Part Three, Chapter Eight
by Dennis Abrams
Aglaya finds Myshkin asleep on the green bench, dreaming of Nastasya Filippovna. Myshkin fills Aglaya in on the details of Ippolit’s attempted suicide, and of his wish that Aglaya receives a copy of his confession. Aglaya’s response: “Bring it without fail…He’ll probably be very pleased, because it may be that his purpose in shooting himself was so that I should read his confessions afterwards.” Aglaya “was extraordinarily anxious, and though she looked at him very bravely and with a sort of defiance, she was perhaps also a little frightened.” Ippolit’s need for praise. Aglaya confesses she though of suicide when she was thirteen so “they would all weep over me and accuse themselves of being so cruel to me…” Aglaya: “And on your side I find all this very bad, because it’s very rude to look at and judge a man’s soul the way you’re judging Ippolit. You have no tenderness, only truth, that makes it unfair.” Myshkin says she’s being unfair. Aglaya: “‘Here’s the whole matter I invited you for: I want to propose that you be my friend. Why do you suddenly stare at me like that?’ she added almost with wrath.” Aglaya blushes, “On such occasions the more she blushed, the more she seemed to be angry with herself for it…usually she would transfer her wrath a moment later to the one she was talking with, whether or not it was his fault.” Myshkin tells her that there was no need to propose such a thing. Aglaya begins to get angry,, asking Myshkin why else would she have invited him? Aglaya confesses she’s been waiting for Myshkin: “I’ve been waiting for you a long time, in order to tell you all this. I’ve been waiting ever since you wrote me that letter from there, and even earlier…I consider you a most honest and truthful man, the most honest and truthful of all…” The main mind and the non-main mind. Myshkin pleases Aglaya by saying she’s very much like her mother. Aglaya wants to run away from home with Myshkin, to be able to talk about everything with him, “I want to talk about everything with at least one person as I would with myself,” she doesn’t want to go to balls, she doesn’t want to remain “bottled up,” “Now I have it all worked out and was waiting for you…Can we occupy ourselves with education, if not, then in the future? We’ll be useful together; I don’t want to be a general’s daughter…” Myshkin: “This is absurd, Aglaya Ivanovna.” Aglaya shouts that if Myshkin doesn’t agree, she’ll do anything to get out of the house, even marry Ganya. Myshkin confesses he had feared that Aglaya had invited him to meet her at the bench for a tryst, angering her. Myshkin denies that his earlier note was a love letter, “That letter most respectful, that letter poured from my heart at the most painful moment of my life! I remembered about you then as of some sort of light…” Aglaya’s anger about Myshkin’s relationship with Nastasya. Her announcement that she doesn’t love Myshkin, that she loves Ganya. “‘That’s not true,’ said the prince, almost in a whisper.” Aglaya tells Myshkin that she accepted Ganya’s proposal of marriage just two days earlier on the same bench, and that he had burned his hand to prove his love for her. Myshkin, remembering that he’d seen Ganya’s hand the previous day, calls her on her lie. Myshkin says that he does not love Nastasya, but did come to Pavlovsk because of her. Aglaya shows Myshkin the three letters she had received from Nastasya, begging her to marry Myshkin so that she can then marry Rogozhin. Myshkin discusses Nastasya’s feelings of guilt. Aglaya: “Can’t you see that it’s not me she’s in love with, but you, you alone that she loves…She…do you think she’ll really marry Rogozhin, as she writes here in these letters? She’ll kill herself the very day after we get married! You must resurrect her, it’s your duty, you must go away with her again to pacify and soothe her heart. Anyway, you do love her!” Myshkin: “I can’t sacrifice myself like that, though I did want to once and…maybe still want to. But I know for certain that she’ll perish with me, and that’s why I’m leaving her.” Aglaya, understanding that Myshkin had indeed come to Pavlovsk for Nastasya’s sake, throws her letters at him, telling him to tell her never to write to her again, vows to marry Ganya and elope with him the next day, and runs home. Lizaveta Prokofyevna appears.
So if Nastasya is doomed if Myshkin marries Aglaya, and she’s doomed if she goes off with Myshkin…is there any hope for her?
This interpretation of this chapter seems right on point:
The meeting between Aglaya and Myshkin marks an important event in the development of their relationship. It is the first time they meet each other without anyone else present, and thus the first time they can openly discuss their relationship. Although they come to no definite conclusion, it is the first time they discuss the subject of Nastasya Filippovna, who, from Aglaya’s perspective, stands between Aglaya and Myshkin.
In addition to clarifying the relationship between Aglaya and the prince—which nevertheless remains quite confusing for many of the other characters and for us as readers—the meeting in the park also develops the character of Aglaya. She is very much a child, very capricious and quite immature. She is easily overcome with highly idealistic or romantic ideas that seem absurd to any mature or practical adult—even absurd to someone as impractical as the prince. Aglaya’s wish to run away from home, for instance, for which she hopes to enlist Myshkin’s help, is essentially just an adolescent desire to challenge the authority of her parents and older sisters. Along the same lines, Aglaya boasts having read books that her elders have forbidden her to read. She seems, above all else, to want to establish herself as a free and independent adult in the eyes of her family. Ironically, however, the means by which Aglaya seeks to do this—running away from home and so on—clearly demonstrate her childishness.
