The Idiot By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part I: Chapters 5-7

Summary

General Epanchin has rightly calculated his wife's reaction to Prince Myshkin; she is most disturbed to learn that the last of her family is penniless and, moreover, that he is an "idiot" (his own words); immediately she forgets all about Nastasya Filippovna and the general's gift of pearls. The Epanchin girls beg their mother to receive Myshkin, for he sounds as though he will be a curiosity, a performing diversion for them. And thus Myshkin is ushered in and the general, pleased that his ruse has been successful, excuses himself.

At first, Mme. Epanchin questions Myshkin as insolently as did Rogozhin and the other people whom Myshkin has met in Petersburg but, exactly as the others have, Mme. Epanchin begins to like the strange prince, and she and her daughters invite him into the drawing room for further conversation.

First, Mrs. Epanchin asks Myshkin for a story and he tells her of his impressions of Switzerland. The Epanchin girls laugh at his honest reactions to the country, but their mother does not join them, and she admires Myshkin's ability to withstand the taunts of her sharp-tongued daughters. Next, Myshkin tells the women about a man who was sentenced to hang but who was reprieved at the last moment. Myshkin even tells of his talk with the man but then, being obviously moved by what he is saying, he breaks off abruptly. The women are now curious about the prince's spurts of uninhibited narrative; he is certainly unique, and even more so after he resumes his storytelling and describes for them an execution he witnessed. He further surprises the Epanchin women by suggesting that Adelaida paint the face of the second man he has described, the face of the man condemned to die.

The Epanchin women are spellbound by Myshkin's narrative, grim as it has been, and encourage him to speak more. This time, however, they plead that he speak not of death but of love — love which he has actually experienced. He disappoints them by declaring that he has never been in love. Then he recaptures his audience with the strange tale of Marie, outcast of the village where Myshkin stayed in Switzerland.

Marie was jeered at by the townspeople, by their children, and even by her own mother because she allowed herself to be seduced and then abandoned by a traveling salesman. Myshkin alone took pity on the unfortunate consumptive and began to speak kindly of her to the village children. Gradually Myshkin was able to restore the children's love and respect for Marie, and when the girl died every child came to help carry her coffin. To them Marie was a martyr to her own honest feelings and Myshkin was Marie's champion and her beloved. Such was not the case, however, Myshkin confesses. The love affair between himself and Marie was his sole deception of the children. To all their other questions he was completely honest, but concerning himself and Marie, he could not disillusion them by explaining that he and Marie were not fairy-tale lovers.

The children's admiration for Marie, Myshkin says, was the scandal of the village. He says that he was detested by the schoolmaster and the townspeople and was accused of being a corrupting influence on the children. Myshkin says, however, that he was not driven out of the village and perhaps he would have never left the village if a very important matter had not presented itself. He concludes that he must seem strange to them but that he feels nearly cured, and says that he is no idiot — of this he is certain. He sincerely thanks the Epanchins for their hospitality.

Before leaving, the prince briefly describes what qualities he sees in each of the Epanchin girls' faces. Aglaia he singles out as being so beautiful that one is afraid to look at her. He amends his statement, though, by saying that she is not quite as beautiful as is Nastasya Filippovna. The name has the effect of a small bomb! Myshkin then explains that he has only seen a photograph of Nastasya and that the portrait belongs to Ganya. Mrs. Epanchin orders Myshkin to bring the photograph to her.

Ganya is furious when Myshkin asks for the picture but his mood changes as he realizes that perhaps Myshkin can deliver a secret note to Aglaia. The prince agrees and, by accident, he meets Aglaia in the dining room and gives her the note. Nonplused, she accepts it and the two return to the drawing room.

Mrs. Epanchin, curious about the rumors she has heard and wanting to find out the truth about Nastasya Filippovna, calls for Ganya. Before Myshkin and her daughters, she asks him if he plans to be married. The question is a simple one, yet all know exactly what Mrs. Epanchin is driving at. Flustered and embarrassed, Ganya denies any idea of marriage. Mrs. Epanchin returns the photograph and excuses herself, and her daughters follow her.

Aglaia returns with an album and in Ganya's presence asks Myshkin for a sample of his calligraphy. She directs him to write "I don't make bargains." This, in effect, is her answer to Ganya's note. Ganya pleads for a sign of sympathy; only that, he says, and he will reject Nastasya Filippovna. Aglaia then asks Myshkin to return Ganya's note; she has nothing else to offer him. Ganya is furious at Aglaia's independence and vows revenge. Angrily he curses Myshkin for complicating matters and for gaining Aglaia's affection. Myshkin is not to be falsely accused, nor will he allow Ganya to call him an idiot, and he tells Ganya that perhaps they should part. Ganya is shaken by the usually mild-tempered prince and apologizes, and the two men set out for Ganya's home.

