Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Idiot, part 3

Nope, not quite done with The Idiot just yet.  This penultimate section was especially hard to get through because it’s all people talking and reading their letters despite the fact that it all takes place over the course of one night.

Also, my girlfriend arrived in the country about a month ago so I haven’t been able to shut myself off in a reading cave and really have at it like I’m used to doing.

Anyhow, part 3 continues the triangular relationship between prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov, and Aglaya Ivanovna Epanchin (some would say a four-way between those three and Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin).  The first, most significant for this section, is the relationship between the prince and Aglaya.

The first night of the section follows after the prince makes amends with Aglaya’s family and they all go to hear a concert at a vauxhall.  While the atmosphere in the group is initially strained, the air is cleared in a puzzling way when the prince stammers out “I only meant to explain to Aglaya Ivanovna … to have the honor of explaining to her that I never had any intention … to have the honor of asking for her hand … even once…” (343, ellipses in the text).  Somehow, this rejection lightens the mood, despite coming after another ambiguous betrothal/rejection switch by Aglaya (the first being Nastasya’s at the end of part 1):

No one, no one here is worth your little finger, or your intelligence or your heart!  You’re more honest than all of them, nobler than all of them, better than all of them, kinder than all of them, more intelligent than all of them! … Why do you humiliate yourself and place yourself lower than everyone else?   (342)

The answer to her question is contained within the question: if the prince is better than everyone gathered, it’s precisely because he places himself lower.  “The Idiot”‘s idiocy has been shown time and time again to be honesty and humility as compared to his contemporaries. in terms of status.  This praise is followed by a repetition of the “poor knight” Don Quixote imagery by Kolya in response to Aglaya’s proclamations (343) and then shortly thereafter by Aglaya explicitly telling the prince that she will not marry him.  “I won’t marry you for anything! … Can one marry such a ridiculous man as you?” (343; N.B., note the similarities with Nastasya’s reason for rejecting the prince).

The air clear (against all reason), the group goes to the vauxhall, where the prince and Aglaya make something of a stir amongst the other attendees.  Rather like the Elizabethan theatre, Dostoevsky’s vauxhall atmosphere is a place where people go to be seen more than anything else; very little reference is made to the music or appreciation of it.  Far more attention is paid to how attendees conduct themselves in relation to one another.  “People already paid attention to Aglaya and the prince, who were still together [from the walk]” (346), hinting that people are starting to suspect that the young Aglaya may have found a match in the prince.  Aglaya seems to pick up on this, questioning the prince’s behavior towards her: “I’m afraid of you; I keep thinking you want to reach your hand out and touch my face with your finger, in order to feel it,” (347).

Nastasya interrupts the night at the vauxhall (more on this later), and before he separates from the Epanchins, Aglaya slips a note into his hand that urges him to meet her in the park the following morning as, “I have decided to talk with you about an extremely important matter that concerns you directly” (360).  The most interesting allusion to this matter comes when the narrator muses abstractly on Myshkin’s situation:

If anyone had told him at that moment that he had fallen in love, that he was passionately in love, he would have rejected the idea with astonishment and perhaps even with indignation.  And if anyone had added that Aglaya’s note was a love letter, setting up a lovers’ tryst, he would have burned with shame for that man and might have challenged him to a duel.   (362)

Perhaps this passage is meant to highlight the prince’s innocence (or naivete) or maybe it’s meant to lead the reader to believe that what seems so unlikely at the time is actually what’s going to occur.  Much like: “If anyone had told my perpetually single agoraphobic self of a year ago that by now I’d be living with a girlfriend in the country Georgia, I’d have given them the look of disapproval.”  The former is more likely since the mysterious purpose turns out to be that Aglaya is proposing that the prince “be [her] friend” (427):

I’ve thought for a long time and I’ve finally chosen you. … I want … I want …well, I want to run away from home and I’ve chosen you to help me.    (429)

Aglaya’s final judgement on the prince isn’t entirely without merit: “You have no tenderness, only truth, that makes it unfair” (426).  While it’s true that the prince occasionally allows his honesty interfere with the moment, he isn’t totally without his tender moments.  What about his reaction to the initial appearance of Nastasya’s portrait?  The prince’s honesty may be his defining quality, but from a modern perspective, it’s hard to see his behavior as being all that disruptive.

Aglaya’s lack of a husband is a major preoccupation for her mother, Lizaveta Prokofyevna, throughout this section.  She starts off part 3 by complaining about her daughters, especially Aglaya, “Why don’t they get married?  Only so as to vex their mother—there’s no other reason!” (329).  Much of the drama at the vauxhall seems to be related to Liza’s attempts to fix Aglaya up with Evgeny Pavloch, and Aglaya’s attempts to avoid this.

