Part One, Chapter Four, Sections 5-7
by Dennis Abrams
“The Lame Girl” concluded. Shatov and Anton visit Lebyadkin’s sister. The apartment, “Everywhere there were crumbs, litter, puddles; a big thick soaking-wet rag lay in the middle of the floor in the first room, and in the same pool sat an old, worn-out boot.” Mlle. Lebyadkin, “sitting placidly and inaudibly in the second room, in the corner, at a wooden kitchen table, on a bench…I made out a woman of perhaps thirty, sickly thin, wearing a dark old cotton dress, her long neck not covered with anything, her scanty dark hair twisted at the nape into a small knot no bigger than a two-year-old child’s fist.” A deck of cards, a songbook, a roll of white German bread. “Mlle Lebyadkin used white makeup and rouge on her face, and wore lipstick.” Her lameness, her quiet serene joy, “her quiet tender gray eyes were remarkable even now; something dreamy and sincere shone in her quiet, almost joyful look.” Shatov and Mlle. Lebyadkin talk. Mlle. Lebyadkin wonders how people can be bored. Her treatment of her brother like a lackey, his abuse, her fits that take away her memory, “so that after them she forgets everything that’s just happened…She’s an extraordinary dreamer; she sits in one place for eight hours, for a whole day.” Mlle. Lebyadkin reads the cards, “It keeps coming out the same: a journey, a wicked man, someone’s perfidy, a deathbed, a letter from somewhere, unexpected news — it’s all lies, I think…If people lie, why shouldn’t cards lie?” Her life in the convent with Mother Paraskovya. Mother Lizaveta the blessed, “was set in our convent wall, in a cage seven feet long and five feet high, and for seventeen years she’s been sitting there behind the iron bars, winter and summer, in nothing but a hempen shift…” What is the Mother of God? “the Mother of God is our great mother the moist earth, and therein lies a great joy for man.” Pointed Mountain. Marya’s dreams of motherhood. Marya insists, “I won’t tell, I won’t tell, put a knife in me, but I won’t tell…burn me, but I won’t tell. And however much I suffer, I won’t say anything, people will never find out!” Lebyadkin is heard on the stairway, Anton and Shatov put the furniture back in place and retreat to Shatov’s apartment, hoping to avoid the Captain. Lebyadkin pounds on Shatov’s door drunkenly announcing he’s in love. Shatov accuses him of selling his sister, he responds, “Lies! I am a victim of slander, though…with one explanation I could…do you understand who she is?” “Who is she?” What is Anton to conclude? “An incredible idea was growing stronger and stronger in my imagination. In anguish I thought of the next day…” The next day, a Sunday, is the day that Stepan’s fate will be decided. It seems a muddle, “And yet it all resolved itself in a way no one could have imagined. In short, it was a day of surprisingly converging accidents.” Stepan and Anton arrive at Varvara’s. Stepan’s outfit “was distinguished by its remarkable elegance…” Shatov arrives. Varvara is at church alone, Darya is upstairs, “as she [was] feeling somewhat unwell.” Varvara arrives, “suddenly she all but flew into the room, much more slowly, Lizaveta Nikolaevna came in, and arm in arm with Lizaveta Nikolaevna — Marya Timofeevna Lebyadkin! If I had seen it in a dream, I never would have believed it.” (The narrator goes back one hour to the church: Varvara in black, the first arrival of the new governor’s wife. Marya Timofeevna arrives by cab, her face painted with white makeup and rouge, enters the church, drops down on the church dais and lies weeping for a time. Who will approach the cross first: The governor’s wife or Varvara? At the exit, Marya kneels in front of Varvara. Varvara’s charitable work, her local ladies’ committee to aid the poorest new mothers. Marya wishes to kiss Varvara’s hand. Varvara’s gift of ten roubles. The kiss. Varvara gives Marya her (far from inexpensive) shawl. Varvara learns the woman is one of the Lebyadkins, offers to take her home with her and then have her driven back to her own home later. Lizaveta begs to go with them. Varvara meets the new governor’s wife. Varvara learns that Marya is lame, becoming frightened and pale. On the ride to her home, Varvara sat, according to Lizaveta, “as if in some magnetic sleep.”
