Part One, Chapter Five, Section 6
by Dennis Abrams
“The Wise Serpent” — after Nikolai Vsevolodovich and Mary Timofeevna leave, “everyone suddenly began talking. Or not so much talking as exclaiming.” Stepan speaks in French, Varvara “could not be bothered with him.” Pyotr Stepanovich was “desperately convincing Varvara Petrovna of something, with big gestures…” Pyotr Stepanovich (Petrusha) wants to explain, “there are still cases when it is difficult for a man to bring himself to explain things personally, and it must be undertaken by a third person…Besides, the whole anecdote only does honor to Nikolai Vsevolodovich, if it’s necessary to use this vague word ‘honor’…” Varvara takes the bait. “…it’s not even an anecdote…However a novelist might cook up a novel from it in an idle moment.” Five years earlier, Nikolai Vsevolodovich (Stavrogin) got to know Lebyadkin “who is standing here with his mouth hanging open and, it seems, was just about to slip away…I’d advise you not to take to your heels, mister retired official of the former supply department…” “Nikolai Vsevolodovich used to call this gentleman his ‘Falstaff.'” Stavrogin’s life in St. Petersburg was “a jeering one…he scorned then to do anything serious.” Lebyadkin and his sister, “had no corner of their own, and wandered about staying with various people…He loitered under the arcades of the Gostiny Dvor…His sister lived like the birds of the air.” Stavrogin’s “whimsicality.” Most people made fun of Marya, Stavrogin didn’t. Once when Marya was being mistreated took a clerk by the scruff of the neck and threw him out a second floor window. “And Nikolai Vsevolodovich, as if on purpose, aroused the dream even more; instead of just laughing at it, he suddenly began addressing Mademoiselle Lebyadkin with unexpected esteem.” “You assume, Mr. Kirillov, that I am laughing at her; let me assure you that I do indeed respect her, because she is better than any of us.” Hardly a word except for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Marya fall is love, thinks of him as her fiancee. Kirillov: “You chose on purpose…a cripple covered in eternal shame and beatings — and knowing…that this being is dying of her comical love for you…” Varvara denies that her son is guilty of ‘whimsicality,’ “…this was something higher than whimsicality and, I assure you, even something holy!” Stavrogin as Prince Harry, Stavrogin as Hamlet, “But Nicolas never had Horatio, or an Ophelia. He had only his mother…” Petrusha: “It’s like with religion; the worse a man’s life is, or the more downtrodden and poor a whole people is, the more stubbornly they dream of a reward in paradise…” Varvara recognizes herself in her son, and recognizes her guilt for thinking badly of him and believing the anonymous letters. “And this poor, this unfortunate being, this insane woman who has lost everything and kept only her heart, I now intend to adopt.” On leaving Petersburg, Stavrogin set up a pension for Marya and sent her to the convent to be cared for, Lebyadkin found out, took the money, took her out of the convent, and began beating her to get more money from Stavrogin. Lebyadkin confesses that it is true. Lebyadkin goes to leave, but in the doorway runs into the returning Nicolai Vsevolodovich.
A couple of things…
1. I was struck by Varvara’s “…but tell me, can it really be that in order to extinguish the dream in this unfortunate organism…Nicolas too, should have laughed at her and treated her as the other clerks did? Can it really be that you reject that lofty compassion, that noble tremor of the whole organism with which Nicolas suddenly so sternly answered Kirillov: ‘I do not laugh at her.’ A lofty, holy, answer.” Like the narrator, I do can not understand why she used the term “organism.”
2. I was also struck by the news that “Nikolai Vsevolodovich used to call this gentleman [Lebyadkin] his Falstaff.” Stepan compared Stavrogin to Prince Hal, Stavrogin called Lebyadkin his Falstaff (both comparisons made seemingly independent of each other).
3. Is the ‘sudden demon of irony,’ that Varvara says has tormented Stavrogin all his life one of the demons that Dostoevsky refers to in the title?
4. And finally, I loved the way in which Varvara managed to praise both herself and her son, while putting poor Stepan down at the same time:
“Then you will understand the impulse with which, in this blindness of nobility, one suddenly takes a man in all respects even unworthy of one, profoundly lacking in understanding of one, who is ready to torment one at the first opportunity, and, contrary to everything, makes such a man into some sort of ideal, one’s dream, concentrates on him all one’s hopes, worships him, loves him all one’s life, absolutely without knowing why, perhaps precisely because he is unworthy of it…Oh, how I’ve suffered all my life, Pyotr Stepanovich!” With the added gloss of “Stepan Trofimovich, with a pained look, tried to catch my eyes, but I dodged just in time.”
Part One, Chapter Five, Sections 7-8