Aglaya ultimately decides—though whether or not she will go through with this decision is a whole question unto itself—is to marry Ganya, who she rejected very early for his soft-footedness.  “I’m going to marry Gavrila Ardalionovich!  …I love Gavrila Ardalionovich and am eloping from the house with him tomorrow!” (436).  After the brutal events at the end of part 1, the changes over Ganya have been marked again and again by the narrator, and Aglaya has explicitly taken notice on a few occasions.  Her plan here, though spur of the moment and a surprise, may not be an Aglaya fiction like her description of his alleged acts of devotion to her (burning his hand for half an hour, for example [432]).

Nastasya Filippovna is once again seen as through a glass darkly, for she makes two appearances directly in the text, yet she is referred to indirectly the first time (at the vauxhall) and as only “she” and “her” in the second (in the last pages of part 3).  Again Nastasya is a constant topic of conversation amongst the characters—whether between the prince and Rogozhin, the prince and General Epanchin, or any of the other pairs who have reason to discuss her—but none of them, nor the narrator, seem to be able to bring themselves to breathe her name.  Always “she” or “her”:

The prince had not seen her for more than three months.   (349; emphasis extant)

Rogozhin to Myshkin:

And now I’m coming to you from her: she told me to be sure and invite you; she needs very much to tell you something.  She asks you to come tonight.   (364)

Aglaya to Myshkin:

You see, I know everything; isn’t it for her, for her, that you came here?   (433)

And even when she appears in the flesh:

And so she finally stood before him face to face, for the first time since their parting; she was saying something to him, but he looked at her silently; his heart overflowed and was wrung with pain.

“Are you happy?  Are you?” she kept asking.    (456)

Her image at the end of this section comes as something of a grey area between reality and the prince’s fit visions: a mystery woman that he recognizes but doesn’t know.  As the prince is falling asleep on the bench where he is to meet Aglaya—though he’s evidently forgotten this point—, he drifts off and the narration gets abstract and dreamy.  “Finally a woman came to him, he knew her, knew her to the point of suffering; he could have named her and pointed to her at any time, but—strangely—she now seemed to have a different face from the one he had always known, and he was painfully reluctant to recognize her as that woman” (424).

Aglaya approaches and says that prince was asleep, though he denies it, and later he spots the woman again: “The same woman came out of the park and stood before him, as if she had been waiting for him there” (456).  Whether the prince was conscious or not when Aglaya interrupted him doesn’t matter; her conversation with the prince is bookended with the mystery woman who turns out to be Nastasya.

The relationship between Aglaya and Nastasya is made even more puzzling.  No longer just unspoken rivals, we learn at the end of the section that Nastasya has begun writing letters to Aglaya.  Far from taunting, these letters are expressions of love and jealousy and encouragement:

[F]or me you are—perfection! … I love you.  Perfection cannot be loved, perfection can only be looked on as perfection, isn’t that so?  And yet I am in love with you.    (453)

You are innocent, and all your perfection is in your innocence.    (454)

I have heard that your sister Adelaida once said of my portrait that one could overturn the world with such beauty.  But I have renounced the world…    (455)

Aglaya gives the prince these letters to return, and it is through his reading them that we get a glimpse into their content.

A repeated image throughout this section is that of guns and/or dueling.  Anticipating the first climax of Demons a few years later, it is first brought up by angrily naive Aglaya early on in this section, when she recites the instructions on how to load and fire a pistol to the prince and instructs him that she wants him to practice shooting every day.  The prince recites a similar set of instructions to Keller soon after, though it’s not clear if he understands why he is compelled to do this, and he wonders why the sudden discussions about dueling are taking place:

He imagined that the supposition of a duel might not have been born in Keller’s head alone, and that, therefore, the story about loading a pistol might not have been accidental … “Hah!” he stopped suddenly, as another idea dawned on him, “she came down to the terrace tonight when I was sitting in the corner, and was terribly surprised to find me there… why was she surprised?”    (362)

Ippolit’s confession also makes mention of dueling, in explaining his reasons for having the weapon with which he intends to shoot himself: “II had a small pocket pistol, I acquired it when I was still a child, at that ridiculous age when one suddenly begins to like stories about duels, about highway robberies, about how I, too, would be challenged to a duel, and how nobly I would stand facing the pistol” (411).  It is this weapon that he draws on himself at the conclusion of his reading the confession, and it is through an error in loading the pistol—the process of which the reader has been made more than a little aware due to repetition—that the weapon does no fire.

