Tuesday, November 19, 2013

That is impossible, that’s all nonsense! - a look at Dostoevsky's The Idiot - "Did you receive my hedgehog?"

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, serialized from 1868 to 1869.  I want to start with two scenes, so mostly just some quotes today.  David McDuff’s 2004 Penguin translation is doing the hard work.

The plot:  Prince Myshkin, young, saint-like, even Christ-like, returns to Russia after a long illness, where he accidentally falls into someone else’s preposterous soap opera.  Myshkin’s superhuman insight into character and limitless capacity for forgiveness affect some of the soap operatives positively and drives others to madness.  Much of the story somehow becomes a contest between two women who want to marry the prince, or do not want to marry him, depending on where each woman is in her wild mood swing.

The Idiot is a novel of great scenes, but the plot is not so good.  Crime and Punishment is a much better thriller.

Aglaya is one of the women, the saner of the two, who sometimes wants to marry the prince  In this scene we are nearing the end of the novel:

It was at this very moment that Aglaya entered calmly and grandly, made a ceremonious bow to the prince, and solemnly took the most conspicuous place at the circular table.  She gave the prince a questioning look.  Everyone realized that the resolution of all their bewilderment had begun.

‘Did you receive my hedgehog?’ she asked firmly and almost angrily.

‘Yes, I did,’ replied the prince, blushing and with sinking heart.  (IV, 5)

I love that “bewilderment” line.  Dostoevsky’s fiction is full of lines that sound like self-commentary.  Be honest, after that line, what were you expecting?  “Did you receive my hedgehog?”  Oh, you were?  Well, I was not, even though the hedgehog had been delivered only four pages earlier.  A boy, Kolya, had bought a hedgehog and an axe from someone on the street who happened to have those two items in his possession.  Aglaya buys the hedgehog in order to send it to the prince.  No idea where the axe goes.  

Kolya agreed with delight, and promised that he would deliver it, but at once began to ply her with questions in return:  ‘What does a present of a hedgehog mean?’

Good question.  I will someday answer it, in what will become my best-known essay on Russian literature, "The Hedgehog and the Axe."

Now this is from hundreds of pages earlier.  Prince Myshkin is interrogating Lebedev, a toady, about some plotty stuff:

Lebedev began to cringe and grovel.

‘I’ve waited all day to ask you one question; just answer with the truth for once in your life, right from the first word: did you play any part in that carriage business yesterday?’

Lebedev again began to cringe, giggled, rubbed his hands, and even, at last sneezed several times, but was still unable to bring himself to say anything.

‘I see that you did.’  (Pt. II, Ch. 11)

And Lebedev is one of the novel’s sane characters!  Cunning, thoroughly selfish, and capricious, but rational.  The argument ends thusly (it is important to remember that the prince is almost inhumanly meek and forgiving):

‘Be quiet, be quiet!’ the prince shouted violently, red all over with indignation, and perhaps also with shame.  ‘That is impossible, that’s all nonsense!  You’ve thought it all up yourself, or madmen like you have.’

This is why I was reading and writing about nonsense – to prepare me for a week or so of writing about Dostoevsky.


  1. The description of the plot is hilarious!

  2. And accurate, also accurate. What makes the plot less like a soap opera is that the likely sympathetic response of the reader is to hope that Myshkin will be able to escape both of these women.

  3. I'm looking forward to The Hedgehog and the Axe. Good start on a complex novel. The Saint or the The Holy Fool always sounds like nonsense in comparison to those in the vicinity.

  4. I remember how all of the dashing about in carriages exhausted me. And how everyone wanted to be part of Myshkin's inner circle but nobody bothered to get to know him. There's a lot of excellent Dostoyevskian nonsense in The Idiot.

  5. I think today I will write up my complaints about the book. Just shove 'em into one post.

    It is a good trick, isn't it Fred, to make Myshkin the sensible character, but to the reader, not to the other characters (or to just a few perceptive ones). That is the point of the book, I suppose.

    Myshkin isn't the one sneezing and sending people hedgehogs!

  6. Damn, I'm not sure whether my comment got sent for the first time, so here we go again, sorry if you see it double.

    So, you say once you might find out about the meaning of the hedgehog. Did you mean this seriously, or have you actually already started looking up stuff and so? Because I am a student of Russian and this semester I pretty much plan to write my literature term paper about this hedgehog problem, going out of this novel and of Isaiah Berlins philosophy. It would be awesome if we could share ideas, experiences, sources and so.
    Greetings from hungary

  7. I did not mean this seriously! Not seriously in the way you mean it. I think it is a great idea for a paper, though. Someone should write it!

  8. Awww, pity :( I hoped you did mean it seriously. I am unfortunately not too well trained and educated and experienced for this paper so I don't know how it will turn out, that's why I am desperately searching for ideas :)

  9. Finished this novel on Sunday, laughed out loud at "Did you receive my Hedgehog?"

  10. A great comedian, in his way, Dostoevsky.

  11. I think the lesson is if you are thinking of sending your beloved a hedgehog, then perhaps think again. Better put put that Chinese vase away too. Those are the two principle messages of the novel I would say. Don't send hedgehogs, and put your vases somewhere safe. That bout sums it up, yes?

  12. Reductive, I suppose, but those are good lessons.