The End of The Idiot, The Beginning of Demons
by Dennis Abrams
For those of you who haven’t read The Idiot, I have a brief introduction below. But first, I wanted to finish up our discussion of The Idiot with John Givens’ look at the end of the novel, from his essay, “A Narrow Escape into Faith? Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy”:
BEYOND THE POOR KNIGHT
‘At first I didn’t understand and I laughed, but now I love the ‘poor knight,’ but more than that, I applaud his deeds.’
“In the end, Myshkin seems doomed to fulfill the destiny of Pushkin’s Poor Knight, to whom he is likened by Aglaia earlier in the novel, and live out his life ‘prey to grief,’ eventually dying ‘like a madman.’ yet the novel does not end with Nastasia Filippovna’s murder and Myshkin’s idiocy, in seeming tragedy. Its real conclusion is still to come, in the next and final chapter, where the novel’s comic vision reasserts itself, fleetingly but forcefully, and at the very last moment. The ‘Poor Knight’s’ deeds, it seems may not have been in vain. If the New Comedy must close with a wedding and the Christian comic vision must at least hint at resurrection, then these things are to be found in the book’s last chapter, where the ‘permanent trace’ Myshkin left behind him is revealed in those gathered around him at the Swiss Clinic in the last pages of the novel. it is curious, but understandable, that so little attention has been paid to this, the novel’s actual conclusion (this despite the fact that Dostoevsky titles it Zakliuchenie [‘conclusion] — no other chapter in the book has a title.) A mere few pages, it can hardly compete with the shocking murder scene described in the chapter that precedes it. yet the developments summarized in this last chapter considerably deflect the tragic tenor of the novel and conclude it, instead, on a much more ambivalent note.
We learn that, somewhat paradoxically, it is the novel’s raisonneur, Radomskii, who sees to Myshkin’s care, arranging for Dr. Schneider at the Swiss Clinic to take his patient back and even frequently visiting him there. During one of those visits, he is joined by Mme Epanchina and two of her daughters. Alexandra (now married to Prince Shch) and Adelaida. Radomskii is a changed man. Formerly the cool voice of reason ion the novel, he now ‘has a heart,’ we are told, as demonstrated by hsi care of the prince and his correspondence with two unlikely pen pals: Kolia (Gania Ivolgin’s little brother and a devoted disciple of Myshkin) and Vera Lebedeva, Lebedev’s oldest daughter. Besides Aglaia’s fate, the most surprising development in the months since Myshkin’s relapse into idiocy is the romantic attachment that has developed, largely through their correspondence, between Radomskii and Vera Lebedeva. The narrator is at a loss to explain it, except that it all began in connection with ‘what had happened to the prince.’
This development is noteworthy. First, in this novel of characters with significant names, Vera means ‘faith,’ thus hinting at an impending marriage in the novel between Reason (in the person of Radomskii) and Faith (in the person of Vera). Second, we are reminded of the special relationship once shared between Vera Lebedeva and Prince Myshkin. In many ways, she — not Aglaia or Nastasia Filippovna — is the most suitable mate for Myshkin. The novel’s Christ figure, after all, is best matched to Faith. Dostoevsky’s symbolism is direct here — raising her baby sister, Lyubov’ (‘Love’) in place of their dead mother, Vera is an obvious image of ‘Faith nursing Love’ in the novel. As Myshkin’s housekeeper at Lebedev’s dacha, Vera is in close contact with the prince, takes care of him, and has an obvious affection for him. Myshkin, too, is somewhat taken with her. He thinks of her inexplicably and at odd moments, such as when he confesses his fear of Nastasia Filippovna’s face to Radomskii or during his final search for Nastasia after she abandons him at the altar. When he takes leave of her for the last time, he kisses ‘her hands’ and then kisses ‘her herself’ on the forehead. Indeed, she is the only woman whom he actually kisses in the novel. Her sudden appearance on the novel’s final stage — even if only virtual, through her letters — puts her (and Kolia, for the same reason) in a select company around Myshkin one last time.
