Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Idiot, part 1, chapters VII-XVI

In this second section, it’s become clear that all of the plot’s action revolves around Nastasya Filippovna.  Ganya has been courting her out of greed as Totsky has evidently promised him seventy-five thousand rubles to marry her, though Ganya has attempted to get out of the marriage.  Soon after the prince finishes speaking to Elizaveta Prokofyevna and the three Epanchin daughters, Ganya gives Myshkin a note to give to Aglaya that essentially says that he will break off the coming engagement to Nastasya Filippovna with only a word of assurance from her.

Both Aglaya and Nastasya criticize Ganya for his need for guarantee in this.  Aglaya to the prince about him:

He knows, however, that if he broke it all off, but by himself, alone, not waiting for a word from me, and even not telling me about it, without any hope in me, I would then change my feelings for him… But his soul is dirty: he knows and yet hesitates; he knows and still asks for a guarantee.  He’s unable to make a decision on faith.    (84)

And Nastasya to Ganya directly as she taunts him and the prince at the end of Part 1:

And you, Gnachka, you’ve missed Aglaya Epanchin; did you know that?  If you hadn’t bargained with her, she would certainly have married you!    (169)

Torn between financial necessities created by his fallen family (his father is shown to be entirely mentally unstable and unpredictable, and they’ve resorted to renting out their insufficient apartment as a boarding house) and love for Aglaya, Ganya misses both.

Back to Nastasya.  She is truly a puzzling character.  Not seen but for her portrait—which makes a strong impression on all those who see it, Prince Myshkin especially—until the end of chapter X, we have a very limited and skewed view of this beautiful young woman.  When she finally shows up, she mistakes the prince for a servant and shoves him aside, insulting him: “You ought to be dismissed.  Go and announce me” (101).  This attitude is mostly stuck to throughout this first encounter: she seems to belittle Ganya’s house as she enters and meets his family for the first time.  “Where’s your study?  And . . . and where are the tenants?  Don’t you keep tenants? … Where can you keep tenants here?  You don’t even have a study.  Is it profitable?” (103).  This may be genuine curiosity, but Nastasya is portrayed as so poised and deliberate throughout the rest of her appearances so far that I can’t help but read this as snobbishness.

When Ganya’s father, the retired general Ardalion Alexandrovich Ivolgin, comes in to meet Nastasya, he’s already proven to the reader and the prince that he’s an inveterate liar: he tells the prince that he was very close friends with the prince’s father, getting the man’s name, location of death, and service record wrong so that even the prince, somewhat ignorant about his family, sees through him.  Nastasya attaches herself to him immediately, encouraging him as he weaves unbelievable stories together.  The decisive moment comes when the general tells a story about how he was sitting on a train across from a princess with a small lapdog, smoking a cigar.  According to the general, she became annoyed with his cigar and so snatched it out of his lips to toss out the window, which he did in turn to her small lapdog.  A somewhat funny—if reprehensible and not at all party-appropriate—story, Nastasya recalls reading it in the Indépendence in the last week, listing off the similarities between the two stories and watching the general’s embarrassment.

As the general and Ganya squirm under Nastasya’s smiling scrutiny, Rogozhin again shows up, drunk and with a rabble, to call on Ganya, with whom he evidently has some frank words to exchange, about which he soon forgets when he is surprised to find Myshkin and Nastasya also with Ganya.  His chief concern shifts from drawing Ganya into an argument and rather to convincing Nastasya Filippovna to marry him rather than Ganya.  His strategy is to try to buy her; somewhat different from Sedgwick’s “exchange of women” concept, it’s still insulting to Nastasya, if only she cared.

He starts by offering to bribe Ganya “to renounce her, he’ll run away on the eve of the wedding and leave his bride all to me” (114).  Nastasya eggs him on: ” ‘Drunken lies,’ Nastasya Filippovna said, as if taunting him” (115).  Ultimately the two leave separately, Nastasya to prepare her party for that evening and Rogozhin to collect the 100,000 rubles he thinks will be necessary to buy Nastasya.

Our view of Nastasya is complicated before we can see her again: she is described as being of a different disposition than her benefactor, Totsky.  His attempts to turn her into a cultivated woman fail:

[T]here could also be glimpsed in her certain utterly strange inclinations: there appeared a sort of barbaric mixture of two tastes, an ability to get along and be satisfied with things and ways the very existence of which, it seemed, would be unthinkable for a decent and finely cultivated person.    (135)

I.e., she is interested by people of the lower class and people from all different stations in life.  One would think that Dostoevsky would save this characteristic for a character for whom he’d have sympathy, so we have to keep wondering about his attitude towards Nastasya.  Along the same lines, when the prince shows up to her party uninvited, the servants take his coat and wave him through without hesitation, in direct contrast to the prince’s treatment at Epanchin’s house earlier.

