Part One, Chapters Six and Seven
by Dennis Abrams
Prince Myshkin, Mrs. Epanchin, and her daughters. Myshkin tells the story of his love for the children of the village in Switzerland, and of the young woman Marie. “A child can be told everything — everything. I was always struck by the thought of how poorly grown-ups know children, even fathers and mothers their own children. Nothing should be concealed from children on the pretex that they’re little and it’s too early for them to know. What a sad and unfortunate idea!…Grown-ups don’t know that a child can give extremely important advice even in the most difficult matters…I call them little birds because nothing in the world is better than a little bird.” Kissing Marie causes the children to laugh and throw stones at him. Marie: the daughter of an old woman who “was allowed to sell laces, thread, tobacco, and soap from the window all at the lowest prices, and that was her subsistence,” Marie was seduced by a French traveling salesman who seduced her and took her away, then abandoned her. Returning home, she was in disgrace, she became a pariah, denounced and abused — even her mother said, “with spite and contempt: ‘You’ve dishonored me now.'” Her mother soon took to her sick bed, and Marie was left to depend on a few coins tossed her way by drunks on Sundays, before she began to help the cowherd tend his cows — he would share his leftovers with her and “considered it great charity on his part.” Upon her mother’s death, Marie was disgraced by the preacher at the funeral, “Here is the one who caused this respected woman’s death…here she stands before you and dares not look up, because she is marked by the finger of God; here she is, barefoot and in rags — an example to all who lose their virtue!” Prince Myshkin, with no money of his own, sells a small diamond pin and gives the proceedings, eight francs, to Marie, “and then I kissed her and said she shouldn’t think I had any bad intentions, and that I kissed her not because I was in love with her but because I felt very sorry for her, and that from the very start I had never regarded her as guilty but only as unfortunate.” Just then the spying children, “began to whistle, clap their hands, and laugh, and Marie ran away. I wanted to speak to the, but they started throwing stones at me.” Myshkin reaches out to the children, “We gradually began to talk. I didn’t hide anything from them, I told them everything. They listened very curiously and soon started to feel sorry for Marie.” The children’s kindness to Marie. The angry reaction of the village, “they began to accuse me of having corrupted the children.” Marie’s illness and death. The children “decorated the whole coffin with flowers and put a wreath on her head…Since then Marie’s little grave has been constantly venerated by the children; every year they decorate it with flowers, and they’ve planted roses all around it.” The pastor and the schoolmaster forbid the children to meet Myshkin. Notes are exchanged. “Finally Schneider told me one very strange thought of his. This was just before my departure. He told me he was fully convinced that I was a perfect child myself, that is, fully a child, that I resembled an adult only in size and looks, but in development, soul, character, and perhaps even mind, I was not an adult, and I would stay that way even if I lived to be sixty.” Watching children play helps Myshkin forget his sadness, “Afterwards,…I was unable to understand how people can be sad and what makes them sad.” Will the people he meets in Peterburg consider him an idiot? The faces of Adelaida and Alexandra. The face of Lizaveta Prokofyevna, “about your face I not only think but I’m certain that you are a perfect child, in everything, in everything, in everything good and in everything bad, despite your age.”
Lizaveta’s response: “…what you said about my face is completely true: I am a child, and I know it. I knew it even before you said it, you precisely expressed my own thought in a single word. I think your character is completely identical to mine, and I’m very glad; like two drops of water. Only you’re a man and I’m a woman, and I’ve never been to Switzerland…” Myshkin will need time to judge Aglaya’s face. Myshkin compares Aglaya’s beauty with that of Nastasya Filippovna, innocently informing Lizaveta that Ganya has a portrait of her in his possession. “I want to see i t!” Ganya’s anger that Myshkin blabbed about the portrait. “You don’t know anything…Idiot!” he muttered to himself. Ganya asks Myshkin to pass a note secretly to Aglaya; reluctantly he does so. Nastasya’s portrait, “There seemed to be a boundless pride and contempt, almost hatred, in that face, and at the same time something trusting, something surprisingly simple-hearted; the contrast even seemed to awaken some soft of compassion as one looked at those features. That dazzling beauty was even unbearable…” Myshkin gives Aglaya the note; the family looks at the portrait: “Such power!” Lizaveta questions Ganya: “Are you embarking upon matrimony?” A denial. Ganya mistakenly blames Myshkin for blabbing to the family about the wedding. Aglaya asks Myshkin to demonstrate his calligraphy in her album. “I don’t negotiate.” Aglaya asks Myshkin to read the note from Ganya, begging her to ask him to “break it off” with Nastasya. Aglaya’s refusal, “He’s unable to make a decision on faith.” Aglaya warns Myshkin about Ganya. Ganya takes Myshkin to his house, and explodes with anger at Myshkin, angry that he’d read the note, and blaming him for Aglaya’s lack of response, “Or, maybe you didn’t notice something…Oh! cur-r-sed idiot…he can’t even tell anything!” Myshkin defends himself, “…I have been well for a long time now, and therefore I find it somewhat unpleasant when I’m called an idiot to my face. Though you might be excused, considering your misfortunes, in your vexation you have even abused me a couple of times. I dislike that very much, especially the way you do it, suddenly from the start,” and offers to part company and find his own furnished room. Ganya blushes with shame, and apologizes.
TWO perfect children? Is it even possible? And what do we think about Prince Myshkin’s ability to relate with children? And once again…a joke about Switzerland?
And this from Joseph Frank:
“there is a constant play of allusion around the Prince that place him in such a Christian context. Rogozhin, the merchant’s son still close to the religious roots of Russian life, labels him a yurodivy, a holy fool, and though the gentlemanly and well-educated prince bears no external resemblance to these eccentric figures, he does possess their traditional gift for spiritual insight, which operates instinctively, below any level of conscious awareness or doctrinal commitment. The idyllic New Testament note is struck strongly in the Prince’s story of the poor, abused consumptive Swiss peasant girl Marie, who had been reviled as a fallen woman and whose last days the Prince and his band of children brightens with the light of an all-forgiving love. In this way the figure of the Prince is surrounded with a pervasive Christian penumbra that continually illuminates his character and serves to locate the exalted nature of his moral and spiritual aspirations.
The story concerning Marie also brings sharply to the foreground another leitmotif, one that may be called the ‘two loves’ — the one Christian, compassionate, nonpossessive, and universal, the other secular, ego-gratifying, possessive and particular. Alexandra Epanchina’s suggestion that the Prince must have been ‘in love’ prompts him to tell the story of Marie. But while the young woman was referring to the second kind of normal, worldly love, the Prince’s ‘love,’ as he explains, was only of the first type. Even the children clustered around the Prince were confused by this difference and happily believed that the Prince was ‘in love’ with Marie when they saw him kissing her. But ‘I kissed her,’ she explains, ‘not because I was in love with her but because I was sorry for her.’ The confusion of the children (and Myshkin is also a good bit of a child) will anticipate his own entrapment in the ‘two loves,’ whose mutually incompatible feelings and obligations will later result in the Prince’s disastrous inability to choose between Nastasya and Aglaya.”
Part One, Chapter Eight