The Idiot By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part IV: Chapters 2-4

Summary

General Ivolgin flings open the door and shouts at the top of his voice to Ptitsyn: His son-in-law has given aid to the enemy. By housing Ippolit, he has comforted an atheist. The consumptive invalid who will not die probes into the general's heart and soul! Ganya retorts that it is only for his mother's sake that he spares the general his full wrath, for his father has disgraced the family. Ippolit explains that he has done no more than question the general as to whether or not a certain Captain Eropyegov, a figure in one of the general's anecdotes, ever existed. Ganya understands immediately; indeed, there was no Captain Eropyegov, he says.

General Ivolgin attempts to retell the story he told to Ippolit but becomes frustrated in his frenzied retelling; he cannot remember any of the names he tries to recall and finally rushes out of the house, shouting his curse upon Ganya, who then turns on Ippolit. The young man is exactly as the general characterized him, Ganya says, a mass of consumptive, theatrical spite, to whom he has given hospitality, and who does not possess the nerve to end his ridiculously operatic slow death. With perfect composure, Ippolit reminds Ganya that they are both guests in Ptitsyn's house and that Ganya himself has never extended any hospitality. Furthermore, he charges, Ganya agreed to his moving in with the Ptitsyns for only one reason: He was hoping that Ippolit might wreak some sort of vengeance on Myshkin. Now matters have developed exactly as Ippolit had hoped: Ganya has made himself look a fool.

Ippolit confesses that he hates Ganya and the entire class of people whom Ganya represents. These people, Ippolit says, have persecuted him all his life and delighted in their actions, never realizing how insolent, vulgar, and self-satisfied they were. Ganya is the most ordinary of the ordinary, convinced that he is an undiscovered genius, visited only fitfully by doubts, and, at the core of his heart, spiteful and envious. Ganya turns deathly white and remains silent; Ippolit bows and leaves.

Varya, shocked almost insensible herself, starts to leave and Ganya detains her, throwing her a note written to him by Aglaia Epanchin. In the note Aglaia asks that Ganya meet her on the green bench about a matter of great importance. The note seems a godsend to Ganya; after six months of silence, Aglaia is asking for him.

Varya cautions her brother: He is to make no show of pride because Aglaia is surely wise to Varya's matchmaking. Her advice is then interrupted by more shouting. Downstairs, the general has made good his threat to leave the house. With his baggage in the street, he again cries out a curse upon the house. Varya runs from the room but Ganya lingers. He takes up the note, gives it a kiss, and happily twirls around.

Dostoevsky backs up a bit in the narrative at this point and shows us Lebedyev, returning from Petersburg with General Ivolgin. Lebedyev tells Myshkin nothing concerning what happened in Petersburg; on the contrary, Lebedyev seems to be trying to avoid the prince, spending a good deal of time with the general. Myshkin overhears, at various times, laughter and singing from their quarters, and, occasionally, violent arguments. Even Kolya confirms their strange behavior in taverns and in the streets; they can't be parted, he says.

Then one morning the general corners Myshkin and congratulates the prince on fulfilling his (the general's) heart's desire. Myshkin is mystified, but learns no more as the general then asks for advice. He is rather pale and his lips quiver as he begins; he blesses Myshkin for his deep understanding and for his generous kindness and says that they must make another appointment; then, the general says, he must have an important conversation with Myshkin for it is on the prince that he rests his hopes. Again, Myshkin is confused; why doesn't the old general speak now of his problem? Ivolgin reaffirms his trust in Myshkin's worth and refers, before he leaves, to an unnamed "he" who understands nothing.

Later that day, Myshkin asks Lebedyev about the theft of the four hundred rubles: Was the mystery ever solved? Who was the thief? Lebedyev drawls that he has almost forgotten the incident, that he found the sum under a chair on which his coat had been hung; the pocketbook must have slipped to the floor. Myshkin is unbelieving and reminds Lebedyev that the house was thoroughly searched. But Lebedyev insists on his story: The pocketbook was found under the chair and not a ruble was missing. Then Lebedyev, seeing that he has caught the prince's interest, goes on; he replaced the pocketbook for a day and a night, even moving it into view, but still General Ivolgin seemed not to notice it. Lebedyev's next move was to stuff the pocketbook into the skirt of his coat, making it seem as though it had dropped through a torn pocket. And the general's reaction? asks Myshkin. Lebedyev says that General Ivolgin has been fearfully ill-humored — beaming, sentimental, then suddenly angry. He loves the old general, he swears, and is not, as Myshkin charges, tormenting the man. Lebedyev begs the prince not to give the game away.

