“It’s not possible! She’s…so unhappy!”

The Idiot
Part Four, Chapter Eight
by Dennis Abrams

The morning after. Myshkin’s painful forebodings. “His fit of the evening before had been a mild one; besides hypochondria, some heaviness in the head and pain in his limbs, he did not feel upset in any other way. His head worked quite distinctly, though his soul was sick.” Notes from the Epanchins inquiring about his health. Vera stops by and tells him the general will “probably die soon.” Lebedev stops by. Kolya stops by; Myshkin tries to ease his pain regarding the general, telling him that “in his opinion the old man’s death had been caused, mainly, by the horror that remained in his heart after his misdeed, and that not everyone was capable of that.” Myshkin ponders, “everyone was prophesying unhappiness, everyone had already drawn conclusions, everyone looked as if they new something, and something that he did not know…” A visit from the Epanchins. Lizaveta: “And if you think of it, come and see us as formerly; rest assured, once and for all, that whatever happens, whatever may come, you’ll remain a friend of our house: of mine at least. I can at least answer for myself.” After the Epanchins leave, Vera returns with word from Aglaya: “She asks you very much not to leave your house all day today, not for a single moment, until seven o’clock in the evening, or even till nine. I didn’t quite hear.” Vera leaves, Ippolit stops by to say his final “good-bye,” and to tell Myshkin that he’d seen Ganya and Aglaya together on the green bench that morning, and that he had arranged a meeting between Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna. Is Aglaya still an innocent child? Myshkin on Nastasya: “Why had it seemed to him that that woman would appear precisely at the very last minute and snap his whole destiny like a rotten thread? Myshkin is afraid of Nastasya. Aglaya appears to take her with him to meet with Nastasya. Nastasya, Rogozhin, Aglaya, and Myshkin meet at Darya Alexeevna’s house. “There’s nobody in the whole house except the four of us.” Nastasya Filippovna all in black. The two women sit apart from each other, Rogozhin and Myshkin remain standing. A sinister feeling passes over Nastasya Filippovna’s face. The two women, looking into each others’ eyes, understand each other completely. Spite grows between the two women. “The prince, who the day before would not have believe it possible even to dream of it, now stood, looked, and listened as if he had long anticipated it all. The most fantastic dream had suddenly turned into the most glaring and sharply outlined reality.” The conversation between the two women quickly reveals hatred as Aglaya questions Nastasya as to why she had a right to interfere with her relationship with Myshkin, telling her that she can’t love Myshkin, and that “I must tell you, too, that I have never met a single person in my life who is equal to him in noble simpleheartedness and infinite trustfulness. I guessed after what he said that anyone who wanted to could deceive him, and whoever deceived him he would forgive afterwards, and it was for that that I loved him…” Aglaya asks Nastasya, “By what right do you dare write letters to me?” Is Aglaya a “lily-white?” If Nastasya wanted to become an honest woman should she have “become a washerwoman?” Nastasya tells Aglaya she’s jealous of her, “You wanted to find out personally whether he loves me more than you or not…” Nastasya threatens to “or-der” Myshkin to stay with her and to drop Aglaya. Nastasya threatens to tell Rogozhin to leave and to say to Myshkin, “Remember what you promised? Lord!…Didn’t you assure me yourself, Prince, that you’d follow me whatever happened and never leave me; that you loved me, and forgave me everything, and re…resp…Yes, you said that too!” Nastasya: “Here he is, loo, my girl…If he dodn’t come to me right now, if he doesn’t take me and drop you, then you can have him, I give him up, I don’t need him!…” Myshkin only sees before him “the desperate, insane face, because of which, as he had once let slip to Aglaya, ‘his heart was forever pierced.’ He could no longer bear it and with entreaty and reproach turned to Aglaya, pointing to Nastasya Filippovna: ‘It’s not possible! She’s so…unhappy!'” Aglaya, her face a mixture of suffering and hatred, runs out of the room. Nastasya stops Myshkin from running after Aglaya, and faints in his arms. Myshkin tends to Nastasya, Rogozhin takes his hat and leaves.

Wow. The scene is so…theatrical. (As is much of this book — I’ll talk more about that later.) Isn’t it easy to imagine the scene on a stage, and the curtain coming down as Myshkin sits next to Nastasya…

There is a wonderful analysis of this oh-so-pivotal scene in George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky:

“…the tension in a Dostoevskyan scene derives from the fact that alternative resolutions and the interplay between them literally surround the text. The characters seem admirably free from their crator’s will and our own previsions. Let us consider the episode in Nastasia’s house in which the four ‘principals’ are crucially gathered and compare it with the great quartet at the climax of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl

