Part Three, Chapter One
by Dennis Abrams
“They constantly complain that in our country there are no practical people…” The narrator defines a practical person as one who lacks originality, and “everywhere, all over the world, from time immemorial, has always been considered the foremost quality and the best recommendation of the active, efficient and practical man…Inventors and genius, at the beginning of their careers (and very often at the end of it as well), have almost always been regarded in society as no more than fools…” therefore in Russia, it is better to be a general than an inventor and to live a quiet and stable life, “In essence, the only one among us who cannot make a general of himself is the original — in other words, the troublesome — man.” The Epanchins, much to the dismay of Lizaveta are not considered an ordinary family, for which she “had begun to find only herself and her ‘unfortunate’ character to blame,” despite the fact that “the Epanchins enjoyed universal and genuine respect.” Lizaveta’s “family sufferings were groundless, had negligible cause, and were ridiculously exaggerated…” Lizaveta is “tormented” by the fear that her daughters were becoming as eccentric as she, “and that no such girls existed in the world, or ought to exist.” Why don’t they get married? Why did Aglaya cut off half her of her hair? Why did “fat Alexandra” follow suit? Were they refusing to get married only to vex their mother? Relief that Adelaida’s marriage is settled. Will Alexandra be an old maid at twenty-five? Alexandra’s dreams “were always distinguished by a sort of extraordinary emptiness and innocence…Once Alexandra Ivanovna saw nine hens in a dream, and this caused a formal quarrel between her and her mother…” Lizaveta’s love for Ivan Fyodorovich. Aglaya is Lizaveta’s “chief and constant torment,” “Exactly like me, my portrait in all respects…a willful, nasty little demon! Nihilistic, eccentric, crazy, wicked, wicked, wicked! Oh, Lord, how unhappy she’s going to be!” Evgeny will have to be “closely scrutinized, plumbed to the depths…” “And then that nasty little prince, that worthless little idiot, appeared and everything immediately got stirred up, everything in the house turned upside down!” Anger at the anonymous letter she received linking Aglaya with Nastasya Filippovna. On the Epanchin veranda: Evgeny attacks Russian liberalism, saying there’s no such thing, and that it’s “not an attack on the existing order of things, but is an attack on the very essence of things, on the things themselves and not merely on their order, not on Russian order, but on Russia itself.” Declining morals: The young man charged with killing six, and his defense that “given the destitute condition of the criminal, it naturally had to occur to him to kill those six people.” Is this perversion “this possibility of such a warped and extraordinary view of things, a particular case or a general one?” Prince Shch. comments that there have always been horrendous crimes, but it’s only now that “we’ve begun to speak aloud and even to write about them…” Myshkin: “…but those whom Evgeny Pavlych has begun speaking about do not even want to consider themselves criminals and think to themselves that they had the right and…even did a good thing, or almost. That, in my opinion, is what makes the terrible difference.” Prince Shch: “…if that’s the way you see and observe it, then how it is it (again, forgive me), that in that strange affair…the other day…with Burdovsky, I believe…how is it that you didn’t notice the same perversion of ideas and moral convictions?” Kolya enters and announces that Ippolit is now staying at Lebedev’s dacha, and had “seized the prince’s hand yesterday and kissed it twice.” Evgeny mocks Ippolit, wondering how he can be comfortable without his wall to stare at. The group decides to go to the park and listen to music.
What struck me about this section was how absolutely contemporary it is, how much it falls into the category of “things don’t change.” Liberals are attacked not for want to change things but for hating their country. (Sound familiar?) Young people have gotten worse, crime has gotten worse, society is too lenient, making too many excuses for the criminal. Even Prince Shch’s argument that it’s only now regarding such crimes that “we’ve begun to speak aloud and even to write about them,” is a familiar one. I know I’ve made that argument myself on numerous occasions. Fascinating.
Indeed, what’s been striking for me in reading The Idiot, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, is how modern it all is. One of our readers, Minniken, followed up on that with a comment well worth sharing:
“What’s intriguing is how ‘modern’ a writer Dostoevsky really was: In both ‘C & P’ and especially here in ‘The Idiot’, there are no explanations, he makes no attempt to clarify or straighten things out – for him, complexity is the norm. He allows for the inexplicable, the unforeseen: he doesn’t distort reality for the sake of simplicity, i.e. when faced with complex human beings, he doesn’t try to ‘order’ or ‘package’ them or attempt to offer explanations, he just states them as they are…and all this makes it much more challenging (and interesting) for the reader!”
I think he’s got it exactly right.
Part Three, Chapter Two