Summary and Analysis
Myshkin's long emotional monologue to the party-goers begins without design. He begins speaking, in fact, quite by chance. General Epanchin notices Myshkin's silence and tries to bring him into the conversation. The result is disastrous.
The general speaks of the prince's being left a ward of Pavlishtchev, and one of the guests, a relative of Pavlishtchev's, responds with delight. He remembers the prince as a lad, he says, and even recalls Myshkin's epileptic attacks. He continues to talk and Myshkin is thrilled to learn that the two women who reared him are still living; he is determined to visit them.
Overcome with excitement, Myshkin begins speaking at length and refutes what Ivan Petrovitch has said about Nikolay Pavlishtchev; it is inconceivable to Myshkin that his guardian was converted to Roman Catholicism. Pavlishtchev was a genuine Christian, Myshkin asserts, while Catholicism is a most unchristian religion. His eyes flash and he surveys the whole company; Catholicism, he continues, is even worse than atheism for it preaches a distorted Christ. It is a continuation of the Roman Empire's zeal to subordinate; it is a power shot through with fraud and superstition, bartering sincere feelings for money. Catholicism, Myshkin says, is responsible for atheism because masses of people are no longer able to believe; even Socialism, he feels, springs from Catholicism in an effort to replace the lost moral power of religion. Christ must be reclaimed, says Myshkin, and must be saved; Russians must not be imprisoned by the wiles of the Jesuits.
Myshkin's words tumble out, nonstop, and the guests gaze on him as though he had taken leave of his senses. General Epanchin makes several attempts to stop the prince, but is unsuccessful. Myshkin rises from his seat, waves his arms to underscore a point, and then accompanied by a general scream of horror, the Chinese vase totters, leans, and crashes to the floor. Aglaia's face pales and she looks strangely at Myshkin; the others begin laughing and continue to laugh, louder and louder, even the general and his wife. Myshkin cannot believe that he has not offended them all; he tries to explain but is stopped by Princess Byelokonsky. The guests have all seen stranger men than Myshkin, she says.
Myshkin then confesses that he came to the party very afraid of everyone. For too long he had heard that society folk were petty and ridiculous; he had to see for himself if the upper crust of Russian society was really good for nothing. Once again, Myshkin loses control of himself and, feverishly, he announces that he has found that all the gossip is false; everyone here is simple-hearted and elegant; their faces are kind and though he knows he ought not to be talking for fear that his absurd manner may detract from what he says, he cannot help but talk for he wants so very much to explain everything!
Myshkin continues until Lizaveta Prokofyevna throws up her hands in dismay at what she sees: An attack is imminent and Aglaia rushes up to Myshkin and manages to catch him, but the prince's face is distorted with pain. A wild scream is torn from his throat.
Within half an hour the party has dispersed. Princess Byelokonsky cautions Madame Epanchin that there is perhaps more bad than good in Myshkin; obviously, he is a sick man.
In the morning, Aglaia surprises her mother by announcing that Myshkin means no more to her than anyone else. Lizaveta Prokofyevna says that she was ready to turn away all the guests and keep the prince, had Aglaia requested it; then she stops, frightened at what she has said.
Perhaps Myshkin might have escaped the embarrassment of having an epileptic seizure in public, but Dostoevsky has readied us for the prince's second attack and so he continues to build toward that climax.
By accident (fate, in other words), General Epanchin notices Myshkin's silence and steers him toward disaster. Already we know that Myshkin, if he feels deeply about a subject, will talk heatedly until he embarrasses himself and all those present by his intensity.
Myshkin's tirade against the Catholic church should not be misinterpreted as being sacrilegious, for Dostoevsky was a devout believer in God. It is not God whom Myshkin argues against in his attack; it is Catholicism. He detests the church's power, its superstitions, its dogmas, and its greed; he cries for a reclamation of Christ. This plea for reformation is an emotionally positive statement precluding, incidentally, an opposite, well-reasoned negative point of view of the value of Christ found in a later novel, The Brothers Karamazov; there Dostoevsky uses the Grand Inquisitor as the spokesman for the church and, in a detailed monologue, the Inquisitor shows us, calmly, in contrast to Myshkin's impassioned attack on the church, how the church operates. It has used its power (wisely, says the Grand Inquisitor; like a dictator, Myshkin would say) to protect mankind (with frightening superstitions, Myshkin would say; with well-intended emotional barriers, the Grand Inquisitor would say). Here, Myshkin pleads that mankind must be free to worship the Christ of the Bible and not the church-created version of Him. Myshkin breaks the superficial gaiety of the evening, and his breaking of the Chinese vase is symbolic of what he has done.
Ironically, it is Myshkin's attempt to repair the evening's broken spirit that is more disastrous than even the breaking of the vase. His insistence on truth demands that he confess to the crowd what public opinion says of them. Of course what he says is true, and no doubt the longer and faster he talks, the more clearly he sees disquieting reactions on the guests' faces. It is conceivable that Myshkin's attack of epilepsy is a safety valve. It saves him from realizing his enormous error in assessing the character of the Epanchins' guests. In his quest for truth, he has damned the Catholic church for distorting the truth, yet in his innocence he distorts the truth. Perhaps epilepsy saves Myshkin from real, unbearable revelation.