“‘And it’s also improper,’ Kolya added, ‘for high-society people to be too interested in literature. Ask Evgeny Pavlovich. Yellow charbancs with red wheels are much more proper.'”

The Idiot
Part Two, Chapter Seven
by Dennis Abrams

Evgeny Pavlovich Radomsky, “was about twenty-eight years old, tal, trim, with a handsome and intelligent face, a bright gaze in his big dark eyes, filled with wit and mockery.” Thrown off by his civilian dress. Aglaya recites Pushkin’s poem “…with such seriousness and such penetration into the spirit and meaning of the poetic work, she uttered each word with such meaning, enunciated them with such lofty simplicity, that by the end of the recital she had not only attracted general attention, but, by conveying the lofty spirit of the ballad, had as if partly justified the overly affected gravity with which she had so solemnly come out to the middle of the terrace.” “Once there lived a poor knight, A silent, simple man, Pale and grim his visage, Bold and straight his heart…He had a single vision Beyond the grasp of mind, It left a deep impression, Engraved upon his heart…” A.M.D. to N.F.B. — an intentional joke, not understood by Lizaveta Prokofyevna. Lizaveta tries to send someone to town to buy a volume of Pushkin, but it’s too late — the shops are closed. Evgeny Pavlovich’s short-term resignation from the army. Is it proper for high-society people to be too interested in literature? Lebedev offers to sell his copy of PUshkin “our family Pushkin, Annenkov’s edition,” to Lizaveta, who allows him to carry the volumes to her threshold but not to go any further. The arrival of “Pavlischev’s son,” and the rest of the nihilists, who, according to Lebedev, “they’re special, my nephew says they’ve gone further than the nihilists.” Unfinished business between them and the prince that Ganya was supposed to have resolved, which Aglaya and Lizaveta urge him to take care of, “‘I also want this vile claim to be ended finally,’ Mrs. Epanchin cried, ‘Give it to them good, Prince, don’t spare them! I’ve had my ears stuffed with this affair, and there’s a lot of bad blood in me on account of you.'” General Ivolgin and four new men enter. Ivolgin’s ignorance. The four visitors: the boxer, Keller from Rogozhin’s band; ‘Pavlischev’s son’ aka Antip Burdovksy, “…a young man, poorly and shabbily dressed, in a frock coat with sleeves so greasy they gleamed like a mirror, in a greasy waistcoat buttoned to the top, in a shirt that had disappeared somewhere, in an impossibly greasy black silk scarf twisted into a plait, his hands unwashed, his face all covered with blackheads…”; Lebedev’s nephew; Ippolit, “a very young man, about seventeen, or perhaps eighteen, with an intelligent but constantly irritated expression on his face, on which illness had left its terrible marks. He was thin as a skeleton, pale yellow, his eyes, glittered, and two red spots burned on his cheeks. He coughed incessantly…A rather advanced state of consumption was evident. It seemed that he had no more than two or three weeks in which to live.” Waiting to speak.

1. Do you get the impression that Dostoevsky (or the narrator) doesn’t much like the new visitors, those who have moved beyond nihilism? How many times can “greasy” be used in a description? (I will admit that the whole section describing the four was most effective.)

2. What on earth can the business between the four and Myshkin possibly be? And why didn’t Ganya take care of it? And why does everybody in the house (with the inevitable exception of General Ivolgin of course) know all about it?

And then there’s this interesting look at today’s reading from Joseph Frank:

“The major action of The Idiot after Part I centers on the Prince’s budding romance with Aglaya Epanchina. By reading Pushhkin’s poem “The Poor Knight” in the Prince’s presence, with obvious reference to his intervention on behalf of Nastasya, Aglaya reveals to what extent her lofty imagination has become inflamed by the Prince’s self-sacrificing magnanimity toward, in the eyes of society, a victimized ‘fallen woman.’ Aglaya’s whole relation to the Prince is thus tainted with misunderstanding from the start. To Aglaya, Myshkin is the Poor Knight of Pushkin’s poem — a poem in which she sees united ‘in one striking figure the grand conception of the platonic love of medieval chivalry, as it was felt by a pure and lofty knight,’ who was a ‘serious and not comic’ Don Quixote. Although these words apply to the Prince in part, their function is to bring out the illusory nature of Aglaya’s image of his character. Nothing could be less characteristic of the Prince than the deeds of military valor performed during the Crusades by the Poor Knight in the service of the Christian faith:

Lumen coeli, Sancta Rosa!
Shouted he with flaming glance
And the thunder of his menace
Checked the Musselman’s advance.

The Poor Knight, in other words, represents the Christian ideal of the Catholic West in its days of glory and in all its corrupting confusion of spiritual faith and temporal power. The Russian Christian ideal, as Dostoevsky understood it, sharply splits off one from the other and accepts all the paradoxical and even demeaning social consequences of the Prince’s humility, meekness, and all-forgiving love.

Aglaya’s misconception mirrors her own character, with its combination of ardent idealism and personal arrogance and pride. Aglaya is irresistibly attracted by the purity of spirit and the selflessness that she finds in the Prince, but at the same time she wishes her ideal to be socially imposing and admired by the world. This fusion had attracted her to militant Catholicism, and she misguidedly seeks it in the Prince. By introducing the Young Nihilist scenes right after the ‘Poor Knight” reading, Dostoevsky forcefully dramatizes the opposition between Aglaya’s image and the actual values that inspire the Prince’s conduct. The combative Aglaya welcomes the intrusion of the group because, as she says, ‘they are trying to throw mud at you, Prince, you must defend yourself triumphantly, and I am awfully glad for you.’ Far from emerging ‘triumphant,’ though, Myshkin reacts to insult and provocation with a passivity and provocation that drive Aglaya into a towering rage.”

Tuesday’s Reading:

Part Two, Chapter Eight


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