Aglaya’s fascination with the figure of the “poor knight,” which she associates with Myshkin, is another example of her obsession with romantic ideals. She believes that she completely understands the prince’s relationship with Nastasya Filippovna through this literary model of the poor knight who sacrifices his life for the ideal of a woman whom he has chosen. This interpretation ultimately proves to be an oversimplification, however.
Chapter 8 develops the motif of light and dark that has surfaced before. Throughout The Idiot, the time Myshkin and Rogozhin spend with Nastasya Filippovna are characterized as dark, while light is typically associated with Aglaya. For instance, the prince says he writes the note to Aglaya like to a light. He also says that he hoped for a dawn after the darkness he suffered with Nastasya Filippovna. Even Aglaya’s very name means “light.” The contrast between light and dark emphasizes the choice between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya that Myshkin faces—in essence, a choice between compassion and romantic love. Whereas knowing Nastasya Filippovna brings the prince constant fear and pain because he is unable to save her from self-destruction, his knowing Aglaya is a hope for happiness. Despite Aglaya’s whimsical nature, insults, and lies, she makes Myshkin happy. Upon returning from seeing her, he is always overcome with incredible joy.
Nastasya Filippovna’s letters to Aglaya once again demonstrate how the former blames herself for her dishonor. Although she loves Myshkin, Nastasya Filippovna deems herself unworthy of being his wife. She sees Aglaya, however, as pure perfection, and therefore tries to do everything in her power to make Myshkin happy by serving as a matchmaker between him and Aglaya. The letters are very painful to the prince, not only because they represent a connection between the two most important women in his life, but also because they remind him of Nastasya Filippovna’s unhappiness and his inability to do anything to save her.
And finally, this excerpt from the essay “The Fate of an Idiot: What Myshkin Remembers,” seems to me a very good perspective on the last scene from Chapter Seven — after Ippolit’s suicide attempt and Myshkin goes to the park to escape and is overwhelmed by memory:
Unfortunately, Myshkin’s sacred memory, the very thing in which he believes, does not change the world, at least not for the better. Rather, a chasm is growing between it and the world. Seen from the perspective of the mortally ill seventeen year old consumptive Ippolit Terentyev, Myshkin’s vision of beauty produces not acceptance but revulsion and revolt: Myshkin’s pitying love is in fact the catalyst for Ippolit’s attempted suicide, his project to vanquish the “trees of Pavlovsk” (Myshkin’s vision) with his own negative infinity, “Meyer’s wall.”
As with everyone he meets, Myshkin, the instinctive Christian, attempts to bear Ippolit’s cross — one that is weighed down with frustrated love of the world, rage against its injustice (“people are created to torment each other,” he says14), shame at his human weakness (“It is impossible to remain in a life that assumes such strange, offensive form,”15), and a profound loneliness that is its psychological counterpart. Significantly, Ippolit mourns that he will have lived without “managing to leave any memory.”16 After the horror and chaos following Ippolit’s attempted suicide, Myshkin once again flees into the ‘garden,’ the park, for solace. But this time he finds something wholly different in his paradise:
” . . . A long-forgotten memory stirred in him and suddenly became clear at once.
It was in Switzerland, during the first year of his treatment, even during the first months. He was still quite like an idiot then, and could not even speak properly, and sometimes did not understand what was required of him. Once he went into the mountains on a clear, sunny day, and wandered about for a long time with a tormenting thought that refused to take shape. Before him was the shining sky, below him the lake, around him the horizon, bright and infinite, as if it went on forever. For a long time he looked and suffered. He remembered now how he had stretched out his arms to that bright, infinite blue and wept. What had tormented him was that he was a total stranger to it all. What was this banquet, what was this great everlasting feast, to which he had long been drawn, always, ever since childhood, and which he could never join. Every morning the same bright sun rises; every morning there is a rainbow over the waterfall; every evening the highest snowcapped mountain, there, far away, at the edge of the sky, burns with a crimson flame; every “little fly that buzzes near him in a hot ray of sunlight participates in this whole chorus, knows its place, loves it and is happy”; every little blade of grass grows and is happy! And everything has its path, and everything knows its path, goes with a song and comes back with a song; only he knows nothing, understands nothing, neither people nor sounds, a stranger to everything and a castaway.17″
Seemingly returned to the original memory of “foreignness,” Myshkin can no longer bear the weight of the world. Instead of a grid to apply to the world, or even an alternative to it, Myshkin now finds in his memory solitude and despair, emblematized by Ippolit’s horrible human fate: the quoted lines inside Myshkin’s interior monologue are from Ippolit’s article “My Necessary Explanation.”18 Like Ippolit, who has declared himself “already dead” and thus outside the human community, Myshkin is beginning to understand, or rather to accept (in this way fundamentally different from Ippolit), the riddle of divine beauty: its fate is suffering and rejection in faith.
Part Three, Chapter Nine