As soon as the prince enters the party, we are made to expect something unusual will happen, as Nastasya seems to be expecting it: “Some suspected she was in a fever; they finally began to notice that she seemed to be waiting for something” (141).  This gives the impression that Nastasya is scheming even through the forced merriment of the party.  Ultimately, under the guise of a party game that is deliberately embarrassing for the men in attendance, Nastasya dramatically asks the prince if he thinks she should marry Ganya.  The prince says no, and she agrees not to, saying “The prince is this for me, that I believe in him as the first truly devoted man in my whole life” (154).  Ganya shakily asks about the money, implying that Myshkin is only after it himself (Ganya betrays a lack of imagination by revealing he cannot think of another reason for Myshkin to be interested in Nastasya), and she mocks him (e.g., Ganya):

Afanasy Ivanovich [Totsky], I forgot to add: you can keep the seventy-five thousand for yourself and know that I’ve sent it to you free gratis.    (155)

Rogozhin soon enters with the hundred thousand, and Nastasya seems to mock him: “He’s priced me at a hundred thousand!” (161), giving the reader the impression she is still leaning towards the prince.  Indeed, Ferdyshchenko—the self-proclaimed buffoon of the party—suggests that Myshkin would take her, leading to this conversation between Myshkin and Nastasya:

“Is it true?” she asked
“It’s true,” whispered the prince.
“You’ll take me just as I am, with nothing?”
“I will, Nastasya Filippovna. . .”    (163)

Myshkin is so earnest that it almost hurts when she eventually turns away from him, though not before we learn that the prince is actually quite wealthy owing to the death of a distant family member: far wealthier than even Rogozhin.  It’s quite a surprise, then, when she suddenly runs to Rogozhin, saying she couldn’t ruin a baby like the prince, that she couldn’t marry a man who needs someone to look after him, that she couldn’t marry an idiot.

What’s especially puzzling about this decision is that it comes after more bargaining for love.  Rogozhin yells to Myshkin to “Give her up!” (167), and Nastasya herself muses that “They all bargained for me, but no decent person ever asked me to marry him” (168).  Then, seemingly only because Lebedev, the clerk from the first scene, still tagging along with Rogozhin, proclaims he was going to take her to Catherine the Great’s palace, she leaps up and runs laughing over to Rogozhin.

She seems to be infatuated with chaos.  This is why she keeps friends with people like Ferdyshchenko to spite her benefactor, eggs on people like General Ivolgin, runs off with the rabble following Rogozhin, and administers a final, brutal test to Ganya:

Do you see this packet?  There’s a hundred thousand in it!  I’m now going to throw it into the fireplace, onto the fire, before everyone, all these witnesses! … If you [Ganya] pull it out, it’s yours, the whole hundred thousand is yours!    (171)

She tosses it in and they watch Ganya, who does not dive into the fire to get it.

An insane smile wandered over his face, which was pale as a sheet.  True, he could not take his eyes off the fire, off the smoldering packet, but it seemed something new had arisen in his soul; it was as if he had sworn to endure the torture; he did not budge from the spot; in a few moments it became clear to everyone that he would not go after the packet, that he did not want to.    (172)

Nastasya remarks, “So his vanity is still greater than his lust for money,” (174), and they go out, the prince pursuing them, clearly still set on winning Nastasya over for reasons only he may know—and he may not.

Along with the exchange of women imagery, Ganya’s younger brother Kolya, a sympathetic character that the prince is drawn to, espouses a dramatic sexual double standard.  Discussing his father having a mistress, he tells Myshkin:

I’m not as ashamed as he is, because it’s my father, after all, not my mother, there’s still a difference, because in such cases the male sex isn’t dishonored.    (132)

It smacks of relations between the sexes at the time, before the “woman question,” so it’s not so remarkable as it may seem.  Along the same lines, Ferdyshchenko’s confession during the party game shows a similar attitude towards servants (146).  It’s very similar to a passage in Demons (aka the Possessed), when a major character (I can’t recall which) seduces or rapes a young servant girl with no repercussions due to his elevated social class.  Just as that act is portrayed by Dostoevsky to be as reprehensible as it is, Ferdyshchenko’s confession is met with disapproval by those listening, which frustrates the fool as he expected them to find it as funny as he.


  • BTJ – After the poem La Dame aux camélias becomes popular: “The flowers of the camellia became extraordinarily fashionable.”  (151)

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