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

Summary

Dostoevsky begins this section by speaking of the ordinariness of Varvara (Varya) Ptitsyn. The vast majority of mankind, the author, is made up of just such people as Varya, and one of the problems confronting a novelist is the re-creation of such fictional personages. More often than not, ordinary people are likely to be uninteresting, but if only extraordinary types are used, it gives an author's fiction a certain dullness. But, Dostoevsky says, fiction must contain ordinary people, for if it does not, it cannot have a semblance of truth. Dostoevsky's thought is that a writer must seek out and study commonplace persons; they are not quite as dull, he feels, as they seem in the abstract, for very many of them desire to be independent and "original." Obviously none of them manage to be original, yet the dreams of these people flesh out their surface commonness and often account for their motivations and for their commonplace actions.

Almost everyone desires to be individual, Dostoevsky says, and notes that this wish is not limited to the poorer classes, even the wealthy are tormented by this drive. No amount of money, social position, or good looks can entirely compensate for lacking ideas of one's own. He cites girls who don the garb of the nihilists to convince others (and themselves most of all) that they have convictions. Men, he says, can be deluded by faint stirrings of sympathy into believing that they are possessed by great humanitarianism. Unhappily, these people are deceiving themselves, and are moved not by what they imagine (for they have no imagination), but by an emotional fraud — one which penetrates the entire social spectrum.

Occasionally, our author tells us, there are clever commonplace people (in contrast to the simple variety), who harbor a worm of despair that gnaws at their heart. And, for the sake of doing something original, they do something base. Dostoevsky cites as an example of this type Ganya Ivolgin — a man profoundly aware of his own lack of will power, but driven by a craving for independence. The only thing that stops his enormous hunger to distinguish himself is his common sense; that is, his fear of appearing ridiculous. He is too clever to allow himself the freedom of action that defines the original man; he is too prudent and too unimaginative to perform any great absurdity or any great act of viciousness. Concerning his relationship with Aglaia and Nastasya, Dostoevsky says that he is frightened of Aglaia, hangs onto her, but never really believes that she will stoop to marry him. His plan to marry Nastasya was founded on his belief that money could be the means of attaining all his dreams. And, although he returned the money Nastasya flung at him, he has continually regretted his act, while continually priding himself on it. Ganya's philosophy is, "If you go in for usury [or anything else], do it thoroughly"; it is a philosophy that he, ironically, is quite unable to follow.

Like her brother Ganya, Varya too dreams of distinguishing herself from the commonplace, but being more practical than Ganya, she considers the ends in addition to certain means. For instance, she married Ptitsyn, a man on the way up. It was no feat, but it did enrich her social standing, and Ptitsyn's money, while not on the scale of the Epanchins' or Totsky's, was sufficient for financial security. After that step, Varya had the luxury to concentrate on her brother's future. She got a foot into the Epanchin circle and, with high hopes, set herself to bringing Aglaia and Ganya together. Currently, however, her careful plans seem to have been fruitless: Myshkin, Varya tells her brother, is formally betrothed to Aglaia. There is to be a formal party to celebrate the engagement. The two talk bitterly about the marriage and about the prince; it was he and Lebedyev, says Varya, who disgraced their father, labeling him a thief. Ganya complains about the decline of his social reputation. Then General Ivolgin bursts in, followed by his wife, and Kolya, and Ippolit.

Analysis

"Ordinary" people, Dostoevsky says, often desire to be extraordinary and often do ridiculous things merely to escape from routine. The extraordinary characters, he seems to say, are not really so out of the ordinary. He then makes further charges against the sanctification of the "ordinary" — a social label which Dostoevsky despises. To him, the quality suggests dullness, unimaginativeness, and ignorance. And perhaps Dostoevsky is again vindicating himself. He attacks the security of the ordinary, principally the financial security, a state Dostoevsky was never able to enjoy.

During the year and a half that he was writing The Idiot, he was penniless more often than not. In fact, his reason for going abroad, where this novel was written, was to escape imprisonment; he was being hounded by scores of creditors. Europe, however, offered no cure for him; as soon as Dostoevsky and his wife got to the Continent, he began gambling, futilely trying to win an instant fortune. He finally pawned his wife's clothes, jewelry, even the kitchen equipment, and all in vain, for he lost, night after night, at the gaming tables. Thus, haunted by guilts, debts, and the problem of a pregnant wife, Dostoevsky composed and sent back to Russia, in installments, The Idiot.

He was no ordinary man, and detested a system that, ironically, reared children to be "ordinary." Those children, once grown, dreamed of escaping from their thick-skinned mediocrity. It was this system that drove geniuses to suicide, or to foreign countries, and rewarded its robot-like dullards with monies and respectable positions. Neither Dostoevsky, nor most of his characters, are ever stereotypes or "ordinary"; they are all individuals.

Besides the attention Dostoevsky gives to the rich amid the poor, the well-bred and the vulgar, all desiring to be "original," there is in this chapter much space devoted to Varya's connivings. She would like to put Ganya into a higher social niche; for months, this has been her goal. Sensibly wed herself, she plans even greater things for her brother and we are reminded of the Epanchin sisters' dreams for Aglaia. This greedy gnawing to be something else, something special, can be seen, in fact, throughout the novel. Totsky brought Nastasya to Petersburg as a status symbol; General Epanchin's entire career has been arranged with cunning; Ganya's interest in Nastasya centered upon her fortune (with it, he could become "original"); almost everyone, it would seem, except Prince Myshkin, is guilty of plotting against someone else in order to gain social position or money.

Another interesting matter in this chapter concerns Dostoevsky's remark that Ganya, though he desires it very much, is too sensible to ever commit any grand gesture. He and Aglaia are counterparts in their own ways, of Rogozhin and Nastasya Filippovna. The latter make the grand, absurd, frightening gesture; the former, lacking the imagination and the courage, do not.

The surprise of this chapter is Varya's announcement that Myshkin and Aglaia are formally betrothed. After Aglaia's burst of anger during the scene at the green bench, in which she vowed she would marry Ganya, Dostoevsky inserts a shocking piece of gossip and thus retains our curiosity as he begins yet another section of this very long novel.

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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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