Part Four, Chapters Three-Five
by Dennis Abrams
There had been problems with the general before, but it came to nothing. This time is different, Ivolgin has spent the whole week acting strangely, sometimes merry, sometimes brooding, “garrulous, agitated…” The narrator comments: “Let us not forget that the reasons for human actions are usually incalculably more complex and diverse than we tend to explain the later, and are seldom clearly manifest. Sometimes it is best for the narrator to limit himself to a simple account of events…” A flashback to the day that Lebedev returned from his trip to St. Petersburg in search of Ferdyshchenko with the general. Lebedev has been avoiding Myshkin. Lebedev and Ivolgin are inseparable, although there is one violent quarrel. Ivolgin goes to see Myshkin, telling him that he needs his advice, and after a long speech of which Myshkin understands nothing, it is arranged that they will meet the next day. That same night, Myshkin sends for Lebedev to meet with him to discuss the general’s “present state and why he was in such anxiety.” Lebedev playing games with Ivolgin: Lebedev after finding his wallet, complete with all four hundred roubles under a chair in a place he had searched many times, decides not to tell anybody and leaves it there clearly in view. That night the wallet disappears from under the chair and is found in the skirt of Lebedev’s own frock coat. Lebedev tells Myshkin about the general’s changing moods “angry displeased, joyful and bacchic, then sentimental, then angry.” Myshkin begs Lebedev to take pity on Ivolgin, “For pity’s sake, by the fact alone that he put what you lost in full view like that, under the table and then in your frock coat, by that alone he shows you directly that he doesn’t want to dodge with you, but is simple-heartedly asking your forgiveness…And you drive such a…a most honest man to such humiliation!”
The next day, Ivolgin arrives late for his appointment with Myshkin, and announces that he has broken with Lebedev and is leaving his house: Apparently Lebedev has told Ivolgin a story about having been in Moscow in 1812 and has lost his left leg to cannon fire — Ivolgin is insulted by the story, believing that Lebedev is insinuating that his own stories are lies, and so is being disrespectful. Ivolgin goes on to tell his own ridiculous lie — when he was a boy in Moscow in 1812, Napoleon had picked him out of a crowd, recognized his intelligence and pride, made him his chamber-page and closest friend and adviser, and it was Ivolgin himself who manipulated Napoleon into beginning his retreat from Russia rather than barricading himself in the Kremlin and waiting for better weather. Ivolgin leaves happy, thinking that Myshkin believes him. Myshkin: “He also realized that the old man had left intoxicated by his success; but all the same he had a presentiment that he was one of that category of liars who, though they lie to the point of sensuality and even self-forgetfulness, at the highest point of their intoxication suspect to themselves all the same that people do not and even cannot believe them. In his present state, the old man might recollect himself, become ashamed beyond measure, suspect the prince of an excessive compassion for him, feel insulted. ‘Didn’t I do worse by driving him to such inspiration?'” Myshkin was correct: That evening he receives a note from Ivolgin, politely telling him that he “was also parting with him forever, that he respect him and was grateful to him, but that even from he would not accept ‘tokens of compassion humiliating to the dignity of a man already unfortunate without that.'” Back to the day that Ivolgin flees his house, followed by Kolya. The general becomes unable to talk, repeating the same phrases over and over to Kolya. He has had a stroke.
Varva Ardalionovna had been exaggerating — while the Epanchin sisters had hinted at the possibility of an engagement nothing formal had taken place — there is still much uncertainty in the household regarding Aglaya’s feelings about Myshkin; Lizaveta is still opposed for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, “‘…is this, is this the sort of husband we imagined and intended for Aglaya?’ The mother’s heart trembled at the thought, bled and wept, though at the same time something stirred in that heart which suddenly said to her: ‘And what makes the prince not the sort you want?’ Well, it was these objections against her own heart that were most troublesome for Lizaveta Prokofyevna.” The sisters, though silent, “for some reason liked the notion of the prince.” The opinion of Princess Belokonsky, Aglaya’s godmother: “…the prince was, in her opinion, a respectable young man, though sick, strange, and much too insignificant. The worst thing was that he openly kept a woman.” The need to cool-down, calm down, watch and wait. Returning from her visit to Belokonsky’s, (the morning after Myshkin’s late night visit), she learns what happened while she was away: Myshkin had visited, Aglaya had taken a half an hour to get ready, suggested that she and the prince play chess which he didn’t know so she beat him, followed by a card game “fools” which Myshkin did know how to play, and despite Aglaya’s attempts to cheat, she was badly beaten, flew into a rage, and spoke badly to Myshkin and stormed out of the room. Myshkin had left, fifteen minutes later Aglaya had returned in tears, and sent a gift of a hedgehog to Myshkin via Kolya. What, Lizaveta thought, could a hedgehog mean? Kolya tells Myshkin