With the exception of Radomskii, these are the people who most cared about the prince during his brief time in Russia, and even Radomskii seems to look at the prince ‘in his sick and humiliated state’ differently. He now views the prince under the influence of Vera. The implication is that reason alone cannot understand the ‘sick and humiliated’ face of the prince; it must be aided by faith. There is the suggestion here of a ‘new society’ forming around the prince, one that has been influenced and changed by him and one that stands in opposition to the dark forces of murder and destruction that hover menacingly over the novel. This company of friends is the new comic society of the New Comedy whose unity is symbolized by the impending marriage of Radomskii and Vera. Their wedding both reveals the significance of the comic marriage plot and links it to the novel’s comic Christology, for in Radomskii, Vera, Kolia, and Mme Epanchina, we glimpse that ‘accidental family’ that so fascinated Dostoevsky — one bound together not by blood but by belief. As in all comedies, the establishment of a more sensible order of things is in the offing, one hinting at a resurrection — the regeneration of Russia itself (a topic very much on Dostoevsky’s mind while he wrote the novel), where the ideal of the Russian Christ in the sacrifice of the idiot prince will be preserved and promoted by this nascent ‘accidental family.’ As one of the novel’s outsized comic characters, Mme Epanchina fittingly brings the novel to a close with the confirmation of the common sense that reasserts itself at the end of comedies and an implied affirmation of Russia itself. ‘There’s been enough getting carried away with things,’ she declares, ‘it’s time to listen to common sense. And all this, and all this abroad, and all this Europe of yours, it’s all just an illusion, and all of us abroad are nothing but an allusion…mark my words, you’ll see!’ Murray Krieger, in an article otherwise very critical of the novel and Myshkin in particular, correctly points out that these words of Mme Epanchina (‘one of Dostoevsky’s most magnificent creations”0 are spoken ‘beyond the tragic vision’ of the novel. He is right. Comedy gets the last word.
‘Comedy is an escape,’ Christopher Fry assures us, ‘not from truth but from despair: a narrow escape into faith.’ A narrow escape into faith is what the company gathered here at the end of the novel quietly implies. Myshkin, our ‘Prince Christ,’ points the way in his total relinquishment of reason in an act of pure agape. Radomskii, Myshkin’s greatest former skeptic, follows his heasrt and not his head and aligns himself romantically with that ‘wonder girl’ (Myshkin’s words) Vera, whose very name declares the escape route from tragedy proposed by the novel: ‘faith.’ Ultimately, we face the same choice as do Radomskii, Mme. Epanchina, and the others at the end of the novel. Do we see vacant idiocy in Myshkin, the equivalent of Holbein’s dead Christ? Or is Myshkin’s ‘sick and humiliated state’ the face of the humiliated God, an icon-like market of the Russian Christ, and hence an affirmation of faith, a reason to believe in the midst of tragedy? Dostoevsky, characteristically, does not choose for us. Indeed, he makes belief a hard choice, just as it had always been for himself. His narrator’s submerged comic vision, however, suggests one way that the novel’s tragedy may be subtly subverted.”
But on the other hand, as Nabokov summed it up in his “Lectures on Russian Literature,”
“At this point I shall quote a very apt remark by Mirsky about Dostoevski: ‘His Christianity…is of a very doubtful kind…It was a more or less superficial spiritual formation which it is dangerous to identify with real Christianity.’ If we add to this that he kept throwing his weight about as a true interpreter of Orthodox Christianity, and that for the untying of every psychological or psychopathic knot he inevitably leads us to Christ, or rather to his own interpretation of Christ, and to the holy Orthodox Church, we shall better understand the truly irritating side of Dostoevski as ‘philosopher.'”
And this regarding the ending…
“Well, eventually Rogozhin, being the most normal of the three, cannot bear it any longer and kills Nastasya. Dostoevski furnishes him with extenuating circumstances: Rogozhin while committing his crime was running a high fever. He spend some time in a hospital and then is sentence to Siberia, that storeroom for Dostoevski’s discarded waxworks. Myshkin, after spending the night in the company of Rogozhin by the side of the murdered Nastasya, suffers a final relapse into insanity and returns to the asylum in Switzerland where he had spent his youth and where he ought to have stayed all along. All this crazy hash is interspersed with dialogues destined to depict the respective points of view of different circles of society upon such questions as capital punishment or the great mission of the Russian nation. The characters never say anything without either paling, or flushing, or staggering on their feet. The religious aspects are nauseating in their tastelessness. The author relies completely on definitions without bothering to support them with proofs: e.g., Nastasya, who is, we are told, a paragon of reserve and distinction and refinement of manner, behaves occasionally like a furious bad-tempered hussy.