Myshkin is late for his appointment with the general. He finds the old man apparently composed and reserved, but displeased by Myshkin's tardiness, and begins the interview by thanking the prince for a book he lent him. An interesting book, Ivolgin says, but there is perhaps a lie in every sentence. Lebedyev is insufferable, he says suddenly, and had the gall to declare that in 1812, he lost his left leg and buried it in a Moscow cemetery. Impossible, the general cries, and says that Lebedyev lied and was further lying when he claimed that the general's story about his being a page of Napoleon's was untrue.

Ivolgin then begins to explain to Myshkin the story he told to Lebedyev, about being a page of Napoleon's. It happened that when Ivolgin was ten years old, the great emperor singled him out of a crowd (obviously, he implies, a child of the nobility would not flee from the French army). Napoleon then proclaimed to the crowd that the young Ivolgin was an example of praiseworthy Russian courage, and from that moment on, the boy was a favorite with the emperor, mingling with his aides, even wearing a special uniform. At night, Ivolgin remembers, he heard the groans of the lonely Napoleon and, understanding the emperor's distress and going to him, he was granted Napoleon's confidence. Young Ivolgin listened as the emperor spoke of decisions he had to make and especially of his deep agony in wanting to win the confidence of the Russian people. Furthermore, the two discussed military strategy, Ivolgin says, much as some men resort to tossing a coin. For Napoleon, Ivolgin's decision was equivalent to that of Fate. The general sadly concludes that only an accident of fate prevented his following Napoleon to Paris.

Ivolgin squeezes Myshkin's hand and praises him for being kind; he hopes that Myshkin be granted a new and happy life; as for the general, his life is over.

When Ivolgin leaves, Myshkin wonders uneasily if perhaps it was wise to have feigned belief in the long-winded tale. Then, in the evening, a letter from the general arrives. He is parting from the prince forever because he cannot accept compassion that is degrading to his dignity.

Outside Ptitsyn's, the old general rails at Kolya. "Where is my youth?" he cries, adding that he has ruined his wife's life and that she has the soul of an angel. He blesses Kolya for comforting him, then whispers that he is sick and says the words "le roi de Rome." He collapses in a spasm in his son's arms and, aloud, Kolya mutters, "A stroke!"

Analysis

General Ivolgin, who was a comic figure in the novel's beginning, ends the book as a tragic figure. He has gone to debtors' prison, has been taunted by Lebedyev's schemes, and can no longer bear people who say outright that the general's reminiscences are lies. He is an old man, devoid of rank and respect, who consoles himself with drink, and who is a storyteller in a time that does not appreciate the art. The general spins yarns, but his listeners insist on the truth and do not consider whether or not he has told a good tale.

Thus, Ivolgin is reduced to insisting that what he tells is so; and perhaps he finally can believe what he says, after it has been uttered. The point is, however, that he is cruelly mistreated by Ganya and, no longer the head of his own house, he has given in to despair. Ganya and most of the other characters have decided that he is old, senile, and a nuisance, and the general has realized that there is no longer any place for him.

It is an ugly first scene of this section of the novel that Dostoevsky presents: a father cursing a son, the son blaming a consumptive who, in turn, becomes vicious. Ippolit exposes Ganya's devious cunning and sham friendship and then damns him as a representative of the most despicable class in Russian society. But even after Ganya has been thoroughly chastised, he returns to the role of deceiver. His sister even assists as she advises him on the bait he must use if he is yet to trap Aglaia Epanchin in marriage. It is horrible to imagine Ganya pirouetting in a little pre-victory dance as his father is in the street cursing the house.

The general's stroke climaxes the wild story he relates to Myshkin; he desires respect so much that he recreated himself as a childhood page to Napoleon; then, in a reversal of mood so characteristic of Dostoevsky, he was grateful for Myshkin's attentive listening, yet later he becomes scornful of Myshkin's compassion because it seems to hold both pity and patronage. Myshkin's attitude, plus Ippolit's questions, compounded with his own heavy despair proved too much, and the general collapses in Kolya's arms.

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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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