Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Idiot, part 4

I’ll start off by quoting David Foster Wallace’s quick summary of some of the major characters in The Idiot, listed along with other major Dostoevsky characters in his review of the first four volumes of Joseph Frank’s five-volume literary biography on the writer, Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time:

[T]he beautiful and damned Nastasya of The Idiot (…who was, like Faulkener’s Caddie, “doomed and knew it,” and who’s heroism consists in her haughty defiance of a doom she also courts.  FMD seems like the first fiction writer to understand how deeply some people love their own suffering, and how they use it and depend on it.  Nietzsche would take Dostoevsky’s insight and make it a cornerstone of his own devastating attack on Christianity, and this is ironic : in our own culture of “enlightened atheism” we are very much Nietzsche’s children, his ideological heirs, and without Dostoevsky there would have been no Nietzsche, and yet Dostoevsky is among the most profoundly religious of all writers.) …     (CtL 264)

…the fawning Lebyedev (sic) and spiderish Ippolit of the same novel…    (CtL 264)

…the cynically innocent Aglaia (sic)…    (CtL 265)

…the idealized and all-too-human Myshkin…, the doomed human Christ… (CtL 265)

Shocker: I happen to agree with Wallace’s interpretations.  Comparing Nastasya to Caddie from The Sound and the Fury brings gives me some perspective on the character I hadn’t seen before.  But I digress.  The first bit of character development in part 4 of The Idiot is that of Ganya, the characterization of whom changed greatly after part 1.  Very little indication of his motives had been given since: he’s been attending to the prince and the prince’s affairs, and hasn’t been focalized at all.  The beginning of part 4 shows us that he has resumed his pursuit of Aglaya through his sister Varvara:

Varvara Ardalionovna decided to widen the circle of her activities; she wormed her way in with the Epanchins,… [and] had set herself the task of turning the two of them, her brother and Aglaya, to each other again.    (467)

It’s interesting to note this for two reasons: A, Dostoevsky didn’t drop the scheming but timid character of Ganya just because of his failure at the end of part 1, which is the impression I got from his few and short-worded appearances since; and B, it’s a person that has been taken in decisively by Aglaya’s innocence and attraction.

Speaking of, let’s move on to her role in this chapter.  Varvara reveals that “The prince is formally her fiancé, the matter’s settled,” (468), which comes as a surprise after the end of part 3.  Aglaya’s tall talk about eloping with Ganya seems to have come to naught, and the prince’s visit to the Epanchins’ dacha where he’s turned away with a knowingly cheeky allusion by Alexandra Ivanovna to “tomorrow” (456) seems to have meant more than I originally thought.

Another Aglaya note surfaces rather quickly, throwing this alleged engagement into question and giving Ganya hope once again (481).  This comes of nothing however: Aglaya brings Ippolit to accompany her and tells Ganya that the meeting is “only in order to express my personal pleasure at your sincere and friendly feelings, and if I ever have need of them…” (560; ellipsis in text).  In fact, the prince asks for her hand (514) and the family takes an apology from her to him for the way she’s treated him as an acceptance (517)—and naively-coy Aglaya makes a point of not denying their assumptions as to her acceptance—so by the time the Epanchins’ have a ball at their dacha, it is assumed that the prince and Aglaya are engaged.

The prince meets his doom in this part of the novel, but first he meets society:

For the first time in his life he saw a small corner of what is known by the terrible name of “society.”    (534)

At the ball the prince meets an assortment of flat characters you just know Dostoevsky took great delight in basing on those he despised for various reasons.  The prince, however, fails to see through their facades and is awed.  “And it was this entire company that the prince took at face value for pure, unalloyed gold” (537).  Myshkin has a fit at this ball, preceded by an uncomfortable moment where he learns that his benefactor and gilded idol Pavlishchev “suddenly abandon[ed] his service and all in order to embrace Catholicism and become a Jesuit” (542).  Remarking that “Roman Catholicism is not even a faith, but decidedly the continuation of the Western Roman empire” (543)—which, of course, is fucking well true—this revelation disturbs the prince and forces him to question the man he has respected so much.

The prince goes to the ball with a sense of fearful fate due to a suggestion from Aglaya, and this argument about Pavlishchev and Catholicism distracts him enough to make him momentarily forget and ultimately fulfill the “prophecy.”  In her desire for childish entertainment and disruptions, Aglaya urges the prince to “break the Chinese vase in the drawing room” (526).  When he arrives, the prince sits down “as far as possible from the Chinese vase, with which Aglaya had frightened him so” (547) so as not to disturb it, yet during the argument, the prince “ended up right in the armchair next to the enormous, beautiful Chinese vase” (547).  When the prince becomes upset and knocks over the vase, “it was not the shame, not the scandal, not the fear, not the unexpectedness that struck him most of all, but the fulfilled prophecy!” (548).  What sort of person would marvel at the coincidence of such an occurrence above all else in this situation?  Someone not familiar with the absurdly stuffy atmosphere of the Russian gentry, and someone whimsical enough to notice it in the first place.

Though the Epanchins forgive the prince for the broken vase, he has a fit shortly thereafter, and the aformentioned absurdly stuffy gentry members uncomfortably leave the ball, seeming to blame the prince for his own ill health.  He is even ashamed, meaning that he has in some way or another interpellated their values and is judging himself as harshly as they for something he cannot help.

Following his fit, the prince brokers a meeting between Aglaya and Nastasya, the two rivals throughout the novel who have not to this point met, though they have entered as the other was exiting several times.  Ippolit first tells the prince that Aglaya wishes to meet Nastasya (560) and shortly thereafter, Myshkin and Aglaya go to meet Rogozhin and Nastasya (565).

You know what?  Forget it.

  • 564 – Nastasya as “her”
  • 568-9 Aglaya accuses Nastasya
  • 571-2 Nastasya’s power
  • 572-3 Narrator/shift in tone – summing up, narrator talking about self, giving the impression of being based on rumor/hearsay
  • 574 Rumors
  • 579 Nastasya’s impression (to Evgeny)
  • 582 The prince hates Nastasya’s face
  • 588, 591 “Beware of Rogozhin”
  • 593 Nastasya rushes to Rogozhin
  • 595-6 Prince’s nature
  • 596, 599, 601 New shift in tone – fateful, retrospective; perhaps when Dostoevsky knew how it would end
  • 606 Nastasya not defined as “dead’ though she clearly is
  • 609 No blood
  • 613-4 Aglaya ends up with a dubious count

Also of note:

  • 461 – BTJ, people are like characters
  • 464 – “great” men
  • 484 – reasons for peoples’ actions
  • 495-6 – Ivolgen’s glass house re:Ippolit
  • 497 – fiction vs. reality
  • 537 – stratum of writers

Sorry to those expecting a better finish, but I’m tired of this book for now.


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