The Idiot By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part IV: Chapter 5

Summary

We learn now — from hints, meaningful silences, and surmises — that Varya has somewhat exaggerated the finality of Myshkin's engagement to Aglaia Epanchin. But, at the same time, we learn that a very important matter has occurred in the Epanchin household: Lizaveta Prokofyevna has at least considered the possibility that her daughter and the prince might become betrothed. And, she reckons, the prince is charming, he does have a name (her own former name, in fact), and he does have a fortune. Yet the situation is so absurd, she thinks; Myshkin is sickly and an idiot and knows nothing of the world. To whom, in their social circle, could he be presented? This new turn of matters is all so different from the dreams she had planned for Aglaia. She shudders and she decides to talk with Princess Byelokonsky; after all, she knew Myshkin in Moscow.

Princess Byelokonsky's opinion is that Myshkin is quite a catch, except for his openly keeping a mistress. Lizaveta Prokofyevna thus returns home and finds that Myshkin has visited the Epanchin household and that he and Aglaia have played chess and Aglaia defeated him. Then, in a game of "Fools," Myshkin played a masterly game and defeated Aglaia, not once but five times. At this, Aglaia exploded in anger, said disgraceful things to the prince, slammed the door, and left him. Soon after the prince left, however, Aglaia rushed out to the verandah, her face still wet with tears. She met Kolya there, with a hedgehog, and after much inveigling, she bought the hedgehog from him and asked him to deliver it in a wicker basket to the prince. Kolya is curious about the gift's significance, and so is Lizaveta Prokofyevna when she learns about it. Ivan Fyodorovitch says that the gift is harmless, but his wife is not at all sure; Dostoevsky tells us that Ivan guessed correctly.

Myshkin comes to dinner at the Epanchins' that night and is ill at ease. Aglaia insists, before them all, that he interpret the gift of the hedgehog. Then she asks the prince to declare whether or not he makes an offer for her. With a sinking heart, Myshkin answers that he does ask for Aglaia's hand.

The Epanchins are upset by their daughter's behavior, but Aglaia continues. How, she asks, does the prince mean to secure her happiness and what is the state of his fortune? Myshkin confesses to having only 135,000 rubles left, and he hopes, he says, to become a private tutor. Aglaia's sisters can no longer contain themselves and simultaneously they burst into laughter. The Epanchins leave the room and Aglaia then bursts into tears on her mother's bosom. Then, in her father's arms, she declares that she is good-for-nothing and terribly spoiled. Furthermore, she says that she cannot bear the prince. She agrees to ask Myshkin to leave but hesitates; she will die of laughing if she asks him, she says. She leaves then and her parents are finally convinced that she is definitely in love with Prince Myshkin.

Aglaia approaches Myshkin shyly, asking for his forgiveness, and the prince declares that he is unworthy of her request. Myshkin's spirits grow light and he tells amusing stories to the Epanchins, while Aglaia sits and listens, gazing at him, and hardly speaking.

Next day, Aglaia quarrels with Myshkin and her temper lasts for several days, while she jeers at the prince for his lack of formal education. To her family, Aglaia declares that she has "no intention at present of taking the place of anybody's mistress." Ivan swears that Myshkin has never had a liaison with Nastasya.

As for Myshkin, he seems blissful and untroubled, even by Ippolit's gossip that Myshkin has an undermining rival in Ganya Ivolgin. Ippolit then tells the prince that Ganya has mocked Ippolit's suicide and has declared that the entire scene was founded on egoism. Now, Ippolit asks Myshkin, might he (Ippolit) best die? Myshkin's answer is that Ippolit ought to forgive them their happiness.

Analysis

Lizaveta's worrying over Aglaia's union with Myshkin are comical, compared to Varya's concerns over the same union. Madame Epanchin weighs the prince's noble name against his sickness, then consults Princess Byelokonsky, almost in a caricature of the busybody mother of the bride — excited, yet disappointed that her girl is not marrying a better choice. She worries over her daughter's burst of anger and over the gift of the hedgehog; she is convinced throughout the novel that many things are going on, just below the surface, that she is ignorant of.

The circumstances of Myshkin's engagement reveal, again, Aglaia's contradictory feelings about the prince. She does care for Myshkin, but resents being bested by him, especially in their games of "Fools," and means to show her family that she is her own mistress; thus the courtroom tenor of her quizzing of Myshkin about the state of his fortune and his future plans. But Aglaia cannot hold the pose for long; she is too young and too unnerved by this most curious of suitors and thus her collapse into laughter and tears. Aglaia still believes, however, that Myshkin and Nastasya have had, and possibly might still be having, an affair. Surprisingly, of all concerned, Myshkin is the only one who seems untroubled by the approaching marriage.

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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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