Summary and Analysis
Part III: Chapters 5-7
Ippolit, whom has fallen asleep during Lebedyev's address, wakes suddenly and wonders how long he has slept. Has Lebedyev finished, he asks? He jeers at Myshkin for believing that beauty will save the world. The prince thinks so for only one reason, he says: Myshkin is in love. Ippolit says that he doesn't particularly like the prince, asks for more champagne, then pulls a large envelope from his breast pocket. He intends to read an essay, he announces, and the company draws near him, all interested in the large envelope with the impressive red seal.
Ippolit explains that he had been writing the document all the day before and all night; just this morning he finished it. Myshkin asks Ippolit not to read, but Ippolit puts the matter up to fate. He asks that a coin be tossed, then turns deathly pale when he wins the throw.
Embarrassed after he reads the title, "An Essential Explanation" and the motto, "Apres moi le déluge," Ippolit fears that perhaps he has written only nonsense, yet he reads on. His voice is jerky and his reading is incoherent at first, but, as he continues, his delivery becomes stronger. Ippolit speaks of his hatred of Myshkin, a feeling, he says, which has begun to diminish in the last month; still, though, his feelings for the prince are not those of goodwill.
This testament, Ippolit resumes, is absolutely true; there is not one word of falsehood in it. In a month, he'll be dead and lies are therefore absurd. He wonders if he is mad, for doctors have ascertained that his end is near and that a consumptive often goes mad in the last stages of his illness. He speaks of a dream he has had in which a brown-shelled, crawling reptile stalked him. He tried to hide but it was futile. Finally his mother released the family dog on the creature. Then the horror began: The dog seized the animal with her teeth, cracking its shell, but was suddenly stung on the tongue. She yelped loudly and Ippolit saw, inside the dog's mouth, the creature's crushed body emitting a thick white fluid on the dog's tongue.
Ippolit wipes the sweat off his forehead and continues. For three days he has been obsessed with the idea of living not being worthwhile. The first moment he grasped the thought, he recalls, was on Myshkin's terrace; there, he wanted to see trees and life, and wished that everyone would clasp him and ask him for forgiveness (for what, he is uncertain). I behaved like a fool, Ippolit confesses. The realization of his short span of life cut short his hope of ever learning Greek; he would be dead before he could get to the syntax. But, Ippolit says, the core of his despair was this: Life, not death, matters most; the process of life, the process of discovery, not the discovery itself, was the most important matter. Ippolit reminds his listeners then that what they are hearing is true, and resumes.
He speaks of shutting himself away, five months ago, and of Kolya's kindness (a purposeful imitation of Myshkin's Christian meekness, Ippolit believes), and then begins a long tale that happened several months ago when he saw a man lose a pocketbook, one which was obviously stuffed very full, but not with money. He tried to stop the fellow and was unsuccessful, but finally made his way to the man's lodgings.
There he found, in squalid surroundings, a most miserable situation: the man had been a provincial doctor, had lost his post because of politics, and was now destitute after spending nearly all his savings in attempts to bring the matter to trial. Ippolit mentions the man's pale wife and the new-born baby, and then relates how he recalled an old schoolmate of his (though certainly no close friend) whose uncle was state councilor. He mentioned the uncle's name to the ex-doctor and discovered that the man's case depended almost entirely on the uncle of the old schoolmate.
After a visit to the classmate, the matter was successfully concluded and Ippolit praises the value of individual kindness. And he recalls yet another tale; this time he speaks of an old general who did good deeds. He spent his life visiting prisons, not asking a prisoner about his crime, merely listening. He was known all over Russia, says Ippolit. What can be the effect, Ippolit wonders, of the association of one personality with another? No one can ascertain that, not even the most clever of chess players.
Ippolit says that his final resolve for carrying out his "last conviction" resulted from his last talk with his schoolmate and from an incident that occurred ten days ago. Rogozhin, it seems, visited Ippolit (about a matter Ippolit does not explain) and, returning Rogozhin's visit, Ippolit had several interesting experiences. First of all, he noticed Rogozhin's displeasure at Ippolit's visit; Rogozhin even hinted that the two men ought to discontinue their acquaintance. Ippolit suggested that perhaps Rogozhin had guessed Ippolit's "conviction." At that, Rogozhin was grim and Ippolit left, remembering the Rogozhin house as very dismal.
Ippolit was ill after he left Rogozhin's house and, at home he recalled Rogozhin's copy of the Holbein picture of Christ. He remembers, in detail, the ugliness of the picture; all of the agony suffered on the cross had been reproduced. Could anyone, asks Ippolit, believe that such a swollen, bloodstained body would rise again? The laws of nature are so much in evidence in that picture, says Ippolit, that even Christ's closest friends and disciples must have despaired if they had to witness such a fearful sight.
Not long after these thoughts, Ippolit experienced either a visit from Rogozhin or a hallucination and, all these things taken together, he says — the hallucination and the feeling that life was taking on strange, humiliating forms — repulsed him. Thus he had to make his "final decision." He has a little pocket pistol, he says, and has decided to die here, at Pavlovsk, at sunrise, going into the park so as not to upset anyone in the villa. He will kill himself looking into "the source of power and life" for, he says, perhaps suicide is the last action he can accomplish by his own will. Ippolit stops then and is aghast at the indifference that follows his speech. No one seems particularly concerned that he will kill himself; they've been sitting too long, their bones ache. Many, in fact, protest that indeed Ippolit will not shoot himself.