But the plot itself is ably developed with many ingenious devices used to prolong the suspense. Some of these devices appear to me, when compared to Tolstoy’s methods, like blows of a club instead of the light touch of an artist’s fingers, but there are many critics who would not agree with this view.”
Indeed. I find Nabokov’s deep-seated dislike of Dostoevsky amusing if somewhat puzzling. Does he know something we don’t because of his ability to read him in the original Russian? Or is it something personal? Or Nabokov being difficult? (He also took joy in dismissing Hemingway and Conrad as “writers of books for boys…I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches,” Thomas Mann’s “asinine Death in Venice Pasternak’s “vilely written Zhivago and Faulkner’s “corn-cobby chronicles,’ as well as “that awful Monsieur Camus,” the “not quite first-rate Eliot…and definitely second-rate Pound,” and “the so-called ‘realism’ of old novels, the easy platitudes of Balzac or Somerset Maugham, or D.H. Lawrence…”
On Monday we’ll begin reading Demons — and I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to be getting started on this one. Elif Bautman, the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (a terrific book — highly recommended) had this to say about it:
“Arguably Dostoevsky’s most enigmatic novel, sprawling, ideologically overpopulated, generically ambiguous, Demons — formerly translated as The Possessed haunts me like a prophetic dream. The title comes from the novel’s epigraph, the verses Luke 8:32-36, in which demons leave the man whom they have possessed and enter a herd of swine; the rush down a steep bank into a lake and are drowned.”
Or, as Joyce Carol Oates described it in the beginning of her essay “Tragic Rites in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed”
SOMEHOW IT HAS HAPPENED—no one knows quite how, or why—that the incidence of violence and robbery has doubled. Arsonists’ fires have ravaged towns and villages, and in some places there is even disease: plague, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. The manager of a factory in the town of Shpigulin has shamelessly cheated the workers, and working conditions are very poor; subversive leaflets have appeared, urging the overthrow of the existing order; the idle, prankish company that routinely gathers in the Governor’s mansion is becoming involved in adventures of an increasingly reckless kind. (They are called the Jeerers or the Tormentors.) The historic Church of the Nativity of Our Lady is plundered and a live mouse left behind the broken glass of the icon. Fedka, the escaped convict, a former serf who was sold into the army, many years before, in order to pay his master’s gambling debt, roams the countryside committing crimes—not just robbery but arson and murder as well. The police seem unable to find him. “Strange characters” appear—a human flotsam that comes out of nowhere to plague society. Madmen erupt. Women become obsessed with feminism. Generals transform themselves into lawyers, divinity students speak out rudely, poets dress themselves in peasant costumes. The son of the province’s most wealthy landowner has contracted a marriage in jest, it would seem, after a night of drinking—with a woman of the very lowest social order, who is both lame and demented. A nineteen-year-old boy has committed suicide and a party of pleasure-seekers crowds into the room to examine him: one of the ladies says, “I’m so bored with everything that I can’t afford to be too fussy about entertainment—anything will do as long as it’s amusing.” It seems that a number of people in the area have taken to hanging and shooting themselves. Is the ground suddenly starting to slip from beneath our feet? Is the great country of Russia as a whole approaching a crisis? Demons begin to appear, licking like flames about the foundations of order; a Trickster-Demon springs out of nowhere and, very much like the gloating Dionysus of Euripides’ The Bacchae, wants only to sow disruption, madness, and death. “We shall proclaim destruction,” Peter Verkhovensky tells his idol Stavrogin, “because—because . . . the idea is so attractive for some reason! And anyway, we need some exercise.” Joyce Carol Oates, “Tragic Rites in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.”
I hope you’ll join the reading.
And finally…please post your final thoughts on The Idiot. And also…please post your suggestions on ways I can improve the blog. Are the posts too long? Too short? Too much synopsis? What can I do to make it better for you?
Enjoy your weekend.