Friday, November 22, 2013

We’re eccentrics… we ought all to be displayed under glass - The Idiot's characters - I've never been able to stand poetry

“Exceedingly strange people!” thought Prince Shch., for perhaps the hundredth time since he had begun to associate with them, but… he liked these strange people.  (III, 2, ellipses in original)

Dostoevsky’s characters often seem to comment on the novel they are in.  A little past the halfway point, “hundredth time” was about right for me, too.

Dostoevsky, in his late novels, under constraints I would not wish on any artist, abandons or never attempts much of what makes fiction artful.  What does he keep?

Speech.  Dostoevsky the playwright.  The bulk of The Idiot is speech.  Dialogue, arguments, harangues, manifestos, cacophonies.  The famous Dostoevskian polyphony exists in a more primitive form in The Idiot than in The Brothers Karamazov, but there is plenty of room for views that are clearly not Dostoevsky’s own, wrong ideas presented with as much conviction and rhetorical sophistication as right.  This, if anything, accounts for the proliferation of Dostoevsky’s ideas and aesthetic.  Dostoevsky practically begs you to disagree with his ideas about Russian nationalism and the primacy of the Orthodox Church, even to ignore them.

But more practically, Dostoevsky seems to believe that character is mostly revealed through speech.  That is where he spends his time.

“Lord, what nonsense I’m talking!  Pah!  We’re eccentrics… we ought all to be displayed under glass, me first for an entrance fee of ten copecks.”  (III, 1, ellipses in original)

This is Lizaveta Prokofyevna, mother of one of Prince Myshkin’s possible wives, and one of the novel’s best minor characters.  She is nothing but talk, often bewildered and ridiculous talk.  She is another of the novel’s idiots (the novel is on the side of the idiots):

“What poem is it?  Recite it, I’m sure you know it!  I absolutely insist on knowing this poem.  I’ve never been able to stand poetry, it’s as though I’d had a premonition.  For God’s sake – Prince, have patience, it seems that you and I will have to endure this together,” she addressed Prince Lev Nikolayevich [Myshkin].  (II, 6)

The Christ-like Myshkin and the novel’s other fools are secretly in solidarity against earthly suffering.  Not so secret in this passage, I guess, since she openly says it.

As good as so many of the minor characters are, it is Prince Myshkin who really matters.  Meant to be a saint, he could become an ikon, not a character but an image, perfectly meek, perfectly forgiving.  Dostoevsky humanizes him, though, with a number of small touches, most effectively his sense of humor.  Midway through the novel there is a rare moment of action, during which Myshkin tangles with an officer.  A minor character offers to be Myshkin’s second:

“So you’re talking about a duel, too!” the prince suddenly began to laugh, to Keller’s extreme surprise.  He laughed mightily.  Keller, who had really almost been on tenterhooks until he had obtained satisfaction, offering himself as a second, almost took offence as he beheld the prince’s merry laughter.  (III, 3)

I was also laughing mightily, enjoying Myshkin’s genuinely Christ-like response.  Risking death for pride – how ridiculous, how funny.  Myshkin’s laughter is always meaningful.

One more example, from another minor character, one who plays a big role in the first quarter of the novel but gets lost later, a victim of Dostoevsky’s muddle.  He is given this moment, though:

When Varya was out of the way, Ganya took the note from the table, kissed it, clicked his tongue and performed an entrechat.  (IV, 2)

One wonders what little marvels Dostoevsky might have imagined if he had let his characters be alone more often, if they were not constantly talking.


  1. "Dostoevsky practically begs you to disagree with his ideas about Russian nationalism and the primacy of the Orthodox Church. even to ignore them."

    Yes - it's odd that Dostoyevsky often presents ideas he is opposed to with intense power, while opinions we know that he himself espoused are often presented in a comic manner, sometimes through the mouths of fools.It is very odd. But it does prevent the novels from being merely tracts.

    Myshkin may be explicitly Christ-like, but ultimately, he fails to engage with any of the characters.I get the feeling that he really has nothing much tooffer any of them.

  2. At the end there, you describe the novel's Ethical Issue #1, I think. Maybe Myshkin is actually doing harm, simply by existing! Or maybe the harm cancels out the good.

  3. It is always amazing, but not surprising any more, that Dostoevsky's ability to present the arguments of the opposition (to his beliefs) is often done in a stronger manner. This continues right on through to The Brothers Karamazov.

  4. Karamazov, I would argue, improves the technique. There are many more voices, more positions, more beliefs. The Idiot is narrower but still impressive in its flexibility.