Analysis

Once again it should be noted that the general "uses" Myshkin. At first he fears the prince's apparent goodness and simplicity, thinking that something far different lies beneath the exterior. But when he discovers that the prince is good, simple, and therefore harmless, he reacts to this goodness by capitalizing on it. Once again, also, is Myshkin's being "different" emphasized. His different clothes and different manner are outward evidence of an inward differentness. The prince has no malice, no greed, and no hate, and this is the basis for his alienation. He is an outsider, first of all, because of his illness but most of all he is an outsider because of his sense of values, his generosity, his kindness, and his capacity to forgive.

So far, Myshkin has responded with kindliness to all those whom he has met and we well might wonder if the prince, because of his illness, is even aware of evil. Is he unable to detect viciousness in other people's motives and is he, so to speak, returning to the world with his eyes obscured by a film of (unrealistic) Christian goodness? It is here, in Chapters 5, 6, and 7, that we learn that Myshkin has very definite ideas about evil.

One of the grossest of evils, he says, is to condemn a man to death and then, at the last moment, reprieve him. But Myshkin would forgive even this evil, though he rails against it, for nothing is beyond forgiveness in Myshkin's morality. And, as though it were the key to his simple goodness, the story of Marie and of the prince's forgiveness of her sins is related.

Interestingly, the story of Marie has two elements that Nastasya's history also contains: seduction and suffering. And, in a very Christlike attitude, Myshkin extends love and forgiveness to both of the fallen women. Thus, after we hear the tale of Marie, we are prepared for the prince's forgiveness of Nastasya's background of seduction, adultery, and destructive pride. Myshkin's attitude in this respect runs counter to that of everyone else. To them, Nastasya is, variously, frightening, desirable, and highly sensuous; to Myshkin she is precious because of the suffering he senses within her. Finally, he believes she is a bit mad but thus all the more worthy of one's pity and protection.

Besides the comparisons to be made between Marie and Nastasya, there are also comparisons between Nastasya and Aglaia that ought to be noted. Both women are extremely beautiful (in Myshkin's opinion Nastasya is more so because of the suffering in her eyes) and both women are very proud. Nastasya's pride takes more dramatic, grotesque forms than does Aglaia's, but within her bourgeois social context, Algaia's is quite marked. She refuses to be compromised by Ganya, for example, and this is very similar, though of less importance, to Nastasya's later refusal to be a convenience for Totsky and General Epanchin. Because Aglaia and Nastasya develop into rivals over Prince Myshkin, comparisons between the two girls should already be considered.

Continuing on with his subject of a man condemned to death, Myshkin makes what seems on the surface to be a strange suggestion to Adelaida; he suggests that she paint the portrait of a man who has just reached the last step of the guillotine — his awareness of the finality of his life. Adelaida, who never paints anything except by copying, is confused. Yet she is exactly right for the job Myshkin sets for her because the picture he has suggested will be a masterpiece of hopelessness. And for such a picture, no imagination is needed. Imagination might exaggerate, romanticize, or beautify the total effect. The picture will show the absolute horror as graphically and as honestly as possible, and this mood can be put on canvas only by a mind which faithfully copies what it observes without discoloring it with personality. Hundreds of inspirational pictures of Man abound in the world's galleries but this picture would be the blackest possible picture of mankind, the antithesis of goodness.

Readers may be surprised that such a radical idea comes from Myshkin, but one of Dostoevsky's favorite concepts was the existence of diametrically opposed feelings within a person; this is his way of inserting this thesis. Myshkin is absolutely good, yet he is fascinated with absolute evil — the reprieve of a condemned man — and with a portrait of hopelessness; it is a matter of the attraction of opposites. Remember that we have already seen an example of this: Myshkin and Rogozhin, the antithesis of one another, are fascinated with each other and continue to be, although they become rivals for Nastasya Filippovna.

Now, considering Marie's story in relation to the execution discussions, it seems to be a parable of salvation through suffering, another favorite topic of Dostoevsky. Like Myshkin, Marie believed in the essential goodness of mankind. However, after she offered her passive kindness to a traveling salesman, she was seduced and deserted, and made a village outcast. She had given herself and was rejected first by the salesman and then by the townspeople. She suffered deeply, but Myshkin ministered to her with what he believed to be the best medicine — forgiveness and love. Myshkin's story of Marie's redemption is a counterpart to his stories of torture and execution, and both types of stories illustrate the prince's reaction to injustice and suffering, and prepare us for the appearance of another fallen woman, Nastasya Filippovna.

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At the end of Part III, Nastasya and Rogozhin each ask Myshkin the same question. What was it?




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