Summary and Analysis
Part III: Chapter 1
Dostoevsky begins this section with a discussion on practical people. He launches an attack on this sort of people and on the kind of mind that reveres them. Originality, on the other hand, he says, has been condemned; no businessman is characterized by it. Inventors and geniuses are always initially labeled fools, he says, and mothers rock their babies to sleep with the hope that they will "be happy and live in comfort without originality." The highest pinnacle a mother's son can reach is the rank of general and that rank, Dostoevsky regrets, is characterized by a total lack of originality. This discussion, we see, prefaces a comment by the author concerning the Epanchin family: "they always seemed to be doing something exceptional." In spite of their doing something exceptional, however, it should be noted that they remain respectable and enjoy the esteem of their neighbors. They are not "exceptional" to excess.
At this moment, Lizaveta Prokofyevna is distraught. Her daughters, she fears, are becoming eccentric; perhaps even nihilistic. They are not married, they have "new" ideas, they even cut their hair. Their motives cannot be fathomed. Alexandra, she fears, is developing into an old maid, and Aglaia, like her mother, is "eccentric, mad, and spiteful." Adelaida, at least, will soon be married and settled.
Besides the matter of her daughters, Madame Epanchin frets over Prince Myshkin's return and the fact that she has received an anonymous letter stating that Nastasya Filippovna is corresponding with Aglaia. Madame Epanchin's mind reels at the mysteries, and the complications and implications of all her worries; thus she races to Lebedyev's villa and drags Myshkin to the Epanchin family table.
In the Epanchin drawing room sit her daughters plus Yevgeny Pavlovitch and Prince S. Madame Epanchin is determined to find answers to her many questions, but she is even more befuddled than she was after she listens to the young people talk together so she decides to go hear the band music in the park.
Myshkin is confused by Madame Epanchin's actions and is quite pale as he sits at the Epanchin table, but he is thrilled that Aglaia sits near him. He listens to Yevgeny Pavlovitch railing against Russian Liberalism; a Russian Liberal, the young man says, is the antithesis of what he seems — he is most un-Russian. The origin of the so-called Liberals, Radomsky says, is ironic: Liberals come from two classes, classes which are quite apart from the people. Class A of the Liberals is the landowning families and Class B is the clergy. One is rich enough to indulge in liberal reform; the other, bent on holy work, mouths sentiments and blessings on the work done by Class A. Thus, because these two classes are divorced from the people, their actions are non-national. Prince S. says that Radomsky's stand is preposterous; Radomsky, himself, is a landowner. The young man counters by saying that Prince S. has misunderstood the sense in which the term "Russian landowner" is used.
The well-read Epanchin sisters nip at Radomsky's arguments, but he insists that only when a Russian does something original, not something borrowed (as in the case of literary themes and structures, for example), does he become "national." A Liberal, he says, should attack the established order of things, Russia itself for example, for a true Liberal "hates his own mother." This hate, Radomsky says, is regarded as real love.
Myshkin listens closely, then tries to explain his own position on liberalism, but stutters and stammers, and cannot. Alexandra ends the discussion by saying that it is tedious and should not have been started. Yevgeny Pavlovitch, however, begs to ask Myshkin one question before they go hear the band music. Does the prince, he wonders, consider it defensible that it is natural for a young man to think of murdering six people because of his poverty? And is such a defense, Radomsky asks, an "individual case" (because such a lad was, in fact, defended with this very argument in court), a typical example? Myshkin s answer is that such defense is not individual; rather, such perverted reasoning and such "impossible crimes'' are becoming a general phenomenon.
Radomsky catches onto the phrase "impossible crimes" and declares that dreadful murders have always been committed, and that communication being what it is, we only read about the crimes more often now.
Myshkin agrees, saying that he has visited prisons and has talked with criminals more terrible than the man Radomskv cited. What impressed Myshkin, in his visits to the prisons, was that the most hardened and unrepentant criminal realized the wrongness of what he had done; in his conscience, he knew that he had sinned, even though he might be unrepentant. Radomsky, the prince says, is speaking of quite another matter when he cites criminals who defend their right to commit certain crimes, even murder. They are convinced that their action is morally right. And, says Myshkin, this absurd point of view is held by' too many of the young people.
The entire group is aghast at what the prince has said; but there is no tittering and no mockery of Myshkin's intensely sincere feelings. Lizaveta shames them for having thought the prince an idiot. The subject of Burdovsky's slander is discussed then and Lizaveta's championing of the prince ends. Myshkin, she claims, forgives too easily, and learning from Kolya that Ippolit has moved into Lebedyev's villa, she is absolutely dismayed. Radomsky too expresses his disapproval of Myshkin's allowing the consumptive young Terentyev into his home. But Myshkin is undeterred. Ippolit, he says, is going to die and he needs their forgiveness before he does so. And in addition (and this startles the company most of all), they ought to be ready to receive Ippolit's forgiveness and his blessings. Prince S. cautions Myshkin about trying to find perfection among mortals, and urges them to drop the subject. Madame Epanchin angrily insists that they all go to hear the band.
The beginning of Part III is unlike the beginnings of Parts I and II; it does not have the action and dialogue of the former, nor does it have the direct exposition of the latter. Part III begins with an essay on the "extraordinary" person, possibly for these reasons:
By the time Dostoevsky began The Idiot, his literary reputation had suffered a decline; he was never again able to earn the enormous critical praise that followed the publication of Poor Folk. In fact, Dostoevsky's second novel, The Double, was scorned as being so fantastic that its characters ought to be in lunatic asylums, not in literature; unfortunately the novels following were indicted on the same basis: The characters and the situations were too weird, too neurotic, too "extraordinary.'' Thus, the introduction here seems almost as though it were as essay in self-defense, a plea for understanding for these "extraordinary" people. These people, Dostoevsky points out, are sometimes in the guise of the bourgeoisie, just beneath our eyes.
Returning to the Epanchins, we learn that they are, beneath their exteriors, and despite their respectability, different from other families. But we still have no answers yet to the questions Lizaveta Prokofyevna vowed to find answers to at the end of Part II. These questions — why Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaia are writing letters to one another, and what the relationship is between Prince Myshkin and Aglaia is — go unanswered. As is often the case in his novels, Dostoevsky interrupts his story to consider certain ideas he was pondering as he composed his fiction.
Myshkin and Madame Epanchin arrive at the Epanchin home and find the girls, Prince S., and Radomsky arguing about liberalism.
Radomsky's point is that, ironically, only those with sufficient money and leisure can afford to be Liberals and Socialists. Radomsky even brings Russian writers into his argument, but his point is bested, surprisingly by Adelaida; surprisingly, because the argument centers upon originality and Adelaida is a copyist as an artist. Radomsky continues, though, saying that the so-called Liberals of Russia are only theorists. He says that they are so removed from the soil that they come to the conclusion that Russia itself is to be denounced. He points up the irony of the position but reveals himself to be, like the Liberals, speaking partly for the sake of vanity, parading ideas in order to see what arguments take his bait. Myshkin's attempt at a serious answer to Radomsky's position is made to seem pathetic.