Russian winters are notoriously severe and train travel is especially trying during the cold, snowy months. Outside the train windows are only bleak sheets of landscape; inside, the seats and the wood paneling are chilly and frosted. The air is icy and one simply sits and waits — jogging monotonously, listening to the train creaking, and anxious for the end of the journey.
The three men jostling along together in their narrow train compartment do not speak to one another nor even exchange stock pleasantries or small talk. But they are not unaware of each other, and during the train ride they intermittently study one another — face, clothes, and luggage — before drifting off into their half-sleeps. There is an unreal atmosphere that persists until curiosity gets the best of one of the men — a dark-haired, fiery-eyed youth. He shoots question after sarcastic question at the passenger opposite him and when he hears the answers he is not sure whether or not to believe him.
Myshkin, introducing himself, explains to Rogozhin that he has no money and has had to leave the mental institution in Switzerland where he has lived for four years. In desperation he wrote his only living relative — the wife of General Epanchin — asking for money but received no answer. Now he has come to Petersburg hoping to contact her.
Rogozhin can scarcely believe such extraordinary candor, and with great drama and much detail relates his own history. Some months ago he fell passionately in love with the town beauty, stole money from his father to buy her some earrings, and barely escaped his father's wrath before falling ill at an aunt's house in another city. When he recovered, he discovered that his father had died of a stroke, that the funeral was over, and that his brother had cut the gold tassels off their father's coffin.
Lebedyev, the third man in the railway carriage, hangs fast to every word he hears — interrupting, objecting, and modifying Rogozhin's story according to the popular gossip he has heard. Lebedyev is a middle-aged petty official and is very excited by this stroke of good fortune, this accidental witnessing of Rogozhin's and Myshkin's confessions to one another.
As the train comes to a halt in the Petersburg station, Rogozhin assures Myshkin that their meeting has been propitious. He insists that Myshkin come visit him and help squander the spoils of his inheritance. Myshkin is surprised and grateful for the invitation; he promises to do so. Rogozhin then dashes off to join a noisy band of friends hailing him and Lebedyev tags after the wild-tempered youth.
Myshkin hails a cab. The Epanchin estate will soon receive a most unusual visitor.
Handling exposition — explaining necessary background information in order that the main actions can develop — is usually one of the most trying steps in novel writing. Too much said too obviously can be insulting and old-fashioned; too little said too subtly can be confusing. Sometimes an author will decide to have a couple of servants open a work and will have them briefly discuss the master's doings and the mistress' problems; sometimes he will insert a stranger into the opening scene, someone who must be told the current complications and crises. Sometimes, and frequently in the nineteenth-century novel, the matter is handled like this: the first chapters detail the setting and introduce the characters and thus the problem of exposition is solved immediately and the story is free to begin its action.
This is often Dostoevsky's method. It is seemingly direct, yet there is subtlety in his design. Concerning The Idiot, one can say that the chance meeting of Myshkin and Rogozhin is an obvious device of Dostoevsky, but the personalities of the two men, their introduction to us, is not revealed outright by Dostoevsky; the men themselves do the revealing. First they observe one another, then they spend the last bit of the journey telling each other the intimate details of their lives. Dostoevsky has the young men provide each other with their very different backgrounds, and the explanations are wholly convincing; they never seem contrived. Conversations with fellow travelers often lend themselves to just such confessions.
Perhaps since typical nineteenth-century exposition has been mentioned, one should note another characteristic of that century's fiction — also characteristic of Dostoevsky's work. This is the matter of the author's interrupting the plot to speak to his readers. Happily Dostoevsky never addresses his readers, as some novelists of that period do, as "Dear Reader," but his personal sermonettes to the reader are incorporated in his novels. Consider, for instance, how Dostoevsky seizes on Lebedyev, the petty official, attacking this type of fellow and openly betraying his contempt for such shallow gossipy types. He labels the copying clerk as an "omniscient gentleman" but explains a bit later that on second thought "omniscient" is inaccurate because the knowledge that these types possess is merely surface knowledge-reconstructed bits of overheard conversations and whispered speculations.
Dostoevsky also intrudes himself into his story, though only in passing, when he describes Prince Myshkin. The young man's face, he says, has "that strange look from which some people can recognize at the first glance a victim of epilepsy." Obviously the author, afflicted with epilepsy himself, was highly sensitive and imagined that others were immediately aware of and repulsed by his epilepsy. Such is not the case, however, with epilepsy; its victims are quite ordinary looking. Here, Dostoevsky is exposing his nervous self-consciousness.
