Summary and Analysis
Part III: Chapter 4
Myshkin arrives home and finds a noisy party in progress. A dozen or so bottles of champagne have been opened and the guests greet the prince with shouts and good wishes. Everyone Myshkin knows seems to be present: Burdovsky, Yevgeny Pavlovitch, Lebedyev and his family, General Ivolgin, Ippolit, Ganya, Ptitsyn, Keller, and even Ferdyshtchenko, the Ivolgin's former boarder. Immediately Myshkin is approached by Yevgeny Pavlovitch; he must speak in private with the prince, but the rest of the guests must not suspect that they are talking seriously.
First, Radomsky compliments the prince on his understanding nature, then on his being a gentleman, but his compliments are interrupted by Ippolit. Feverishly, Ippolit inquires how long it is until sunrise; he is anxious for the sunrise.
The guests' talk turns to Lebedyev and his well-known interpretation of the Apocalypse; in particular, the phrase "the star that is called Wormwood" is brought into the discussion. Lebedyev, it is said, has identified this star as being the network of railways spread across Europe. He is taunted into a closer reading.
Lebedyev says that railway's are symbolic; they stand for the entire scientific and materialistic spirit that has colored the last few centuries. He challenges all the atheists present. How will men of science and industry save the world? He accuses them of satisfying their egos and accumulating material necessities instead of turning their brilliant minds toward man's salvation. Mankind, he says, has grown too noisy and commercial; there is little spiritual peace. Today, Lebedyev says, a so-called friend of humanity, if his vanity is wounded, is ready to set fire to the world — and all because of revenge. Lebedyev is immensely enjoying himself and continues his talk. He tells an anecdote that is set in the twelfth century: Famine was much more prevalent then, coming every two or three years instead of every quarter century, as it does now. And in those days, cannibalism was frequent; indeed, one man admitted freely that during his lifetime he had consumed sixty monks and about six infants. This feeding, Lebedyev says, is perfectly natural and the number does not seem excessive to the point of voraciousness.
Myshkin asks Lebedyev what his point is, and Lebedyev roars that the psychological and legal positions of the criminal in question are involved. The cannibal several times tried to avoid devouring the clergy and even tried consuming infants (because of the terrible pangs of conscience) to minimize his sin. Obviously, since he ate only six children, he did not do so in order to have a variety in his diet; the number is too insignificant. Sin being a weighty matter, however, the cannibal succumbed to his conscience and gave himself up to the authorities. Why did he not keep his secret? Lebedyev answers that there is "something stronger than stake and fire" the man probably was sentenced to. This idea, stronger than fire, torture, plague, and hell, "fructified the springs of life.'" Sadly, Lebedyev concludes, there is no such force in this age of railways. No such idea binds mankind together; wealth abounds, but there is no strength.
The guests are nearly all indignant at Lebedyev's long monologue but he mentions supper and quiets them, and laughter fills the house again.
Yevgeny Pavlovitch seizes another opportunity to speak with Myshkin. Why, he asks, has Ippolit forced himself on the prince? He cannot bear to look at the young man's face. Myshkin answers that, on the contrary, Ippolit "has a handsome face," but is interrupted as Badomsky tugs at his arm.
Lebedyev's interpretation of the Apocalypse is interesting but out of character. Lebedyev seems incapable of having sincere convictions about anything, much less a subject as serious as the necessity of conscience. And that he, of all people, would deliver this long monologue is highly unlikely.
The scientific and materialist breed of men he refers to are the nihilists, atheists who intended to free Russia from superstition and achieve economic miracles through scientific and humanistic truths. The idea that conscience is supreme over scientific truth is worth listening to and seems very much like the stories of conscience that Myshkin related to the Epanchins; in both cases they concern the redeeming value of an instinctive, spiritual sense of right and wrong. From Lebedyev, however, the theory seems tainted. He is too thoroughly a hypocrite; little wonder that the guests are indignant at the long-winded monologue.