that Aglaya is in love with him. Lizaveta sends for Myshkin in order to get everything resolved. Myshkin and the Epanchin family — an uncomfortable conversation about railways until Aglaya makes her appearance. Aglaya asks Myshkin: “Allow me, finally, to learn from you yourself and personally: are you proposing to me or not?” “Oh, Lord,’ escaped Lizaveta Prokofyevna.” Myshkin, after hesitating, allows that he is. Aglaya takes charge: “How do you propose to ensure my happiness? What does your fortune amount to? Do you intend to enter the service? Do you plan to be a kammerjunker?” Finally, Aglaya bursts “into the maddest, most hysterical laughter; in the end she jumped up and ran out of the room.” The Epanchins believe that Aglaya had been making fun of Myshkin from the start — even Myshkin accepts it. Myshkin confesses to Aglaya’s father that he loves her. The family realizes that Aglaya does in fact love Myshkin, “Not just loves him, she’s in love with him…” The family returns to the drawing room: Aglaya apologizes to Myshkin, “And if I dared to make a mockery of your beautiful…kind simple-heartedness, then forgive me as you would a child for a prank; forgive me that I insisted on an absurdity which, of course, cannot have the least consequences…” Myshkin’s happiness that he can not visit Aglaya pressure-free, “he could again visit Aglaya without hindrance, that he would be allowed to talk with her, sit with her, walk with her, and who know, perhaps that alone would have contented him for the rest of his life!” The evening is repeated often: Aglaya moving between spending quiet times with Myshkin and “making fun of the prince and all but turning him into a buffoon.” Myshkin runs into Ippolit in the park. Ippolit warns Myshkin about Ganya and tells him he’d be happier if he worried more, “It’s better to be unhappy, but to know than to be happy and life…as a fool.” Redemption by suffering. Ippolit on dying a virtuous death, “Well, all right, tell me yourself, well, how, in your opinion: how will it best for me to die? So that it will go as well as…more?e virtuously, that is? Well, speak?” “Pass us by and forgive us our happiness!” the prince said in a low voice.”
What a great section…
1. How much did you love Ivolgin’s story about his childhood experiences as Napoleon’s chamber-page? “‘Once I felt terribly grieved, and he suddenly noticed tears in my eyes; he looked at me with tenderness: ‘You pity me!” he cried. ‘You, little one, and perhaps yet another child pities me, my son, le roi de Rome; the rest all hate me, all of them, and my brothers will be the first to sell me in my misfortune!’ I burst into sobs and rushed to him; here he, too, could not restrain himself; we embraced each other and our tears mingled…” Marvelous. Ivolgin is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book, perhaps the most fully drawn — and his roots in Dickens are, I think fairly obvious. “Mayra Petrovna su…Sutugin and was killed on the battlefield…The bullet ricocheted off the cross on my chest and hit him right in the forehead.” Who can’t love him for his all too human weaknesses? (Or do we love him because he is perhaps the most easily understood character in The Idiot?)
2. I’m not certain I understand what is the obvious importance and emphasis put on Aglaya’s words to Myshkin, “…forgive me that I insisted on an absurdity which, of course, cannot have the least consequences…” Any thoughts?
3. I also find myself (I wonder if this is intentional) in Myshkin’s position in regards to Aglaya — more than slightly confused by her shifting mood and treatment of the prince. But I also find myself going back to the narrator’s comment that “…the reasons for human actions are usually incalculably more complex and diverse than we tend to explain them later, and are seldom clearly manifest. Sometimes it is best for the narrator to limit himself to a simple account of events.” Is Dostoevsky defending his own methods here? Is the narrator Dostoevsky?
4. This passage from Myshkin’s conversation with Ippolit at the end of Chapter Five recalls and echoes Lebedev’s own arguments regarding the man who had eaten the monks and several small babies…
“‘However, the reason I maintain that,’ the prince suddenly picked up, obviously wishing to correct himself, ‘is because people back then (I swear to you, it has always struck me) were not at all the same sort of people as we are now, not the same breed as now, in our time, really, like a different species…At that time people were somehow of one idea, while now they’re more nervous, more developed, sensitive, somehow of two or three ideas at once…today’s man is broader — and, I swear, that’s what keeps him from being such a monolithic man as in those times…I…I…said it solely with that in mind, and not…”
5. And finally, Myshkin’s beautiful response to Ippolit’s question of what is the best way for him to die, “Pass us by and forgive us our happiness!” As Joseph Frank comments, “The Prince understands that, for Ippolit, the untroubled possession of life by others is a supreme injustice, which should burden them with guilt and a sense of moral obligation…No pages of Dostoevsky are more original than those in which he tried to combine the utmost sympathy for Ippolit with a pitiless portrayal of what may be called ‘the egoism of dying.’ Dostoevsky wishes to show how the egocentricity that inspired Ippolit’s ‘revolt’ also impels him to a behavior that cuts off the very sympathy and love he so desperately craves.”
Part Four, Chapter Six