various framing supplements I skimmed in preparation before starting the Idiot frames Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel in contrast to the author’s previous novel: whereas Crime & Punishment is about guilt, the Idiot is about innocence. Indeed, the only way that the eponymous character Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin could really be called an idiot is if one considers naïvté a cause for that epithet. The only possibly negative characteristic we can see from the prince in the first part of the book is that he’s too trusting, too honest, too young at heart. Gentry politics being a favorite target of Dostoevsky’s, we can anticipate this will be the cause of some conflict throughout the course of the novel.
If Prince Myhskin is really an idiot, he’s a remarkably influential one, even this early: every major character he’s yet interacted with has had a moment where they’ve shown themselves to be profoundly affected by their experience with Myshkin. The young, previously broke but now wealthy through the death of his father (and thus a respectable gentleman in the eyes of the Russian gentry, not so much necessarily in Dostoevsky’s view) Parfyon Rogozhin ignores the know-it-all clerk’s lack of recognition in the Prince’s name and is “eager to make the prince his interlocutor” (11), offering the prince food and accommodations as they part.
The sort of character this Rogozhin will be remains to be seen, but some clues to Dostoevsky’s sympathy lie in the fact that he seems to be set up as the antagonist of the already-seen-as-spiteful-and-scheming Gavrila “Ganya” Ivologin for the eye of the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov (goodness me this blog is going to be fun to read for those who don’t know the book) and this delightfully Dostoevskian criticism of know-it-alls after Rogozhin condescends to the clerk Lebedev, who the narrator indeed labels “Mr. Know-it-all:”
These Mr. Know-it-alls are occasionally, even quite frequently, to be met with in a certain social stratum. They know everything, all the restless inquisitiveness of their minds and all their abilities are turned irresistibly in one direction, certainly for lack of more important life interests and perspectives, as a modern thinker would say. The phrase “they know it all” implies, however, a rather limited sphere: where so-and-so works, who he is acquainted with, how much he is worth, where he was governor, who he is married to, how much his wife brought him, who hos cousins are, who his cousins twice removed are, etc., etc., all in the same vein. (8)
In other words, all the things that interest socially-inclined people that Dostoevsky loathes, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, with an intensity with which only Dostoevsky can really loathe something. It’s difficult to say for sure this early, but considering this aspect of Rogozhin’s character, as well as his status as something of an outsider from society, it can be reasonably inferred that Rogozhin will be a character for whom Dostoevsky will have some sympathy as the novel develops.
Back to Prince Myshkin. He again shows some sort of power over other characters as he waits to meet the husband of his nearest royal relation: General Ivan Fyodorovich Epanchin (husband of Elizaveta Prokofyevna, née Myshkin). Initially roughly-handled by the General’s valet due to the shabbiness of his appearance, his lack of possessions, and his openness about how he has no money or means of claiming any things change as the prince waits—the valet waiting for him to be announced (politeness goes to such ridiculous and comical extents sometimes) refuses to let him smoke. The servant is made a little uneasy because he “could not help feeling something that was perfectly proper between servant and servant, but perfectly improper between a guest and a servant,” (20). As he listens to Myshkin talk, he considers that “either the prince was some sort of moocher and had certainly come to beg for money, or the prince was simply a little fool and had no ambitions, because a clever prince with ambitions would not have sat in the anteroom and discussed his affairs with a lackey…” (20). The prince’s conversation with the servant as if they were on even ground throws the valet’s view of social order into question and forces him to categorize the Myshkin as a fool. Whether or not this rather limited categorization of nobles into one of these two groups is accurate, the prince proves himself not a fool rather quickly, musing on executions in a profoundly insightful way:
And yet the chief, the strongest pain may not be in the wounds, but in knowing for certain that in and hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second—your soul will fly out of your body and you’ll no longer be a man, and it’s for certain—the main thing is that it’s for certain. … To kill for killing is an immeasurably greater punishment than the crime itself. (23)
Following this musing passage, the valet seems to honestly change his mind about the prince, or at least begin revising his worldview: “If you have such a wish to smoke… it might be possible if you do it quickly,” (24), he tells the prince jest before Ganya enters.
