The Idiot By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part II: Chapter 1

Summary

The details of Nastasya's melodramatic birthday evening and the whereabouts of Prince Myshkin, Nastasya, and Rogozhin are gossiped about for many months. In the Epanchin family, however, it is some time before the prince's name is mentioned; by silent consent, the family avoids the subject. Significantly, however, the family's curiosity about their strange relative remains, despite such diversions as Ganya's serious illness, his resignation from the general's staff, Varvara's marriage to Ptitsyn, and her new friendship with the Epanchin girls. At last, Mme. Epanchin receives a letter from an old friend in Moscow, "old Byelokonsky," informing her that the prince has become a favorite of hers and that he has been received in several good homes. The silence is broken; Myshkin can be spoken of without embarrassment.

The news about Myshkin is alarming, but not surprising: His fortune is indeed very large but is less than a million and a half rubles. Scores of creditors have pressed their claims (many nonexistent) on the money and the prince has satisfied them all. Such extravagant goodness, especially as concerns money, is distressing to the Epanchins.

Besides the rumors surrounding Prince Myshkin, there are also vague reports that drift back to Petersburg concerning Nastasya Filippovna. It seems that after the orgy at Ekaterinhof, Nastasya vanished in Moscow, was found by Rogozhin, ran away, was found again, and just before being married to Rogozhin, vanished for a third time. Disappearing simultaneously, it is said, was Prince Myshkin. Again Myshkin's name and doings are forbidden in the Epanchin household, and again there are diversions: First, the proposed marriage of Totsky to Alexandra does not take place; second, a certain Prince S., from Moscow, arrives in Petersburg, courts Adelaida Epanchin, proposes, and the wedding is set for the middle of the summer.

Also at this time a distant relative of Prince S., Yevgeny Pavlovitch Radomsky, arrives in Petersburg and, it is believed, is enamored with Aglaia. Thus wedding details crowd the thoughts of the Epanchins, plus such other affairs as these: General Ivolgin is put into debtors' prison; Varya and Ptitsyn move to the other end of Petersburg; and Kolya Ivolgin and Varya are frequent visitors in the Epanchin household. This adolescent boy reads to the women, is extraordinarily frank with them, quarrels with them, but remains on good terms with the family. It is Kolya, in fact, who is responsible for bringing the subject of Prince Myshkin back into the Epanchin circle. Myshkin sends Aglaia a brief note, saying that he needs her and that he desires her happiness; curiously, he signs it "Your brother." Aglaia is troubled by the letter's ambiguity and questions Kolya, who acts as messenger, but remains unsatisfied.

Analysis

This chapter is direct narration. We learn, in summary, what is rumored to have happened during the months Myshkin, Nastasya, and Rogozhin were in Moscow, and we also learn what the Epanchin family was doing during these several months. In a way, the narrative is disappointing because of the tight dramatic structure of previous chapters; all the chapters concerned the activities of one-day — a Wednesday in late November — Nastasya Filippovna's twenty-fifth birthday.

The section began at about nine o'clock in the morning and finished late that same night. The action built slowly, dialogue being interspersed with background information; then, Myshkin's character was brought to life by the stories he told. There was a tense confrontation between the three principal characters in the Ivolgin household and we witnessed the birthday party of Nastasya Filippovna. Here, again, all three principals were together and, after tempers exploded, all three vanished into the night.

After this section, therefore, our emotions are primed and we are ready for further adventure. But Dostoevsky does not satisfy us so quickly. The second part of the novel is calm, much the same way that the second movement of a symphony is slow and restful. After sixteen chapters of some of his best writing, it is regrettable that Dostoevsky does not devote an entire section to what happened in Moscow-but he does not. We wait for it and think that perhaps, as often does happen in a Dostoevsky novel, there will be a chapter or two of flashback telling us about important events which have already occurred. We are disappointed and feel a bit cheated, for there are only hints about Myshkin's stay in Moscow with Nastasya and Rogozhin during the rest of the book.

One last matter in this chapter requiring commentary is Myshkin's letter to Aglaia. The girl is bewildered by it. The prince says he needs her, yet he signs it "your brother." If he desires her, is it, we wonder, as a suitor (sexually), or is it as a brother (platonically)? She bursts out laughing when she notices the title of the book she has tucked Myshkin's letter into: it is Don Quixote. She is being wooed, in other words, by an idiot-knight! Absurd, she thinks, and finally is insulted that perhaps she might be only a symbol to Myshkin and not a woman and that Kolya knows of the ambiguous situation and may gossip. Aglaia will not be made fun of, an attitude that recurs again and again in this novel. Like everyone else, Aglaia does not want to be made ridiculous; she will not be a part of the idiot's fantasy world.

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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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