“… We feel that we must limit ourselves to the simple statement of facts, as far as possible without special explanations, and for a very simple reason: because we ourselves, in many cases, have difficulty explaining what happened” (The Idiot, trans. Peaver and Volokhonsky, 573)
So writes the on-again off-again omniscient narrator towards the end of The Idiot’s fourth part, but it serves well as a description of the reader’s experience of the novel as a whole. Frank’s biography suggests several reasons for this surface-level incoherence. During its composition D’s newborn daughter passed away under quite tragic circumstances; his publisher demanded serially submitted chapters that an impoverished D family required the advances from so badly that there was not the appropriate time for review; D himself never made a grand plan for the plot; he was trying to give voice to a set of concerns that were far more personal and spiritual than he had attempted previously.
My experience reading The Idiot was certainly a problematic one, but – to give an analogy – it was problematic in the way that listening to a particularly difficult (but good) piece of music might be the first time. I saw several Bartok violin quartets performed once, for example, and though it was affecting, I could not keep it all together in my mind. On later listenings I could. So in fact Frank’s interpretation was helpful in drawing together seemingly disparate aspects of the novel into thematic unity.
Here’s a brief summary: Prince Myshkin returns by train to St. Petersburg after an extended convalescence in Switzerland for the ubiquitous (at least in D novels) “falling sickness,” an impoverished man with an aristocratic heritage. He is most naive – hence the novel’s title. His most distinctive quality seems to be a fundamental lack of the ability to attribute anything but the most straightforward, upright motives to any other character, no matter how transparently devious they seem to the reader or the other characters. He is very bad also at gauging tone – sarcasm is something he just sets aside as though it hasn’t been deployed, making him both ill-suited to the nuances of Petersburg salon life, but at the same time quite an amusement for those very salons
Upon arrival in the city, The prince calls upon his distant aristocratic relatives, the Epanchins. He introduces himself and gets drawn into their circle. They are connected to the lower-status Ivolgin family, one of whose sons (Ganya) works for General Epanchin. Also, the prince discovers he is the recipient of an apparently large inheritance.
Through some confusing twists of plot, Nastasya, a fallen woman, is introduced. Ganya, a greedy and conniving man, wishes to marry Nastasya, to collect a 50,000 ruble dowry on offer from her former guardian turned seducer (hence her “fallen” state). But so also does the passionate Rogozhin, who unmasks Ganya’s true intentions at a dramatic birthday scene which terminates with Nastasya’s forcing Rogozhin to endure the burning of 100,000 rubles which he has recently inherited, and which he offers Nastasya to prove his love and Ganya’s greed (the money’s not actually burned however). Somehow this all ends in the Prince professing his love to Nastasya, and he pursues her in a manner that keeps her from marrying Rogozhin, whose proposal she has formally accepted. She fails to show at the altar numerous times and then this subplot recedes into the distance.
As the story continues, the prince suffers an epileptic seizure (dramatically rendered in some of D’s most compelling scenes yet) and is nearly murdered by Rogozhin, before being rescued by the ever-loyal Kolya, the schoolboy younger brother of Ganya, Nastasya’s former suitor. All the major characters (except Rogozhin and Nastasya) move to the Epanchins’ summer home outside of St. Petersburg, where the Prince, invited to recover from his recent illness, gradually falls in love with Aglaya, the youngest and most beautiful of the Epanchin daughters.
Around this time, The prince (aka the Idiot) is blackmailed by a group of nihilists who make a bogus claim on his inheritance. The Lebowski likeness was not lost on me (the “idiot” = “the dude”?). The nihilists have published a slanderous tract about the prince and demand his money (which, it turns out, was not that much to begin with). As Frank notes, The nihilists draw repeatedly on the moral vocabulary they supposedly shun (“fair? Who’s the fucking nihilists here?”), and the whole sequence ends in the prince forgiving and befriending them, especially the strangely chivalrous (especially for a nihilist) and pugilistic Keller.
One of the nihilists, Ippolit, is a teenage consumptive. In a grandly tragicomic party scene at the Epanchins’, he demands that the assembled cast of characters (nearly all of whom are there, and very drunk) listen to the reading of a melodramatic sequence of grandiose thoughts he has written in his journal. Since this is D, however, in a strange twist of narrative sympathy, the reader (or at least I was) is drawn into this rant, dwelling on the relationship between love and death and faith. The sequence ends with Ippolit trying and failing to kill himself with a pistol he has misloaded. Many of the characters (though not the prince) jeer at him and are amused by the spectacle.
As the novel draws to a close, the prince, in anticipation of his marriage to Aglaya, is introduced into society at a grand coming-out sort of event. Though Aglaya counsels him against saying anything at all, and against knocking over a statue of her mother’s, of course, he fails on both counts. He enters into an extended diatribe (paralleling Ippolit’s in interesting ways) against the Catholic menace in Russia, and the atheism in which, in his opinion, it inevitably results. Much of the crowd is scandalized, mostly by how much he seems really to CARE about these questions, over and above any particular opinion he might hold). He enters into another seizure and knocks over the statue and falls unconscious.
Later on, somehow (my initial epigraph is from this part of the book) the prince breaks his engagement with Aglaya, probably after being pressured to do so) and now asks in marriage and is accepted by Natasya. His grip on reality recedes at this point, however, as he continues to visit Aglaya as though nothing has happened. On the day of the wedding, Rogozhin shows up, and semi-kidnaps the bride-to-be. He then murders her in his Petersburg apartment, where the prince discovers both of them.
There are a host of themes that present themselves – Frank suggests we can view the prince as a Kierkegaardian knight of faith. I might add to that Rogozhin as the night of infinite resignation. The prince’s love for Nastasya paradoxically represents the agape-sort of love, and his love for Aglaya, though the much more respectable of the pair, that of Eros. His confusion near the end of the book and his relapse into madness thus becomes an illustration of just how difficult it would be for the knight of faith to be a reality.
And there is the ever-present Prince-Christ comparison. In Switzerland he taught a flock of children and incurred the wrath of their headmaster. He ministers love to a fallen woman with whom others will not consort. He outrages the pharisees of his own demi-monde. He, in a way, resurrects Ippolit. In the early part of the novel he tells parable-like stories meant to illustrate different stations in the life of faith. I thought, it turns out wrongly, that the novel would end in his murder.
What to make of all of this? There is a lot going on, obviously, but what most intrigued me was the sheer problematic nature of it. Not so much a puzzle too figure out as, like I said before, a piece of music I struggled to hear in the intended register. Each of the climactic scenes reach such heights of emotional frenzy, interpersonal chaos and metaphysical depth that I found myself not really caring why this or that event had occurred leading up to it. another musical analogy: in the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”, Lou Reed repeatedly describes a confusing and sordid tableau, in different ways and over different riffs, rhythms and cantankerous effects – in a way, that’s how I felt while reading The Idiot.