The Idiot By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part II: Chapters 6-7

Summary

Resting at Lebedyev's villa after his attack Myshkin begins to recover. The villa is most comfortable, surrounded by lemon and jasmine trees, and Kolya scarcely leaves his friend's side. There is only one discordant note in this luxurious setting: Lebedyev seems overly protective of Myshkin. General Ivolgin, who has apparently moved in with Lebedyev, is discouraged from visiting Myshkin. With the others he is shooed away by Lebedyev, who stamps his feet and chases away even his daughter Vera and the baby Lumbov. His excuse is that Myshkin deserves proper respect.

Myshkin corrects his landlord, however; Lebedyev's over-attention depresses him and he resents all the hand flutterings, the tiptoeing, and the secretive behavior he sees. Lebedyev, without mentioning names, alludes to a secret meeting Nastasya Filippovna would like to have with Myshkin and says that Rogozhin comes every day to ask after Myshkin's health. Finally frustrated by Lebedyev's pretensions, Myshkin vows to leave the villa. Lebedyev capitulates instantaneously. All doors are open for visitors, he says.

Madame Epanchin and her daughters are the first to call on the prince and she is stunned to find Myshkin looking so well. Earlier she had been angry, hearing that Myshkin was in Pavlovsk and had not come to visit them; then she had forgiven Myshkin when Kolya told her of the prince's illness. She has come to Lebedyev's villa expecting to see an invalid and her bewilderment is undisguised. Also undisguised is her shock at seeing General Ivolgin and Ganya. She sharply accuses Kolya (the prince's protégé, she calls him) of playing tricks on her.

Madame Epanchin asks Myshkin, outright, if he is married and, if not, why has he rented a villa from such a character as Lebedyev. The man disgusts her. Lebedyev, meanwhile, flutters about, wailing about the loss of his wife and about his motherless children. Madame Epanchin then turns on General Ivolgin, accusing him of shaming his wife and children, and for having been in debtors' prison; she reduces the emotional old general to tears and he leaves the room. Ganya comes next under the scrutiny of Lizaveta Prokofyevna, and although she says nothing, she does note that he seems much changed. She wonders in what way he might have changed for the better. To this, Kolya replies that there are no qualities better than those of the "poor knight."

Myshkin flushes at this reference because everyone else except Madame Epanchin seems to understand; the prince believes they might be speaking of him. Aglaia is angry at the mention of the "poor knight." Kolya defends what he has said as innocent of any malice, but he does not discourage talk about the subject; instead, he increases curiosity by saying that Aglaia even tried to persuade Adelaida to draw a portrait of the knight. Adelaida says that it was impossible, that she had no clues as to his appearance. Then her fiancé, Prince S., explains to Madame Epanchin about this poor knight, and about his being the subject of a Russian poem. Lizaveta Prokofyevna says that it is all foolishness, but Aglaia protests. Her feelings about him are most serious she says; she has the deepest respect for a man of such ideals, of such blind faith, and of such devotion to "pure beauty" instead of to mere feminine beauty; the knight is a serious, not a comic, Don Quixote.

General Epanchin and Yevgeny Pavlovitch enter, cause a brief stir of talk, then Aglaia begins a recital of "The Poor Knight." Myshkin is confused as to why Aglaia chooses to recite the poem. Is it to mock him?

He is sure her performance is premeditated, yet there is no trace of jest in her voice, no sneer; instead, there is absolute gravity. He is confused, For her part, Madame Epanchin is delighted by the recital and surprised to learn that the poem is by Pushkin; she wants a copy immediately.

The subject then changes to Radomsky, who says that he has long hoped to gain Myshkin's acquaintance and friendship. There is some talk about Radomsky's civilian dress, then he says that in a year he will be retired from the military service. He returns the talk to the knight. It is obvious that he too knows about the poem and its relation to the Epanchin girls. Again Madame Epanchin insists on having the volume of Pushkin and, as if on cue, Lebedyev appears with large, finely bound volumes of Pushkin; he will sell them, he says, at cost price to Madame Epanchin.

Lebedyev's daughter, Vera, impatiently asks her father why he does not tell Prince Myshkin about the guests waiting to see him, for already Ganya and Ptitsyn are talking with them. Lebedyev flutters his hands excitedly, exclaiming that "the son of Pavlishtchev" awaits Myshkin. The prince is confused by the news and explains to the guests that he has commissioned Ganya to deal with the matter. In the midst of the excitement, following the announcement of the son of Pavlishtchev, Myshkin goes to the door and opens it to the visitors. Aglaia has said that they mean to damage Myshkin's character, and Prince S. has called them nihilists. Myshkin says these men are not to be slandered; however, he is not as calm as he seems. Just as he had wondered if Aglaia's recital was prearranged, he now wonders about these men who have arrived. Instantly, he is ashamed of such thoughts.

The four young men who enter are Keller (a boxer), Antip Burdovsky (the "son of Pavlishtchev"), Vladimir Doktorenko (Lebedyev's nephew), and Kolya's friend Ippolit Terentyev. They all sit on chairs, defiantly and silently, facing Prince Myshkin.

Analysis

These two chapters contain an element of comedy (Madame Epanchin is more fluttery and ludicrous than Lebedyev and is far from being the dangerous hypocrite that he is), and it introduces the principals of the long trial scene that follows, a trial in which Myshkin's values are to be pitted against men who cry out for justice and freedom and who claim that the prince is a villain. The comedy is a relief much needed. The entire Rogozhin episode leading up to the murder attempt is harrowing and between the attempt at physical violence in the preceding chapter and the long scene of verbal violence in the following chapter (where, again, the prince is the victim) — these two chapters give the reader a short respite; they allow us to do exactly what Myshkin is doing: recoup.

Myshkin has already observed that Lizaveta Prokofyevna is very much like himself but the truth is that the prince often does not make subtle distinctions. Myshkin is childlike, but Madame Epanchin is childish — a vast difference. She is like a little girl, occasionally bright, but usually very average, fussy, and busily playing house. She enjoys fretting over her daughters as though they were her dolls, and she goes to see Myshkin to play at being his nurse. Innocently, Myshkin destroys Lizaveta's game by being well on the mend and thus causes Madame Epanchin to turn on Kolya and accuse him of teasing her. She, like many other people in this novel, does not want to be made to appear ridiculous.

There is little discretion in Madame Epanchin. She is childishly blunt when she wishes to find out something, as she is with Myshkin concerning his possible marriage. Once she releases an emotional tongue-lashing on one character, she is very likely, if successful the first time, to pounce on someone else. She does this, first of all with General Ivolgin, and then with Ganya.

Returning to Aglaia and attempting to determine why she, like Nastasya Filippovna, seems to be a creature of alternating moods, we see once more that she is furious at the mention of the poor knight. Like her mother, Aglaia does not want to be made sport of. But she regains her composure and gravely recites Pushkin's poem concerning the knight. Myshkin senses Aglaia's feeling and also senses that he has been compared with the knight, but what the prince does not realize is that Aglaia admires him and the knightly qualities referred to in the poem but detests — and refuses to be — Myshkin's "fair lady."

The arrival of "the son of Pavlishtchev" has, we can be sure, been instigated in some way by Lebedyev. His nerves have been on edge and he has continuously flitted in and out of Myshkin's room — all matters comic in themselves — but we have seen that the silly Lebedyev will betray any person and any value for money, prestige and attention. He is not to be trusted. One other point not to be forgotten is this: When the young men are ushered in, Aglaia and the others (except for the prince and Madame Epanchin) seem to know why they have come.

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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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