Part One, Chapter Thirteen
by Dennis Abrams
The prince’s worries: “The worst thing…will be if they don’t receive me and think something bad about me, or perhaps receive me and think something bad about me…” Myshkin decides that he must tell Nastasya Filippovna not to marry Ganya: “Don’t marry this man and don’t ruin yourself, he doesn’t love you, he loves your money, he told me so himself…” Nastasya’s “not very large but indeed magnificently decorates apartment.” Totsky’s former generosity. “Nastasya Filippovna did not reject the luxury, even liked it, but — and this seemed strange — never succumbed to it, as if she could always do with out it…” Without comment, the maid goes to announce the arrival of Prince Myshkin. The other guests: Totsky and Epanchin, Ganya but without Varya, Ferdyshchenko, “one pathetic little old school teacher, invited for God knows what purpose, some unknown and very young man, who was terribly timid and kept silent all the time, a sprightly lady of about forty, an actress, and one extremely beautiful, extremely well and expensively dressed, and extraordinarily taciturn young lady…” With little conversation going on, the appearance of the prince “was even opportune.” Nastasya’s pleasure at his arrival. More witticisms from Ferdyshchenko. “The Lion and the Ass.” Nastasya’s enjoyment, “Those who wished absolutely to call on her had no choice but to put up with Ferdyshchenko.” Myshkin struck and dazzled by Nastasya. “Everything in you is perfection…even the fact that you’re so thin and pale…one has to no wish to imagine you otherwise…I wanted so much to come to you…I…forgive me…” “‘Don’t ask forgiveness,’ Nastasya Filippovna laughed. ‘That will ruin all the strangeness and originality. And it’s true, then, what they say about you, that you’re a strange man. So you consider me perfection, do you?'” “I do.” “Though you’re a master at guessing, you’re nevertheless mistaken. I’ll remind you of it tonight…” Ganya and Ferdyshchenko discuss the prince’s feelings for Nastasya; the school teacher chimes in, “…judging by the way the prince blushes at an innocent joke like an innocent young girl, I conclude that, like a noble youth, he is nurturing the most praiseworthy intentions in his heart.” Nastasya Filippovna is extremely fond of “all such original old men and women, and even of holy fools…” An invitation for champagne. Nastasya’s fever. Ferdyshchenko suggests a parlor game: “…each of us…tell something about himself, but something that he himself, in good conscience, considered the worst of all the bad things he’d done in the course of his life; and that it should be frank, above all, that it should be frank, no lying!” After discussion, lots are drawn — Ferdyshchenko will go first.
1. I loved the narrator’s little dig when listing the guests at Nastasya’s party: “one pathetic little old schoolteacher, invited for God knows what purpose…” Those little intrusions…
2. The unexpected actions of Nastasya: “…the strange, sometimes very abrupt and quick outbursts of Nastasya Filippovna, who also took wine and announced that she would drink three glasses that evening, in her hysterical and pointless laughter, which alternated suddenly with a silent and even sullen pensiveness, it was hard to make anything out…” What exactly is she planning? What is she waiting for?
3. And finally the parlor game. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see exactly what Prince Myshkin has to confess.
An excerpt from an essay by Victor Terras, “The Hierarchy of Meanings in The Idiot” — well worth reading:
“The nineteenth-century novel is a form of verbal art characterized by inherent contradictions. Its dependence on plot and storyline is in conflict with its purported realism. ‘Poetic truth’ may clash with empirical truth. The nineteenth-century novel tends to advance an ideological, moral, or religious thesis, allegedly of general validity, yet it finds expression in terms of specific individualized characters and particular events. The real thus may clash with the ideal, the universal with the particular. The nineteenth-century novel pretends to the status of a work of art, yet it almost always pursues certain utilitarian ends, such as advocating a political program or catering to the ephemeral tastes of a fickle reading public. The concerns of real life thus make frequent intrusions into a world created by the imagination.
We know that the public, as well as most critics, tended to judge Dostoevsky’s novels on their topical and ideological content, paying scant attention to their artistic merit. Yet we also know that Dostoevsky was a highly conscious artist who was much concerned with giving his ideas the proper artistic expression. We know that Dostoevsky believed in certain religious truths, and that he held to fairly narrow political opinions, but also that he was greatly concerned with getting his facts straight.
