Summary and Analysis
Part I: Chapter 2
Myshkin arrives at the Epanchin home and is admitted, though reluctantly, by the doorman. He is then passed by the doorman to the footman, who is astonished at Myshkin's appearance and dubious about his business with the general. He warms to the stranger, however, and becomes engrossed in Myshkin's comments about conditions abroad. He is especially interested in Myshkin's account of a guillotining which he witnessed. It is obviously painful for Myshkin to speak of the execution, for he is convinced that guillotining — and all capital punishment — is wrong. Myshkin's passionate delivery mesmerizes the footman and, impulsively, he offers to let the prince smoke, a forbidden favor. Before Myshkin is able to smoke, though, the next ranking servant (Epanchin's secretary) arrives, consults with the general, then quickly ushers Myshkin into the general's private office.
Dostoevsky very briefly halts the action of the plot to introduce us to General Epanchin (the man whom Myshkin has come from Switzerland to meet) and quickly reviews the highlights of the general's professional and private life. Thus we are more carefully readied for what will happen when Myshkin arrives at the Epanchin home. This is important because, as yet, we are not sure what Myshkin hopes to accomplish. Does he merely intend to introduce himself to the general? If so, what will be the general's reaction?
We are better able to speculate on such matters after we learn that the general has long been a very clever man. He began his professional career with no education; he was the son of a simple soldier, yet by means of clever manipulating, and with his wife's small dowry, he has attained a position in society that is very promising. We also learn that he cultivates an attitude of seeming unpretentious, and that because of his attitude, his intelligence, and his ability, he is a successful man. After we know these things, it is not wholly surprising, or out of character, when the general cleverly uses Myshkin as a scapegoat, substituting Myshkin in place of himself at a family luncheon he wishes to avoid.
Myshkin, of course, is unaware of General Epanchin's motives when he is invited to lunch. He is a stranger here; he is childlike and different, and after Dostoevsky finished with the background on the Epanchin family, he showed us Myshkin explaining to the doorman his reasons for his physical appearance and for his presence at the Epanchin house; a bit later Myshkin was handed over to the Epanchin's footman, and once more be explained, in more detail, his presence here. We listened to Myshkin explain himself, we witnessed the servants' reactions to him, and we are witnessing Myshkin's actions and reactions so that we can judge for ourselves if he is indeed "different." Dostoevsky is a careful craftsman in establishing character.
Seemingly, Myshkin has none of the artificial niceties the Epanchin home is accustomed to: He converses intimately with the servants, and casually asks to smoke. There is no artifice in him and we are quick to discern the wariness on the part of all who meet the prince. Obviously truth and honesty such as Myshkin's are not often encountered.
Note that everyone in the Epanchin household, like Rogozhin and Lebedyev, assumes that Myshkin has come to ask for money. And, in contrast, although Myshkin has hardly a penny, he seems absolutely unconcerned; his concern is with far more serious matters — capital punishment, for instance. Talking to the footman about the injustice of the guillotine, Myshkin shows us that he is no simpleton, contrary to the footman's idea that Myshkin is "soft." Myshkin views rational murder (state executions) as far worse than murders of passion. He describes the internal agony he sensed in a man he saw being readied for the guillotine. The prisoner had no hope of escape.
The ultimate in the tortures that man has devised for his fellow man, Myshkin says, is a last-minute reprieve from death; this is the agony, he says, that Christ spoke of. Dostoevsky, it is worth mentioning, knew the agony of which Myshkin speaks. He was punished in exactly the way described by Myshkin. He and several other political prisoners were led before a firing squad and prepared for execution. They were, however, never meant to be shot. It was a perverse joke of the Tsar; he hoped to frighten them so terribly that he would never again be troubled by them. The nightmarish experience was never dislodged from Dostoevsky's mind; deeply imbedded, it forever terrified him.
Myshkin does not preach in this novel, but in the scene concerning the suffering of those condemned to die, he becomes heated and denounces several contemporary evils. Here, he talks of capital punishment; later he will denounce other things, including the Catholic church. Myshkin's point is that evil is not to be punished with evil, for God has said "Thou shalt not kill"; in other words, evil is to be conquered with goodness, a quality that Myshkin is to be constantly associated with.