Ippolit swears that he “ ‘had forgotten by chance and not on purpose’ to put a cap in” (420), an attempt to save face at the blunder and convince them that he had not staged the reading and suicide attempt as a stunt or plea for attention.  This act also demonstrates a state of mind with which Dostoevsky would have been intimately familiar: when Ippolit raised the pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger, he fully expected to die.  Very similar to Dostoevsky’s mock execution, alluded to in part 1 of The Idiot, this is quite the unexpected turn for Ippolit; one wonders if he’s experienced a telescoping of time as described by the prince.  This sureness of mortality is also a reason that Kolya gives for praising Ippolit’s confession:

If it had been written by Voltaire, Rousseau, Proudhon, I’d read it, make note of it, but I wouldn’t be struck to such a degree.  But a man who knows for certain that he has ten minutes left, and who speaks like that—oh, that’s proud!  That’s the highest independence of personal dignity, that means a direct challenge … No, it’s a gigantic strength of spirit!    (440).

Four somewhat self-contained focalized perspectives about which I am less sure but were too interesting to leave off:


When Evgeny is joking about very serious subjects in an effort to be seen as smart and witty, the prince reflects on guilt and role-playing:

I was in some prisons not long ago and managed to become acquainted with certain criminals and accused men.  There are even more horrible criminals than this one, who have killed ten people and do not repent at all.  But at the same time I noticed this: the most inveterate and unrepentant murderer still knows that he is a criminal, that is, in all conscience he considers that he has done wrong, though without any repentance.   (339)

This observation brings up an interesting point: to what extent is the idiot and idiot and to what extent is he behaving in a way that he feels is necessary to his status as an idiot?  In what ways does he resist this role?


Evgeny soon after approaches the prince and tells him he wishes to speak with him.  Puzzlingly, this exchange takes place:

“And don’t you suspect, dear Prince,” Evgeny Pavlovich went on smiling, without answering the direct question, “don’t you suspect that I’ve simply come to hoodwink you and, incidentally, to worm something out of you, eh?”
“There’s no doubt at all that you’ve come to worm something out of me,” the prince finally laughed, too, “and it may even be that you’ve decided to decieve me a bit.  But so what?”    (371)

The prince seems to be learning not to trust those around him—as one would do in the company in which the prince has found himself—though he pays little mind.

Christ picture:

The picture of Christ being taken down from the cross, mentioned in part 2, is mentioned in Ippolit’s confession.  This time, more reasoning is given for its impact: “how could [those who saw the body] believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect?” (408).  Recall that initially Dostoevsky stated the painting could make a man lose his faith, now we understand it is because the sight is so gruesome that it would seem impossible for Christ to rise again.

Lebedev’s missing money:

One tactic of Dostoevsky’s that can get rather old, especially in this novel; it works fine in Crime and Punishment and Demons, is that of cooking up a subplot at the end of an act (or part) to produce something like a climax.  This time, the smaller one (after the Myshkin-Aglaya-Nastasya issue) was of some money that Lebedev finds himself missing.

While it is a tiresome set of pages, this passage is actually nearly perfect as it serves his character perfectly.  Recall that he was the cadger that jumped at the chance to be connected to Rogozhin when he found out how much money he was worth—and he found this out merely by learning Rogozhin’s name; he already knew the story.  It’s appropriate that he should find himself embroiled in the plot due mainly to money.

Also of note:

  • Lack of originality, everywhere, all over the world, from time immemorial, has always been considered the foremost quality and the best recommendation of the active, efficient and practical man…   (326)
  • A coward is someone who is afraid and runs away; but someone who is afraid but doesn’t run away is not a coward yet…   (355)
  • Hurrying, clanging, banging, and speeding, they say, for the happiness of mankind!  ‘It’s getting much too noisy and industrial in mankind, there is too little spiritual peace,’ complains a secluded thinking.  ‘Yes, but the banging of carts delivering bread for hungry mankind may be better than spiritual peace,’ triumphantly replies another, a widely traveled thinker, and walks off vaingloriously.   (375)
  • Oh, you may be sure that Columbus was happy not when he had discovered America, but when he was discovering it…   (394)
  • …people are created to torment each other.   (395)
  • But the organizing of ‘social charity’ and the question of personal freedom are two different questions and are not mutually exclusive.   (403)
  • BTJ – At which point I just snapped back at them that I already understood everything, all the words, that I was not a little girl, that I had read two novels by Paul de Kock on purpose two years ago in order to learn about everything.   (430)

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