Marya Timofeevna Lebyadkin. It seems to me that she can be linked to both Sonia in Crime and Punishment as well as to Myshkin. George Steiner in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky has much to say about this intriguing character:
“The personage of Marya Timoffeyevna poses searching problems in critical tact. They have not always been resolved. Her family name contains an allusion to the theme of the pure white swan prevalent in the folklore of Russian heretical sects. She is a cripple, like Lise in The Brothers Karamazov, and feeble-minded in a more extreme measure than Prince Muishkin. Mysteriously, she is at once mother, virgin, and bride. Lebyadkin flogs her with a cossack whip, and yet she is telling the truth when she declares ‘he’s my footman.’ She has lived in a convent where an old woman ‘doing penance for prophecy’ (Dostoevsky would have us know that there are sins of insight) has confirmed to her that the Mother of God ‘is the Great Mother — the damp earth.’ Marya treasures this assurance, and it clothes her in strange majesty. Father Bulgakov may be justified in saying that this association between the Virgin and the Magna Mater of the ancient east makes of the Cripple a pre-Christian figure. But Marya also incarnates Dostoevsky’s consummate reflections on the New Testament and she appears to foreshadow a post-historical, authentic Catholicism in which the worship of the nurturing earth shall play an essential part. These theological overtones are clearly intended and must be taken into account. But Marya Timofeyevna is, at the same time, totally involved in the specific iconography of [Demons]. When interpreted through an external symbolism, she retreats into contradiction and obscurity. Ivanov argues that through the Cripple, Dostoevsky,
‘tried to show how the eternally-feminine principle in the Russian soul has to suffer violence and oppression at the hands of those Daemons who in the people content against Christ for the mastery of the masculine principle in the people’s consciousness. He sought to show how these Daemons, in their attack upon the Russian soul, also wound the Mother of God herself (as shown in the symbolic episode of the desecration of the ikon), although their vilifications cannot reach her invisible depths…’
The commentary is ingenious and erudite, but it proceeds from the real to the less real. The ‘meanings’ of Marya Timofeyevna cannot be translated accurately into a previous body of myth or dialectic; they inhere in the self-consistent entirety of the poem. And it is with poetry, in the full sense, that we are confronted.
Let us consider one of the most riddling, yet luminous passages in the novel. It deals with Marya’s dreams of motherhood, with her memories of a secret flowering of consciousness, of an ‘annunciation.’
‘Sometimes I remember it was a boy, and sometimes it was a girl. And when he was born, I wrapped him up in cambric and lace, and put pink ribbons on him, strewed him with flowers, got him ready, said prayers over him. I took him away unchristened and carried him through the forest, and I was frightened, and what I weep for most is that I had a baby and I never had a husband.’
‘Perhaps you had one?’ Shatov queried cautiously?
‘You’re absurd, Shatushka, with your reflections. Perhaps I had, but what’s the use of my having had one if it is just the same as though I hadn’t. There’s an easy riddle for you, guess it,’ she smiled.
‘Where did you take your baby?’
‘I took it to the pond,’ she said with a sigh.
Shatov nudged me again: ‘And what if you never had a baby and this is all a wild dream?’
‘You ask me a hard question, Shatushka,’ she answered dreamily, without a trace of surprise at such a question. ‘I can’t tell you anything about that. Perhaps I hadn’t: I think it’s only your curiosity. I shan’t leave off crying for him; anyway, I couldn’t have dreamt it…’ And big tears glittered in her eyes.
This is sheer poetry, not unlike the feverish dream-poetry of Ophelia. What Marya calls ‘an easy riddle’ is, I think, the crux of [Demons. We cannot unravel it through a glossary of symbols and equivalences outside the novel…In Marya’s reverie there is both the notion of an immaculate conception and the older mythology of earth spirits bedecking the child with flowers and carrying it through the forest in some rite of purgation and sacrifice. But the tears are real, harrowingly real; they lead back from the dream-world into the grievous destines of the plot.”
And finally, to prepare you for the Weekend’s Reading and beyond, this from Nabokov:
‘The next day…was a day of surprises, a day that solved past riddles and suggested new ones, a day or startling revelations and still more hopeless perplexity. In the morning…I was, by Varvara Petrovna’s particular request, to accompany my friend Stepan Trofimovich on his visit to her and at three o’clock in the afternoon I had to be with Lizaveta Nikolavna in order to tell her — I did not know what — and to assist her — I did not know how. And meanwhile it all ended as no one could have expected. In a word, it was a day of wonderful coincidences.’
“At Varvara Petrovna’s the author, with all the gusto of a playwright tackling his climax, crams in, one after the other, all the characters of Demons, two of them arriving from abroad. it is incredible nonsense, but is grand booming nonsense with flashes of genius illuminating the whole gloomy and mad farce.
Once collected in one room, these people trample on each other’s dignity, have terrific rows…and these rows just fizzle out as the narrative takes a sharp new turn.
It is, as in all Dostoevski’s novels, a rush and tumble of words…”
I can hardly wait.
The Weekend’s Reading:
Part One, Chapter Five, Sections 1-5
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.