In contrast to the honest reactions that the prince elicits from Rogozhin and the valet, the General’s reaction to the alleged idiot is more self-serving, though how exactly Myshkin can help the General is not yet quite clear. After the prince demonstrates that he is not looking for money or a job, the General “suddenly looked at his visitor in a different way,” (27), and following Myshkin’s revelation that he has met Ganya’s rival for Nastasya Filippovna, Rogozhin and the prince demonstrating his naïvité by telling “them about his meeting with Rogozhin and recount[ing] his whole story” (31), the General rushes him off to meet his wife and daughters, casting knowing glances at Ganya.
The General’s wife Elizaveta Prokofyevna is far less accepting of the prince: as he speaks to her she condescendingly “nodded her head after each word he said,” (53). But upon learning the Myshkin is actually quite refined (what convinces her are evidently his table manners), she acknowledges some change of heart. “I not that you’re not at all such an … odd man as we were told,” (54). But her interest in Myshkin seems to be purely for entertainment, as after their meal she asks him to accompany her and her daughters to their hilariously-named “gathering room,” where the oldest two daughters, Alexandra and Adelaida, regularly pursue creative and enlightening interests, but she and her youngest do not: “Aglaya sits and does nothing. I’m also hopeless at handywork: nothing comes out right,” (55).
Myskin entertains them with more stories about executions. An aside to point out that Dostoevsky himself underwent a mock execution in 1849 like the one Myshkin describes. Describing the story of a prisoner Myshkin met while undergoing treatment, the prince tells his story of how he was led to be executed and pardoned at the last minute. “He said those five minutes seemed like an endless time to him, and enormous wealth,” (60). While contemplating his death, the prisoner thinks that, were he allowed to live, his life would be an “infinity,” an impossibly wonderful stretch of infinite time for him to accomplish all he could dream of if only he were allowed to live. Of course, once this wish is granted by the “pardon,” the memory of that moment may not fade, but the view of the future is bound to: “Oh, no … he didn’t live that way at all and lost many, many minutes,” (61). This admission is quite a volta to the long speech about the prisoner’s mock execution.
This telescoping of time remains of interest to Myshkin (and, implicitly, to Dostoevsky). The prince asks the middle daughter, Adelaida to make a painting of the face of a condemned man just before the execution in order to record the emotions of that moment. He references a “picture like that in Basel,” (63), which the footnote informs us was likely referring to The Beheading of John the Baptist by Hans Fries, which Dostoevsky may have seen in Basil, Switzerland.
The end of his conversation with the four Epanchin women drifts to a rather lucid passage in which he relates the story of a woman in Switzerland named Marie. She was unfortunate enough to be seduced and abandoned by a rake just before her mother died, so she was condemned by her town. Myshkin either sympathizes or empathizes with her situation, however, and directs the children of the town, who Myshkin admits being close with as opposed to adults, to also be nice to her. “I don’t really like being with adults, with people, with grown-ups… I’m always oppressed with them for some reason, and I’m terribly glad when I can go quickly to my comrades, and my comrades have always been children…” (74). Anyhow, the children briefly turn against Myshkin when they catch him kissing Marie out of pity, and her reputation in town is elevated until she dies, a sad day for all. Though she dies, she dies in the hands of caring strangers, who would have not cared had Myshkin not helped turn their perception around, even as the adults criticized his influence over the children.
These sorts of discussions appear to only be the start for Myshkin. With an unexpected amount of insight, the oldest Epanchin daughter foreshadows for the reader:
“Give him a chance to speak at least, maman,” Alexandra stopped her. “This prince may be a great rogue and not an idiot at all,” she whispered to Aglaya. (55)