Part Two, Chapter One
by Dennis Abrams
What’s happened in the six months following Nastasya’s departure with Rogozhin. Prince Myshkin has gone to Moscow “on the business of receiving his unexpected inheritance. I was said then that there might have been other reasons for such a departure…” The response at the Epanchin’s home — the first month, the subject was avoided. Lizaveta’s response was “that she had been sadly mistaken about the prince.” The unpleasant mood in the house. A busy general. “An outside observer, if there had happened to be one, could have come to only one conclusion: that, judging by all the aforementioned facts, few as they were, the prince had managed in any case to leave a certain impression in the Epanchin’s house, though he had appeared there only once, and that fleetingly.” Rumors around town: that the prince had married “some traveling Frenchwoman, a famous cancan dancer from the Chateau des Fleurs in Paris.” Rumors that Nastasya had fled the day after “a terrible orgy” in the Ekaterinhof vauxhal, and had fled to Moscow. Rumors about Ganya: He had become very ill, had quit working, and no longer went to General Epanchin’s house. Varya married Ptitsyn, “everybody who knew them ascribed this marriage directly to the circumstance that Ganya refused to go back to work and not only stopped supporting his family but even began to need help and almost to be looked after himself.” Ganya is no longer mentioned in the Epanchin’s house. A conversation between Myshkin and Ganya the night of Nastasya’s party. A new friendship between Varya and the Epanchin girls. News from Moscow to Lizaveta from the old Princess Belokonsky — Prince Myshkin had “finally called on her in person and made an almost extraordinary impression on her,” — he now calls on her daily. With the prince’s new respectability, it is allowed to discuss him in the Epanchin home. The general informs his family that the inheritance, due to entanglements, other claimants, and legal issues, wasn’t quite as substantive as originally thought. And, in addition, the prince isn’t handling his affairs in quite a business like manner, and has made payments to people and creditors “who were completely without rights…” Mrs. Epanchin’s silent approval. After fleeing, Nastasya had been found in Moscow by Rogozhin, had agreed to marry him, and almost leaving him at the altar, fled again, disappearing into the provinces. Myshkin had also, at the same time, disappeared from Moscow. The rumors die. Lizaveta and the girls will spend the summer abroad — potential suitors could just as easily be met abroad as well. The discussed between Totsky and the eldest Epanchin daughter does not take place — instead, he will be marrying “a traveling high-society Frenchwoman, a marquise and a legitimiste.”
The arrival of Prince Shch “of the highest society,” he liked Adelaida Epanchin, she liked him, “a spring wedding was planned.” The attractiveness of Prince Shch’s aide-de-camp — is he right for Aglaya? Breakup of General Ivolgin’s home. Ferdyshchenko disappeared three days after Nastasya’s party, the prince left for Moscow, Nina Alexandrovna and Ganya move in with Varya and Ptitsyn, and General Ivolgin is done in by the captain’s widow and ends up in debtor’s prison. His excellent life there. Kolya’s new friends, his new relationship with Ganya, his new friendship with the Epanchins. Kolya passes along a note from Myshkin to Aglaya, asking her if she’s happy, and not want to show it to anybody hides it in a book, that she notices later is Don Quixote. The correspondence between Kolya and Myshkin.
A nicely done summation of six months of activity. Which reminded me that the entirety of Part One takes place over the course of a single day.
And briefly, I was struck by the couple of occurrences of the uncertain narrator. “It was said then that there might have been other reasons for such a happy departure; but of that, as well as of the prince’s adventures in Moscow and generally in the course of his absence from St. Petersburg, we can supply very little information.” Nice.
And finally, I want to congratulate all of you for making it through Part One of The Idiot. I know it’s a completely different kind of book than Crime and Punishment, one that’s not as quite “in your face,” as it were, that reveals itself more slowly. I thought that posting this essay from AS Byatt, originally published in The Guardian on June 26, 2004, might help — or at least, help convince you of the worthiness of your reading.
“The forms of 19th-century European fictions, including the Russian, have a powerful relation to older Christian stories, from the Bible to Bunyan. The novels meet the old tales with part parody, part dialogue, part rejection and reconstruction. Middlemarch opens with a paradigm of its heroine as a “later-born” St Theresa, “helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul”. Dorothea’s virtue cannot find a form in her modern world. Unlike Eliot, Dostoevsky was Christian, and increasingly passionate about preserving faith. DH Lawrence, another maker of fictive prophecies and apocalypses, was reading The Idiot in 1915. “I don’t like Dostoevsky,” he wrote. “He is like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light professing love, all love.” It had become, he shrilled, “a supreme wickedness to set up a Christ worship as Dostoevsky did: it is the outcome of an evil will…”
The central idea of The Idiot as we have it was, as Dostoevsky wrote in a letter, “to depict a completely beautiful human being”. Prince Myshkin is a Russian Holy Fool, a descendant of Don Quixote, and a type of Christ in an un-Christian world. Author and character face the problem all good characters face in all novels – good in fiction is just not as interesting as wickedness, and runs the risk of repelling readers, even those less worked up than Lawrence. There is another problem – goodness tends to mean unselfishness, and unselfishness tends to lack sexual energy, another great driving force in fictions. In the letter quoted above, written in 1868 as Dostoevsky was writing and sending out the first chapters of the novel, he acknowledges uneasily that he has seized this ambitious project prematurely, out of financial and professional desperation.
