Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Idiot, part 2

The second part of The Idiot takes the Prince’s exit to Moscow as an excuse for a break in the narrative.  As David Foster Wallace notes in his essay “Josef Frank’s Dostoevsky”, the writer had such distaste for Moscow that he went out of his way to never mention it specifically in any of his novels, and this habit is its most noticeable in The Idiot: the narrator gives the cop-out excuse “of the prince’s adventures in Moscow … we can supply very little information” (179) despite the fact that the narrator is privy to all sorts of other information throughout the course of the novel.

Anyway, the narrator takes a break from focalized narrative and instead uses the first chapter to give a broad overview of what the main characters are up to.  Other than a brief mention in the first chapter and a few times she crops up in conversation, Nastasya has disappeared from this part of the novel so far.  She is an entity whose mention is avoided by most of the characters; gone are the mentions of her portrait and the soaring descriptions of her beauty.  She is a woman of implication, a character of innuendo.  Several references to her as simply “her” or “that woman” are concluded with an instance of mistaken identity: Lebedev tells Prince Myshkin that “a certain person is friends with [Darya Alexeevna] and apparently intends to visit her often in Pavlovsk.  With a purpose” (203).  Because Darya Alexeevna was originally introduced to us at Nastasya’s party that concluded part 1, the reader probably initially thinks that this “certain person” is Nastasya Filippovna, but Lebedev soon reveals it to be her rival/nemesis Aglaya Ivanovna.

The “certain person” language is reused later, again by Lebedev, this time referring to Nastasya, when he tells the prince that “a certain person has sent a message that she wishes very much to have a secret meeting with you” (239).  The reason for the secret is soon revealed: “She’s afraid of Aglaya Ivanovna” (239), a final piece that completes the intrigue to their peculiar relationship.  In the first part, Aglaya only glances begrudgingly at the infamous portrait of Nastasya, giving an early impression of rivalry between the two ladies, and this is soon compounded with Nastasya’s exclamation that the prince “need[s] Aglaya Epanchin now, not Nastasya Filippovna” (169) after she chooses to go with Rogozhin.  How exactly these two women will interact when face-to-face we have yet to see, but Dostoevsky is clearly building to something.

Rogozhin reveals Nastasya’s motivations for leaving with him when he and the prince meet: “She loves somebody else—… you!” (215).  According to the unreliable testimony of the distraught Rogozhin, Nastasya considers herself ruined (though not in the conventional sense) and couldn’t bear to ruin the prince in turn, so she leaves with Rogozhin to escape having to do this.  Rogozhin is clearly ambivalent about this conciliatory (ww?) position and struggles to come to terms with it in a most unsavory way.

As for the prince’s view of Nastasya, it’s murky.  On the one hand, he goes to see her at her house, finding her away, though his name “impresses” the woman watching Nastasya’s house “greatly” (231).  On the other hand, a free indirect discourse that nonetheless is focalized on the prince asks:

When he learns the whole truth and when he becomes convinced of what a pathetic creature this deranged, half-witted woman is—won’t [Rogozhin] then forgive her all the past, all his suffering?    (230)

Speaking of Rogozhin, the prince has a puzzling encounter with him soon after he returns to Petersburg, when we learn that the two men forged a somewhat strained friendship in Moscow during the narrative hole.  Myshkin notices the difficulty of this relationship: “When I’m with you, you trust me, and when I’m gone, you immediately stop trusting me and suspect me again” (209), to which Rogozhin replies that he trusts the prince’s voice, implying that this trust is replaced with jealousy concerning Nastasya when the men are apart.  Indeed, it would seem that this is how it is when Rogozhin attacks the prince with a knife (235), though the actual events contained within this incident and Rogozhin’s motives (if it were actually him) are very unclear.

The painting that "A man could even lose his faith from" (218), The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger.

The two chapters following the first part of this meeting are typically abstract tangential Dostoevsky  narratives.  The first concerns Myshkin’s and Rogozhin’s ideas about faith, the soul, and the spirit.  Rogozhin, already distraught, leads the prince to a painting that makes the prince uncomfortable by depicting Jesus just taken down from the cross.  The two men discuss belief in God, Rogozhin deciding that “It’s easier for us [i.e., Russians—to believe] than for them … because we’ve gone further than they have” (219).