In his distinguished reading of that novel, Marius Bowley points to the explicitly theatrical organization of the encounter between Maggie and Charlotte on the terrace at Fawns. Rightly, he adduces the superb economy of the thing and cites the undertones of formal ritual which James depends by his covert reference to the betrayal of Christ in another garden. There are fascinating areas of comparison with The Idiot. In both instances two women engage in a duel whose issue must, in effect, determine their lives. In both scenes the two men at stake are tremendously present and y et immobile. They define the terrain on which the match is fought. They are like armed seconds desperately involved but momentarily neutral. Both novelists set their stage with great care. James characterizes Maggie’s state of mind as that ‘of a tired actress’; he refers to the personages as ‘figures rehearsing some play; and gives the scene its mimetic intensity by having the two women meet outside a lit window through which they observe the two men. The chapter is organized around the duality of light and dark; Charlotte’s advance — ‘the splendid shining supple creature was out of the cage’ — in to zones of shadow. Dostoevsky hints at the same polarity; Aglaya is clad ‘in a light mantle’ whereas Nastasia is all in black. (A similar clash between ‘raven’ and blond’ defines the conflict in the climactic scene in Melville’s Pierre — and there, too, we see a quarter of characters in crucial juxtaposition.) James comments:

‘There reigned…during these vertiginous moments that fascination of the monstrous, that temptation of the horribly possible, which we so often trace by its breaking out suddenly, lest it should go further, in unexplained retreats and reactions.’

But whereas Maggie, by not deflecting ‘by a hair’s breadth’ into sincerity, avoids the ‘monstrous,’ Nastasia and Aglaya yield to ‘that temptation of the horribly possible.’ They taunt each other into the kind of half-truths out of which there is no retreat but to disaster.

Nastasia’ mood varies abruptly throughout the scene: it moves from asperity to amusement and from pathos to insane rage. Dostoevsky conveys the enormous wealth of possibilities latent in the encounter. We come to realize that it could turn in a number of totally different directions and that the violences of rhetoric which lead to catastrophe could — but for a final twist — have led to reconciliation. In the complex of energies, the dialogue acts as a dominant; but above and below it we should hear those other notes which Dostoevsky struck in his successive drafts and which the characters continue to strike in their integral freedom. (We speak, do we not, of a ‘living text’?)

Aglaya has come to tell Nastasia that Muishkin is attached to her solely out of compassion:

‘When I asked about you, he told me that he had long since cased to love you, that the very recollection of you was a torture to him, but that he was sorry for you; and that when he thought of you his heart was pierced. I ought to tell you that I never in my life met a man anything like him for noble simplicity of mind and for boundless truthfulness. I guessed that anyone who liked could deceive him, and that he would immediately forgive anyone who did deceive him; and it was for this that I grew to love him…’ (MY NOTE: Compare this translation to the one we’ve been using…)

Though her love for the Prince had shown itself during his epileptic fit at the Epanchins’, this is the first time she has formally declared it. The echo from Othello’s address to the Senators is deliberate; in his drafts Dostoevsky records that Aglaya’s declaration should convey something of the Moor’s serene simplicity. But in both instances simplicity borders on blindness. Muishkin is more greatly deceived by himself than by others; the separation in him of love from pity is too unstable to support Aglaya’s lucid portrayal. Being the riper woman, Nastasia knows this and will exploit it brilliantly. Hence her insistance that Aglaya should continue speaking. She divines that the young girl will literally ‘talk herself’ into an obscuring frenzy. Aglaya plunges into the trap laid for her by Nastasia’s silence. She assaults Nastasia’s private life and charges her with living in idleness. This irrelevant thrust, like a sudden imprecision of swordsmanship, allows Nastasia her revenge. She ripostes: ‘And do you not live in idleness?’

this brings to the fore the social critique latent but undeveloped in The Idiot. Nastasia suggests that Aglaya’s purity is dependent on her wealth and caste. She implies that her own degradation arose out of social circumstance. Driven by mounting anger and by awareness that she is no longer on firm ground, Aglaya hurls the name of Totsky at her rival. Nastasia now blazes into fury, but it is the fury of reason and she swiftly masters the debate. Aglaya shouts: ‘If you had cared to be an honest woman, you would have gone out as a laundress.’ The overtones of ‘laundress’ in colloquial Russian and Dostoevsky’s handling of the phrase in his notebooks suggest that Aglaya’s onslaught is specific and savage. She seems to be equivocating on the idea of a brothel; if Nastasia were honest she would live out her role to the full. the stroke is sharpened when we recollect that Nastasia herself had predicted she might become a ‘laundress’ in the wild gaiety of her flight with Rogojin.

But Aglaya has exceeded measure. Muishkin cries out in deep distress: ‘Aglaya, don’t! This is unfair.” His cry is the signal for Nastasia’s victory. With that completeness of realization which always leaves one awestruck, Dostoevsky adds in the next sentence that ‘Rogojin was not smiling now; he sat and listened with folded arms, and lips tight compressed.’ Goaded by Aglaya, Nastasia is impelled toward a triumph which she did not foresee and may not even have desired. She will tear Muishkin from General Epanchin’s daughter. In so doing, she signs her own death warrant. Here again a tragic philosophy of experience predominates: in the great duels of tragedy there are no victories, only diverse orders of defeat.

