The Idiot is a murder story, a mystery story investigating a homicide, the death of this man:
‘That painting!’ the prince exclaimed suddenly, under the impact of a sudden thought. ‘That painting! Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting!’ (II, 4)
Or gain their faith, depending on what they make of Christ shown so clearly as human. The image is foreshadowing, although given Dostoevsky’s improvisation, at the point the painting first appears, a third of the way through the novel, it is fair to ask: foreshadowing of what? The author will figure that out by the end of the novel.
This Holbein painting pulls us back into Part I of the novel, the single day in two hundred pages in which the holy fool Prince Myshkin is reintroduced to Russia after a long stay in Switzerland, where he too got to know the Holbein. He mentions another Holbein, a Madonna in Dresden, but this is merely a hint of the motif. The strongest connection is to another Basel painting, not specified by Myshkin, that portrays the moment before an execution. Myshkin then describes, in a two page paragraph, a painting he imagines on that subject, “’exactly a minute before death,’” although his description includes the prison, the awakening and transport of the condemned man and his thoughts along the way before he gets to the scaffold, the guillotine, and the priest.
“Paint the scaffold so that only the last stair can be seen clearly and closely; the condemned man has stepped on it: his head, white as paper, the priest holding out the cross, the man extending his blue lips and staring – and knowing everything. The cross and the head – that is the painting, the face of the priest, of the executioner, of his two assistants and a few heads and eyes from below – all that may be painted on a tertiary level, as it were, in a mist, as a background… That’s what the painting should be like.” (I, 6, ellipses in original)
This is told to a trio of beautiful young women Myshkin has just met. He is a little awkward as a conversationalist. You should see the story he tells next, in Part I, Chapter 6, in a single uninterrupted twelve page paragraph.
Strangely, eighty pages into the novel, this is the second time Myshkin has described the moment before an execution. He first does so in the second chapter, again, using a long single paragraph.
“When you put your head right under the guillotine and hear it sliding above your head, it’s that quarter of a second that’s most terrible of all. This isn’t my imagination, you know, many people have said the same thing… Take a soldier and put him right in front of a cannon in a battle and fire it at him, and he’ll go on hoping, but read out a certain death sentence to that same soldier, and he’ll go mad, or start to weep. Who can say that human nature is able to endure such a thing without going mad? Why such mockery – ugly, superfluous, futile? Perhaps the man exists to whom this sentence has been read out, has been allowed to suffer, and then has been told: ‘Off you go, you’ve been pardoned.’ A man like that could tell us, perhaps. Such suffering and terror were what Christ spoke of. (I,2, ellipses mine)
I quoted that passage at some length because it is so clearly related to Dostoevsky’s own experience in 1849, when his own execution by firing squad was commuted moments before the guns went off.
And what comes up just a few pages later? A painting, of course – the painting of a character who will, by the end of the novel seven hundred pages later, be murdered.
I am in a sense constructing a better novel out of pieces of the book Dostoevsky actually wrote, but the pieces all are right there, put in place by the author for anyone to use.
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