The second of the two chapters concerns the prince’s epilepsy as we walks through town, expecting a fit to occur.  First hoping it won’t and then growing to accept it, the prince’s thoughts express some of Dostoevsky—who suffered from epilepsy—’s insights about the condition.  The first effect of a fit’s approach is that the prince begins questioning his own perception of events.  (At this point, the prince has not quite realized that a fit is imminent though he recognizes something is amiss.)

He now wanted to make absolutely sure: had he really been standing in front of that shopwindow just now, perhaps only five minutes ago, had he not imagined it or confused something?  Did that shop and those goods really exist?   (224)

This follows with “and extraordinary intensification of self-awareness.”  “If in that second, that is, in the very last conscious moment before the fit, he had happened to succeed in saying clearly and consciously to himself: ‘Yes, for this moment one could give one’s whole life!’—then surely this moment in itself was worth a whole life” (226).  This perception is turned only inward, however, and the eyes that the prince sees everywhere pursuing him remain obscured until the moment he sees them just before being attacked by Rogozhin.  The attacker’s eyes flash and “suddenly it was as if something opened up before him: an extraordinary inner light illumined his soul” (234).  Exactly whose soul was “illumined”—Myshkin’s or Rogozhin’s—is left ambiguous, but what is clear is that the prince’s fit probably saves him from Rogozhin’s attack.  An unintentional, innocent, helpless defense.

Apropos: a Georgian interpretation of Don Quixote. I'm not sure why he's evidently a businessman.

After the fit, the prince goes to Lebedev’s dacha in Pavlovsk for rest and is soon joined by all the major characters save Nastasya Filippovna (so far, anyhow).  There we see a few interesting themes shaped by the discussion.  First is the image of Don Quixote.  The book was first mentioned with a private joke known only to Aglaya: she tucks a message from Myshkin while he’s in Moscow into a copy of the novel and “laugh[s] terribly—no one knew why” (189).  The reader soon finds out, as a private joke between a few of the young people comes out about “the poor knight,” (246) a (quite literally) quixotic character from a Pushkin fragment.  Aglaya recites the poem in question, “looking at the prince alone and addressing him alone” (250), implying that she views him as a somewhat Don Quixote-like person.  (Disclaimer: I am ashamed to admit that I’ve never read any of Don Quixote, but I like to think I’ve read enough about it to comment briefly.)  Like Quixote, the prince is on some sort of quest of which no one can really understand the meaning nor purpose, and doe-eyed innocence and idealism is his most defining feature.  Indeed, at the end of an encounter in which he is accused of multiple transgressions in a most insulting fashion, the prince appologizes profusely for defending himself in such a way that brings some small shame to one of his accusers (276).

Also developed is the idea of unstable ancestry.  Just as it is initially unclear how the prince is related to Lizaveta Prokofyevna, a young man named Antip Burdovsky turns up under the impression that he is the soon of Nikolai Pavlishchev, the man who supported the prince through his illness in Switzerland and demanding some of the prince’s fortune as repayment for this support, and it turns out that he was not Pavlishchev’s son at all.  Ancestry is malleable based on what is to be gained or lost in The Idiot; some exploit this to their favor, others are hurt by the effects.

This Burdovsky is influenced by the agent and solicitor Chebarov, who is demonstrated to be yet another shyster, manipulating the perceptions of others for his own profit.  The prince believes the claims that Chebarov makes on behalf of Burdovsky, and it takes Ganya to proclaim “that Chebarov is a blackguard there is not longer any doubt!” (275).

To complete another cycle, we have a new view on the difference in blame for an extramarital affair.  Recall that General Ardalion Ivolgen is having an affair with Ippolit Terentyev’s mother, and Kolya feels less shame from the affair because be believes “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).  Well, now Ippolit has his chance to weigh in on a similar issue:

“A son isn’t answerable for his father’s depraved conduct, and the mother is not to blame,” Ippolit shrieked vehemently.    (272)

This is almost the opposite of Kolya’s sentiments, and while the affair it concerns is different from the one concerning his mother and the general, it’s clear that he is nevertheless interpreting it personally.

This section overall has been rather difficult as it seems Dostoevsky is padding the rather short sections of arguments to fill space.


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