The writing and publication of the novel were certainly both tortured and strained. It was written abroad, unlike his previous novels, for serial publication, put together by his second wife and stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna. Their daughter died during the writing. Dostoevsky gambled suicidally and had epileptic fits. Anna preserved the notebooks, which show that both plot and characters were in a state of fluid and volcanic chaos, even while the book was appearing. The good prince appears in the early notes as proud and demonic, and the rapist of his adopted sister (a prototype of Nastasya Filippovna). He also commits arson and wife-murder. The first part of the novel, as it appeared, is acknowledged to be powerful. Dostoevsky appears not to have had a clear idea of how to proceed. The second two parts are phantasmagoric and rambling, unplotted and fitfully energetic.
John Jones, in his excellent study of Dostoevsky, rejects The Idiot as a major work on the grounds that, alone among Dostoevsky’s novels, it does not have the intricate tissue of language and punning Jones makes available to non-Russian readers. Other critics complain that the “good” prince makes everyone’s life worse and achieves nothing – though in this he may be compared to the resurrected Christ of Ivan Karamazov’s fable of the Grand Inquisitor. The world does not know what to do with him.
I think The Idiot to be a masterpiece – flawed, occasionally tedious or overwrought, like many masterpieces – but a fact of world literature just as important as the densely dramatic Brothers Karamazov or the brilliantly subtle and terrifying Devils . In those two novels, as in the simpler Crime and Punishment , Dostoevsky had plots and political and religious ideas working together. In The Idiot he is straining to grasp a story and a character converting themselves from Gothic to Saint’s Life on the run. What makes the greatness is double -the character of the prince, and a powerful series of confrontations with death. The true subject of The Idiot is the imminence and immanence of death. The image of these things is Holbein’s portrait of Christ taken down from the cross, a copy of which hangs in Rogozhin’s house, and which was seen by both Dostoevsky and Prince Myshkin in Basle. It represents, we are told, a dead man who is totally flesh without life, damaged and destroyed, with no hint of a possible future resurrection. The form of the novel is shaped by the inexorable outbreak of Dostoevsky’s deepest preoccupations. It is the quality of Dostoevsky’s doubt and fear that is the intense religious emotion in this novel – to which Lawrence was no doubt reacting.
I had known, without fully understanding before I read this excellent new translation, that the idea of death in this novel is peculiarly pinned to the idea of execution – what I had not thought through was that in a materialist world the dead man in the painting is an executed man, whose consciousness has been brutally cut off. There is a rhythmic meditation on murder and execution in this story, at its most powerful and unbearable when Myshkin makes us confront the horror of the certainty of being about to die, of knowing that it is exactly appointed and inevitable, while the body and mind are in ordinary good health. The appalling nature of the close examination of these unimaginable emotions derives from the authority with which Dostoevsky can describe them, since he was himself condemned to death and reprieved, by an imperial whim, or display of power, as he stood in line at the scaffold behind a friend who had indeed just been killed. The novel describes the execution by guillotine of a French murderer. The unholy fool, the talkative Lebedev, takes it into his head to pray for Madame du Barry, elegant and witty, asking for another moment with the executioner’s foot on her neck. Connected to the certainty of execution is the plight of the consumptive boy, Ippolit, staring out at a blank wall, trying to make a gesture of his death (he bungles his suicide) with a paper pathetically entitled ” Après moi le Déluge “. Rogozhin is not executed but transported to Siberia for his murder of Nastasya Filippovna. The prince recedes into blank idiocy after watching with the killer over the corpse. Connected to the terrible lucidity of the condemned man in the tumbril is the unearthly lucidity of the pre-epileptic aura, bliss without time or space, eternity in an instant. The images are their own meaning.
Part of the problem of the plot of The Idiot is that most of the other characters appear insubstantial, and the women’s capriciousness leads to a series of wild and inconclusive gestures to which it is hard to react. Much – not all – of this is to do with the problem I mentioned earlier, of the awkward relation between sexual energy and goodness. The women think they are in a story about seduction, rape, proposals, money and marriage, like most novels in the realm of the passions and economic forces. The prince is in some absolute moral world in which he can instinctively gauge who is being cruel to whom, who is in need and who is tormenting or tormented, without having in him any genuine sexual response of his own to help him to judge his own effect on people. It is the old problem of “How could Jesus be a perfect man if he had no sexual desire or experience?” There is considerable psychological subtlety in the moment-to-moment actions and reactions of Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya, who both consider “loving” the prince for those qualities of patience and attention and kindness, which do attract both over-experienced and gawkily innocent women. Both are also, I think, repelled without knowing it by something abstract in the prince’s practical virtue, which appears alternately as a deficiency of some kind, and as an alarming right to judge impartially. He isn’t really in their world, and neither they nor he quite understands this.
He does resemble his comic models, Don Quixote and Mr Pickwick, in that his innocence causes damage. Quixote inhabits the first real novel, in which the old forms of romance and religion become phantasms in his head and on our page, present but shadowy. Myshkin is a later, more riddling and more tragic figure of lost absolutes. In a world where God is simply dead flesh, a good man becomes simply an idiot.”
Part Two, Chapter Two