Ippolit says goodbye and, on the verandah steps, suddenly raises the pistol against his temple. Keller rushes to stop him but hears a click. He seizes the pistol and discovers that there is no cap in the gun. Some of the party roar with laughter. Ippolit collapses in hysterics, wringing his hands, rushing up to everyone and swearing that it was only by accident that there was no cap in the pistol. He is dishonored forever, he sobs. He is carried unconscious into Myshkin's study and, as the guests begin to leave, Myshkin corners Yevgeny Pavlovitch and asks him what it was that he had earlier wished to discuss. The matter must wait, says Radomsky, and warns Myshkin not to worry over Ippolit. Never in real life, he says, does a man shoot himself for applause. But he counsels the prince to get rid of the distraught consumptive. He hints that Ippolit, though not capable of suicide, might be quite capable of other crimes, simply as "feats."
Myshkin is unable to sleep and goes into the park. By accident, he finds himself at the green seat. Once more, he longs to go away, revisit Switzerland's lakes and mountains. He drops to sleep on the bench and dreams that he is visited by a woman. She is pale and weeping, and she beckons him to follow her; Myshkin vows that nothing on earth will make him say that she is a criminal. He rises from the bench and is awakened by a gay laugh and a hand pressing his. Aglaia Epanchin is standing beside him.
A great deal of space is given to Ippolit's attempted suicide and it would seem to be a key scene in this middle section of The Idiot. Such is not the case, however. There are no new ideas introduced that illuminate Myshkin's effect on his company nor are there any remarkable last revelations by Ippolit. Originally Dostoevsky planned for the young consumptive to be the axis of the novel and, in these chapters such a pivot might have been possible, but Dostoevsky reveals Ippolit to be in no way pivotal; he is, in Dostoevsky's own words, a vain and a weak person. He has a certain imaginative intelligence but he does not contain the magnetism that Myshkin, Nastasya, and Rogozhin do. He raves and is a heavy romantic, and it is difficult to discover any coherency within the man. His ideas are a hodgepodge of other ideas and images of mankind we have already listened to. But perhaps one should not despair that Ippolit's role does not develop and does not have more bearing on the plot, as do Myshkin's, Rogozhin's, and Nastasya's. If one began a Dostoevsky novel and looked for coherence, he would be maddingly frustrated, for Dostoevsky's mind rambles, changes, and muses for many pages, and — eventually — the thread of his plot is taken up again. But we are the richer for his digression. Ippolit's "Essential Explanation" is valuable in that it is a large unedited nugget of Dostoevsky.
Considering the "Explanation" more closely, note Ippolit's decision to let Fate (the toss of the coin) decide whether or not he will read his document. Again Dostoevsky uses Fate; remember that it was Fate that placed the pure Myshkin and the sensual Rogozhin across from one another, months ago, in a train bound for Petersburg. This appeal to Fate is theatrical in Ippolit's suicide scene, but it is right for his vanity and typical of Dostoevsky melodrama, setting the tone for most of the dramatic content of the "Explanation," which significantly, seems to be less than essential. Nevertheless, Ippolit's suicide is not wholly absurd for there is something touching in the fact that this eighteen-year-old boy is attempting to do something before Fate ends his life. His attempt has a certain admirable, though admittedly vain, aspect.
Ippolit's idea of individual kindness, within the story of the doctor who lost his post through politics and regained it through influence, is offered to the company, but is probably lost on them because such an idea is, after all, being read in a carnival atmosphere. But the idea should not be lost on us because the effect of individual kindness is exactly what this novel is concerned with — that is, the effect of Myshkin's goodness on the other characters. Far from ending happily as does Ippolit's tale, however, this novel ends disastrously and one of the reasons is that Myshkin's boundless compassion outweighs his judgment. From the beginning of this book, we are warned that Rogozhin will kill Filippovna, and Myshkin's goodness seems to goad Rogozhin and Nastasya to that end. Myshkin even equates his own fears that Rogozhin might attempt to murder him with Rogozhin's actual attempt; their sin was the same, he says. This act of forgiveness and Myshkin's other acts of forgiveness, of absorbing the blame of others, drives a great many of the characters to distraction.
Myshkin is like an ever-present purifier, and he is never content to let others be human; he will not accept their faults. Nastasya (Rogozhin tells Myshkin) particularly fears the prince and, we discover, she finally fears him more than she fears death. Myshkin's kindness and his forgiving nature remake Nastasya; Myshkin cleans her slate of sins, but Nastasya is unable to accept this metaphorical baptism. She is compounded of guilt and suffering — and a beautiful face and body — and must be accepted on those terms. As welcome as Myshkin's goodness is, Nastasya cannot be released from her past by this handsome judge, this poor "knight." Thus she chooses Rogozhin. And thus Myshkin's kindness results in tragedy and not in happiness.
In spite of Ippolit's positive insights into individual kindness, he has decided to commit suicide because he fears that he is going mad and, by ending his own life, he will be exerting a last act of will, a last protest. Rogozhin's visits have troubled him; he cannot forget the depressing Holbein reproduction in Rogozhin's house (which is like a graveyard itself, Ippolit says); and, finally, his dreams are growing grotesque and he is no longer sure what is real and what is hallucination. His resolve to commit suicide is final.
Of course there is humiliation following the ludicrous "click" of Ippolit's pistol, but if we can trust Dostoevsky's last notes on the young consumptive, perhaps he meant to underscore that Ippolit's vanity was so great that, subconsciously, it demanded extreme humiliation. Perversely, there can be a satisfaction of pride in humiliation, although there is voiced by almost every character in the novel a dread of humiliation. And, one should note, Lebedyev, Lizaveta Prokofyevna, Aglaia, Ganya, Nastasya Filippovna, Rogozhin, and even Myshkin, all — at one time or another — have emotional scenes that make them appear ridiculous. In fact, in every novel of Dostoevsky's, men and women exhibit great capacities for suffering by humiliation. Great vanity, it would seem, feeds itself on great humiliation.