Dostoevsky’s novels are ‘ideological’ in that their author felt that he was fulfilling a Christian and a national commission. He was also a realist who honestly tried to present the facts of life, and Russian life in particular, as he saw them, and even as they were perceived by his ideological opponents. He was inclined to give his opponents a voice in the concert of his polyphonic compositions. Readers have often chosen to embrace a voice or a viewpoint as the message of the Dostoevskian novel, when extrinsic evidence suggests that Dostoevsky had something different in mind, but was playing devil’s advocate extremely well.
Some readers have interpreted The Brothers Karamazov, and “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter in particular, as bearing an anti-Christian, or at least a heretical message, although we know that Dostoevsky wanted the message to be in full accord with Russian Orthodox doctrine. Other readers have seen an irresoluble conflict between Dostoevsky’s psychological realism and his religious message, finding, for instance, that the Epilogue of Crime and Punishment false and out of character.
The way to account for some of these difficulties is to distinguish, throughout Dostoevsky’s novels, a hierarchy of epistemologically distinct meanings: empirical, moral, allegorical, and anagogic.
There is, to begin with, a realistic narrative that develops a plot after the common fashion of a nineteenth-century novel. On this level we also meet digressions of an essayistic nature, as well as various subtexts: journalistic in the form of allusions to topical events; literary, in the form of allusions or polemical responses to readily identified works of Russian or foreign literature; and personal, in the form of references to Dostoevsky’s personal life or an earlier work of his own.
Then there is the moral level. Throughout Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, many structured arguments regarding various moral topics are unfolded. Such is, for example, the argument about ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ people, conducted in Crime and Punishment and in “the Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov/ Such are also the question regarding the relation between faith and miracle in The Brothers Karamazov and the question of good deeds versus emotional attitude, as developed explicitly in The Idiot and implicitly in the story of the Marmeladov family in Crime and Punishment.
Furthermore, there is an allegorical level. Crime and Punishment may be, [Demons] must be, read as an allegory of the Russian revolution. The Brothers Karamazov is an allegory of fatherhood and sonhood, and of sensual, intellectual, and spiritual man — among other things.
In all of Dostoevsky’s novels we observe intrusions of the mystical. While the plot unfolds in a world of ordinary affairs and characters, diabolical and heavenly elements appear from time to time. I am thinking of the massive Christian symbolism introduced in connection with Sonia Marmeladov, or of the various shapes in which the diabolical appears throughout The Brothers Karamazov. While the moral and allegorical level are structured and may be ‘closed’ or ‘open’ much as the plot is, the mystical element remains unstructured: we have, as it were, intrusions from other worlds, whose entirety remains unknown and whose logic escapes us. But Dostoevsky’s characters are gifted with an intuitive sense that allows them to recognize these intrusions. Of course, much of what may be said to belong to the mystical level may be subjected to a psychoanalytical interpretation — that is, seen as a projection of neuroses peculiar either to Dostoevsky’s characters or to Dostoevsky himself. Dostoevsky certainly leaves the door open to such reading.
It is the task of the novelist to harmonize these different levels of meaning. Some critics — Nabokov, for example — have said that Dostoevsky had failed in this task. Not only Soviet critics have found the Christian message, moral as well as mystical, merely a tedious nuisance. I believe that such a view has the corollary that Dostoevsky was not a very good novelist. Nabokov is therefore right — on his terms. I shall not try to show that Dostoevsky is a great novelist in spite of these objections. But I shall try to show that the different levels of meaning are all strong and important, so that to ignore one or more of them is tantamount to misreading and misinterpreting the work in question.
Each of these four levels of meaning is associated with certain featured themes, though some themes and motifs may appear in different versions on different levels of meaning. For example, in The Idiot the theme of a condemned man — that is, a man who knows that he will die within a very brief span of time — appears on all four levels of meaning. Several executions are described or mentioned, and one of the main characters, Ippolit Terent’ev, suffers from what was then called ‘galloping consumption,’ and dies as expected. His condition has intriguing moral implications. Ippolit points out that he could very well commit a heinous crime with total impunity, since his case would never come to trial, even if the law actually tried to prolong his life.
The whole text of the novel makes it clear that the theme of a condemned man is also presented as an allegory of the human condition. Finally, the same theme stands in the very center of the metaphysical dilemma developed on the anagogic level of meaning. The realization that Christ Himself was a condemned man who was executed and died is introduced with great poignancy.”
I have to say that looking at Dostoevsky’s work like this makes sense to me — more from this essay as we go along.
The Weekend’s Reading:
Part One, Chapters Fourteen – Sixteen.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.