There are more short surges of pure Dostoevsky throughout this novel, and if one enjoys reading he should be alert to the author within a work. Dostoevsky, in particular, is more accessible if one knows something of the highly emotional and penetrating genius which was responsible for — in addition to The Idiot — Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The dualism, for instance — the contrast between Myshkin and Rogozhin in this first chapter is much more than a convenient way that Dostoevsky used to contrast two main characters. Dualism is a concept that long obsessed Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky's father was well known for his drunkenness and his lechery and Dostoevsky's mother for all the opposite qualities: piety, patience, and generosity. Throughout Dostoevsky's childhood and adolescence, he lived, day in, day out, with his father's extreme profanity and his mother's extreme gentleness. Inside his maturing soul, these opposites of temper took root and Dostoevsky's adult life was never free of torment. He suffered terribly from the dichotomy within himself, and compounding his burden was the realization that the dualism that tormented him also furnished him delight. In his collected Letters, he writes that he is oddly able to appreciate his hypersensitivity; that although reason and emotion war within him, he can be grateful. He is defined by his twofold self; he feels spiritually and mentally mature; his dualism is simply the price and the reward for deep consciousness — thus the strain of dualism in his novels.
The dualism — the magnetism of opposites for one another — between Myshkin and Rogozhin is first sparked when Rogozhin speaks to Myshkin. Rogozhin's rhetorical, sarcastic question concerning the cold weather is answered by Myshkin quickly and in a friendly way, and immediately we see that the two men are opposite types. Myshkin seems not to notice, or if he does, not to mind, Rogozhin's callousness, and there is even humor in Myshkin's reply that, since the weather is thawing, what might winter really be like? As Rogozhin's questions continue to be irrelevant and jeering, Myshkin's answers remain unassuming and a curious thing happens as the chapter ends. Myshkin finds himself caught up by Rogozhin's exoticism and Rogozhin finds it difficult to leave the childlike Myshkin. Dostoevsky has sketched the genesis of a fascinating magnetism between the men.
Besides being opposites in temperament, Rogozhin and Myshkin are also opposites in their physical appearance. Myshkin is fair-haired, hollow-cheeked, blue-eyed, and a bit above medium height; Rogozhin is short and dark-haired, with high cheekbones and fiery eyes. Despite their differences, each man is credible. Neither is a character of one dimension. Myshkin is meek, but he is not without spirit; Rogozhin is passion personified, but he is no black-hearted villain. The actions of a one-dimensional character can be accurately predicted and hold no interest for the reader; no one, however, can guess what might happen next in a Dostoevsky novel. Myshkin and Rogozhin are far from being stock hero and villain; each has more of his flaws and brilliances revealed later and it is only in a broad sense that the two men form a Dostoevskian duality. Their creator is too much a master to allow his major characters to be marionettes.
As one reads The Idiot, he must remember not to expect slice-of-life fiction from Dostoevsky. Myshkin and Rogozhin are characters more sensitive and more passionate than one's next door neighbors. They exhibit the height and the depth of human potential for feeling and action. They, like Shakespeare's characters, are larger than life and far removed from the herd image. In general, one can say that Myshkin and Rogozhin are outsiders: Rogozhin is a black sheep, the family rogue, and Myshkin has lived away from Russia and has been only in the company of either the ill or the neurotic for over four years. He lacks what is usually called "common sense." He has not remembered to dress warmly enough for a Russian winter; he takes no offense at Rogozhin's blatant rudeness; and he readily divulges the details of his nervous disease to an obviously uninterested stranger. His behavior, like Rogozhin's, is certainly not ordinary. Ironically, however, of the two men, it is Prince Myshkin who seems the more rational, the more normal, even though he reveals that he has just left a mental institution. It is Rogozhin, on the other hand, who appears the more neurotic. His interrogation of Myshkin seems sadistic and his long monologue is certainly too passionate.
Besides being outsiders, both Myshkin and Rogozhin are, in a typical nineteenth-century fashion, romantic figures. Myshkin wears the cape of the romantic vagabond and carries his taint of illness, along with the tied-up bundle of all his possessions. As for Rogozhin, his emotions are romantically torrential: the rush of words tumbling out of him as he narrates his melodramatic love story; his father's beating him for an hour, threatening his life; his loud weeping; and Rogozhin's threat to thrash the pesky Lebedyev within an inch of his life — all these are in the spirit of pure romance, an element that pervades all of Dostoevsky's fiction despite his super-realistic, minutely detailed settings and his intense psychological investigations of character.
One last small but definitely Dostoevskian touch in this first chapter — namely, money matters — merits a brief mention. Myshkin is penniless: Rogozhin comes to claim an inheritance; Rogozhin comments that the money spent on the doctors who attended Myshkin was wasted; Lebedyev underscores Rogozhin's slur by adding that Myshkin wasted postage money writing to Mrs. Epanchin; Rogozhin's brother was so money-hungry that he cut the solid-gold tassels off his father's coffin; and when the chapter ends, Rogozhin promises to stuff Myshkin's pockets with cash. More allusions to money continue through the novel, but already there are these several early references. Russian critics are quick to point out, of course, that The Idiot shows the corruption of good people by money, but it is as credible to believe that Dostoevsky very often wrote about money problems for the reason that he was forever beset with debts and creditors, and sometimes had to crank out his fiction at top speed to meet his bills.