Sunday, March 7, 2010

Light and Dark

I'm still trying to sort out the ending.  The story had to end tragically but was surprised that Rogozhin actually sought forgiveness in Myshkin after what he had done to Nastya, although I think that Dostoevsky intended the two to be read as one, along similar lines as The Double.  He kept Rogozhin a shadowy figure throughout the novel, ever lurking in the dark of the Prince's soul.  Try as he might, Prince Myshkin could not alter events and thus the fantasy world he had lived in upon returning to Russia crumbled before his eyes, leaving him at a total loss as how to reconcile himself with it.

Once again, Dostoevsky plumbs great depths of the human soul.  This is a psychological drama told in theatrical terms, perfectly suited for the stage.  Characters appear and disappear as if moving from the shadows of the stage.  I can see the "green bench" as the central stage piece.  In the final part, one gets the sense that Lebedev is orchestrating events, and may even be the narrator himself, although Dostoevsky treats the narrator as "we,"  with events pieced together from various accounts.

What beguiles me is the relationship between Myshkin and Aglaya.  It was obvious that Nastya fulfilled his vision of Marie, whom he described to the Epanchin girls in the first part of the novel.  Marie was a village girl who found herself outside the small Swiss community the Prince was convalescing in,and in whom Myshkin had great sympathy for and eventually "saved."  But, one doesn't know whether the Prince's stories are any more true than those of the General, who regales the Prince in stories of the time he served Napoleon as a 10-year old scribe.

Aglaya was fascinated with the Prince, but hard to say whether she really loved him anymore than he did her.  They seemed to be drawn to each other more out a shared feeling for some ideal world that neither of them could attain.  But, it was made all too evident in the final chapters that Nastya was the one Prince Myshkin loved and ultimately could not separate himself from, leading to his final fallout with the Epanchin family.

The odd part is the Prince still felt he could maintain a relationship with Aglaya, unable to understand Yevgeny Pavlovich's attempts to reason with him.  The Prince seemed to regard his planned marriage with Nastya as a formality, as though he were saving her from Rogozhin, and that his real affinities still lay with Aglaya.  Maybe Aglaya/Nastya is set up as a duality in the same way The Prince and Rogozhin are -- light and dark?


  1. I began reading this after finishing Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, and after reading your musings above. This used to be my favorite novel by Dostoevsky, who I don't read much anymore. Although I just read Crime and Punishment again for the first time in probably 10 years.

  2. Look forward to your comments, rick. It is one of those books that yields many interpretations.

  3. One thing I noticed this time around is that Prince Myshkin seems quite different in Part Two. He is much more self-assured and worldly. For instance, in his conversation with Lebedev in Part Two, Ch. II, he openly questions Lebedev's veracity. I can't quite see that happening in Part One.

    Since it's been at least 15 years since I last read The Idiot, I can't remember if Dostoevsky explains, by way of backtracking, what has happened which might explain this.

  4. I think it may have been all those attempts to part him with his inheritance that may have wizened the Prince up a bit. By Part III he seems downright shrewd when Lebedev hatches a scheme that questions his inheritance entirely. He even enlisted Ganya to do a little investigative work.

    Still, the Prince seems hopelessly muddled when it comes to women, and hence his charm.

  5. I had forgotten that Dostoevsky references Don Quixote at least once in The Idiot. Quixote was equally, and comically, muddled when it came to women.

    Also, I'm reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation and have been struck by how many times they have characters use the words "original" or "originality." It's beginning to sound like some kind of code word.

  6. I didn't pick up on that. I linked an article on The Idiot and Don Quixote in one of the other threads. General Ivolgin, who figures more strongly into Part III and IV, seems to be modeled very much on the quixotic knight, although Aglaya keeps referring to Myshkin as the Poor Knight.

    There are a lot of parallels, and like Cervantes, Dostoevsky likes to take his digressions. In this case, his views on Nihilists and Anarchists, particularly as told by Ippolit, although he finds a way to weave him into the action.

    Here's the article on The Idiot and Don Quixote,

  7. Parts of this book are so poorly written it's really hard to believe. I guess, though, that's what happens when you get paid by the word.

  8. At times you get the feeling Dostoevsky is cobbling together past pieces he has written that don't fit into the narrative flow. I guess he didn't have an editor back then to help him trim some fat off this novel.

  9. Until last month I hadn't read any of his major novels in many years. When I recently re-read "Crime and Punishment," I was reminded that he can be somewhat repetitive. But all in all, the story he tells in "Crime and Punishment" is so compelling that I didn't really mind.

    "The Idiot," however, is something else again. After the first 100 pages or so, every scene seems to be twice as long as it needs to be. It's exhausting.

  10. It definitely feels padded. I don't if that is because Dostoevsky felt he had more to say or if he was trying to satisfy creditors. I thought Part I read pretty tightly. It all took place in the course of one day and resolved itself pretty well.

    In the later parts he brings in so many new characters, not all of whom fit within the story he has set. Dostoevsky seemed obsessed with the inherit evils of Nihilism and Anarchism, and ultimately the Prince suggests at a party at the Epanchins that this loss of faith is the result of the spread of Catholicism.

    Orthodoxism is the true expression of faith, with the Prince sympathetic to the Old Believers, as personified in spirit, if not actions, by General Ivolgin. I think to a large degree this fit in with Dostoevsky's own religious beliefs.

  11. I've bailed on The Idiot. Too many other books I want to read to spend more time on this.

  12. Oh well, I was looking forward to your concluding thoughts.