Nastasia passes to the attack. She tells Aglaya why this whole intolerable scene has come about:

‘You wished to satisfy yourself with your own eyes as to which he loves best, myself or you, because you are fearfully jealous.’
‘He has told me already that he hates you,’ murmured Aglaya, scarcely audibly.
‘Perhaps, perhaps! I am not worthy of him. I know. But I think you are lying all the same. He cannot hate me; and he cannot have said so.’

She is right, and Aglaya’s falsehood (in which weakness is so manifest) prompts Nastasia to exhibit her powers. Momentarily, she bids the girl take Muishkin and leave. But vengeance and a kind of desperate caprice prevail. She commands the Prince to choose between them:

‘Both she and Aglaya stood and waited as though in expectation, and both looked at the Prince like mad women.
But he, perhaps, did not understand the full force of their challenge; in fact, it is certain he did not. All he could see was the poor despairing face which, as he had said to Aglaya, ‘had pierced his heart for ever.’ He could bear it no longer, and with a look of entreaty, mingled with reproach, he addressed Aglaya, pointing to Nastasia the while.
“How can you?” he murmured, “she is so unhappy.”
But he had not time to say another word before Aglaya’s terrible look bereft him of speech. In that look was embodied so dreadful a suffering and so deadly a hatred, that he gave a cry and flew to her; but it was too late.’

For sharpness of crisis and totality of resolution, there is little to choose between James and Dostoevsky. But the effect of the two scenes is entirely different. When Maggie and Charlotte move back into the light and are joined by the two men, it is James’s resistance to melodrama which achieves a sense of persuasive reality. Pressures long accumulated and detailed for us in the course of minute analysis have been released through the narrowest of channels. We hold our breath lest either of the two women should deviate, even for an instant into one of the modes of rhetoric or gesture lying outside the exact range of Jamesian manner. Nothing of the kind occurs, and our response is of a musical or architectural order; a series of harmonic patterns have been resolved within the strict dictates of the rom; an area in space and light has been defined by the expected arch.

Dostoevsky, in contrast, yields to every temptation of melodrama. We do not know, until the last moment, whether Nastasia will surrender the Prince to her rival, whether Rogojin will intervene, whether the Prince will choose between the two women. There is warrant for each of these alternatives in the nature of the characters. And we are, I submit, meant to bear all these possibilities in mind as we read the text. In The Golden Bowl the impact depends on the exclusion of anything tangential; our satisfaction derives from realizing that ‘things could not have been otherwise.’ the climactic moments in The Idiot are moments of shock. Predestined (they exist only in the medium of language once set down), the characters nevertheless convey that sense of spontaneous life which is the particular miracle of drama.

The end of the scene is pure theater. Nastasia is left mistress of the field:

‘Mine, mine!’ she cried. ‘Has the proud young lady gone? Ha, ha, ha!’ she laughed hysterically. ‘And I had given him up to her! Why — why did I? Mad — mad! Get away, Rogojin! Ha, ha, ha!’

Aglaya has fled and Rogojin departs without uttering a word. The Prince and his ‘fallen angel’ are left together in chaotic bliss. He is stroking Nastasia’s face and hair as he would ‘a little child’s.’ The image is that of a pieta reversed. It is now Nastasia’s, the incarnation of will and intelligence, who lies incoherent whereas the ‘idiot’ watches over her in silent wisdom. As is often the case in tragedy, there is an interlude of peace — an armistice with disaster — between the events which have made disaster inevitable and the tragic end. Thus, Lear and Cordelia sit together joyfully among their murderous foes. No scene in fiction conveys more beautifully a sense of transitory calm after fury. Perhaps one should add that Dostoevsky preferred The Idiot to all his other works.”

Thursday’s Reading:

Part Four, Chapter Nine


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3 Responses to “It’s not possible! She’s…so unhappy!”

  1. Minnikin says:

    This was a powerful scene in chapter 8 – tension, drama…the word ‘theatrical’ is just about right! And thanks for the extra commentary from George Steiner. Fascinating. I especially love his line that ‘the characters seem admirably free from their creator’s will and our own previsions’ as well as his observation of the role of the men in this (& Henry James’s ‘The Golden Bowl’) scene: ‘In both scenes the two men at stake are tremendously present and yet immobile. They define the terrain on which the match is fought. They are like armed seconds desperately involved but momentarily neutral’.

  2. Marc Heiden says:

    This chapter was incredible. I felt adrift at times during Parts Two and Three, but this scene, following on the general’s sad and suprisingly tender saga, the strange gift of the hedgehog, the hope and speech and collapse at the party…just exhilarating.


  3. Marc Heiden says:

    (Accidentally hit send before I was done.)

    I think Dostoevsky’s compression of time helped give me some of the same awe the characters hold toward Nastasya. It’s been quite a while, in terms of pages, since we’ve seen her in person. And she delivers on that mystique. Her demand for the prince to choose reminded me of Ganya and the money in the fire at the end of Part One. Nastasya forces people to make painful choices…

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