“One more unforseen but most awful torture for a vainglorious man — the torment of blushing for his own family in his own house — fell to his lot.”

The Idiot
Part One, Chapters Nine and Ten
by Dennis Ab rams

A general hush falls over the room as Nastasya Filippovna makes her appearance, “[her] arrival, especially at the present moment, was a most strange and bothersome surprise for them all.” Nastaya’s previous lack of interest in meeting Ganya’s family. Introductions. “where’s your study? And…and where are the tenants? Don’t you keep tenants?” Nastasya’s laughter. Ganya’s face, “indeed became very distorted; his stupor, his comical cowardly bewilderment suddenly left him; but he turned terribly pale; his lips twisted convulsively; silently, with a fixed and nasty look…” Nastasya meets Prince Myshkin, “And allow me to ask you, why did you stand there so dumbstruck just now? What’s so dumbstriking about me?” The clowning of Ferdyshchenko. Myshkin talks about Nastasya’s portrait, “It’s as if I’ve seen you somewhere…As if I’ve seen your eyes somewhere…but that can’t be! I’m just…I’ve never even been here before. Maybe in a dream…” General Ivolgin makes his appearance, “He was wearing a tail-coat and a clean shirtfront; his moustache was dyed…This was more than Ganya could bear.” The terrible cup Ganya is forced to drink. His two month nightmare of his father meeting Nastasya. The general takes a chair. The family tries to get him to leave the room. Nastasya eggs him on. The one-time friendship between Epanchin, Myshkin’s father, and General Ivoglin, “the three of us were inseparable, a cavalcade, so to speak, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.” The general’s story: In a compartment, smoking his cigar, he was joined by two women, one in light blue, the other in black silk, carrying a tiny lapdog. Without warning, the woman in blue snatches his cigar and throws it out the window; without saying a word the general takes the “delicately by the scruff of the neck, and whisk[s] it out the window in the wake of my cigar!” Unfortunately, the woman in the black dress was a daughter of Princess Belokonsky, who was very close friends with the Epanchins. End result? “…expulsion, banishment!” Nastasya points out that she’d read the same story in the newspaper just five days earlier — all the details intact, including the blue dress. The general blushes, points out that his event happened two years earlier.

The group is interrupted by Rogozhin, Lebedev, and several other people — all very tipsy. Rogozhin’s shock at seeing Nastasya Filippovna at Ganya’s house. Wanting to start a fight. Rogozhin offers to “buy Ganya out,” throwing thousands of roubles down on the table. General Ivanov jumps in. Varya jumps in, “Isn’t there at least someone among you will take this shameless woman out of here?” Ganya jumps in, seizing Varya by the hand, and after an exchange of words, “Varya pulled it once or twice with all her might, spat in her brother’s face,” earning congratulations from Nastasya. Myshkin jumps in, and gets slapped in the face by Ganya, “Oh, how ashamed you’ll be of what you’ve done.” Ganya stood “as if annihilated,” the rest of the family comforts Myshkin. Nastasya’s response, “Her usually pale and pensive face, which all this while had been so out of harmony with her affected laughter, was now visibly animated by a new feeling; and yet she seemed unwilling to show it, and the mockery remained as if forcedly on her face. ‘Really, I’ve seen his face somewhere!'” Nastasya whispers something to Ganya’s mother, kisses her hand, and goes to leave, reminding Ganya to attend her birthday party that evening.

I have to say that the further we get into the book, the more intrigued I’m becoming. Most of the major players are in place, and while Myshkin remains a total enigma, the supporting cast, in particular Nastasya Filippovna and General Ivolgin I’m finding particularly intriguing. And how amazing was the whole scene of Ivolgin with Nastasya, and the story of the cigar and the lapdog? Some weird balance of amusing and humiliating. Again, like a scene in Dickens.

And finally this from Victor Terras:

“As for Dostoevsky’s characters, it is true that many of them are based on identifiable real-life prototypes. It is also true that these, as well as some other, apparently imaginary characters, are readily perceived as ‘types,’ which was Dostoevsky’s intent. The portraits of, say, Turgenev in [Demons or of G.Z. Eliseev in The Brothers Karamazov are indiscreetly recognizable and quite cruel. They are also drawn satirically, as social types. But this can hardly be considered an aesthetic blemish, unless one clings to a narrow conception of realist art that excludes satire on the grounds that it distorts reality.

More serious is M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s charge that The Idiot contains, ‘on the one side, characters full of life and truth, but on the other, some mysterious puppets whirling madly as though in a dream, made by hands trembling with rage.’ Similar impressions come from other reputable critics who were at odds with Dostoevsky’s political views. they tended to find Dostoevsky’s characters contrived and carelessly executed. For instance, Mikhilovsky calls the nihilist figures in [Demons], including Stavrogin, Piotor, Verkhovensky, Shatov, and Kirillov, ‘puppets’ and ‘pale, pretensious and artificial.’ Tolstoi’s identical charge refers to The Brothers Karamazov as a whole. These opinions are to be explained by the fact that the characters perceived as artificial and contrived were created as ideas incarnate. They own their existence to the ideas that possess them. Their social and psychological Gestalt is a function of these ideas. The disagreement between Dostoevsky and critics who would rather see ideas a function of a character’s social identity is of a basic nature. It is a disagreement between a positivist social determinism and Dostoevsky’s idealist belief in the freedom of the human spirit.”


Wednesday’s Reading:

Part One, Chapters Eleven and Twelve


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3 Responses to “One more unforseen but most awful torture for a vainglorious man — the torment of blushing for his own family in his own house — fell to his lot.”

  1. PatRosier says:

    I am fascinated by Nastasya, who seems to be a determined non-victim.
    Not exactly a comment on this post, but I have just started reading Elif Batuman’s Possessed:Adventures with Russian books and people who read them, and am enjoying her take on ‘reading the Russians.’ There’s an interesting review of Possession, by Christopher Taylor, in the LRB of 17 Feb, which is what set me off to read her.

  2. artmama says:

    Even though it is a whirlwind of activity I think I have a handle on most of the characters now. Perhaps it was the scene where so many of them are thrown together at Ganya’s house that finally succeeded in giving me a vivid picture of the individuals as they struggle with their developing conflicts. I predict revelations around every corner.

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