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) Continue reading


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). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Idiot, part 1, chapters I-VI

The is the first entry in an award-eligable series.  For the rest, please follow these links:

Entry 2: Part 1, chapters VII-XVI
Entry 3: Part 2
Entry 4: Part 3
Entry 5: Part 4

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. Continue reading