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The Idiot

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part I, Chapters 8–10

Part I, Chapters 5–7

Part I, Chapters 11–12

Summary

The Ivolgin household includes General Ivolgin; his wife, Nina Alexandrovna, Ganya; Ganya's sister, Varya; his brother, Kolya; and a boarder by the name of Ferdyshchenko. The entire household lives in an apartment, the size of which is beyond Ganya's means. Although Ganya is ashamed to take on boarders, his financial situation forces him to do so.

Prince Myshkin arrives at the Ivolgin apartment, following General Yepanchin's advice that he rent a room there. Myshkin meets all of the household's inhabitants: Ganya's sister and mother appear simply dressed yet dignified; Ganya's brother, Kolya, is a good-natured teenage boy. Once Myshkin is in his room, the red-haired and red-faced Ferdyshchenko visits him and asks him not to lend him any money.

Ganya's father, General Ivolgin, stops by Myshkin's room and says that he has a long history with the prince's parents, though he can hardly recall their names correctly. The general says that his household is in distress, partly because of economic conditions but also because of the upcoming marriage between Ganya and a dishonorable woman (Nastassya Filippovna). The general is firmly against the marriage, and he and Ganya are not on speaking terms.

Meanwhile, in the drawing room, Ganya's friend Ptitsyn tells Nina Alexandrovna and Varya that the marriage is to be decided that night. Ganya suddenly walks in and is annoyed to hear the conversation about his marriage. He again accuses the prince of talking too much. Ganya's reproaches are stopped, however, by Ptitsyn admission that it was he who called Ganya's family about the approaching decision. Nina Alexandrovna asks Ganya why Nastassya Filippovna would agree to marry Ganya if he does not love her, insinuating that her son is deceiving her. As the family argument continues, Ganya's rage grows beyond control. To avoid the conflict, Myshkin withdraws into the corridor.

Suddenly, the doorbell rings. The prince sees Nastassya Filippovna, who takes him for a servant. Everyone is utterly surprised at Nastassya Filippovna's arrival, as she has never before come to the Ivolgin home. Ganya is filled with fright at the thought of all the information she will be able to collect about his family, which she might later use to humiliate him in high society. Nastassya Filippovna attempts to mask the awkwardness of the moment by joking and behaving as if she does not realize the hostility of Ganya's family toward her. Myshkin is introduced to her, and she is surprised to learn of her mistake in thinking him a servant.

Suddenly General Ivolgin enters the drawing room and introduces himself to Nastassya Filippovna. Ganya becomes agitated, as his ambition and vanity are deeply threatened by his father, a man whose lying knows no limits. Although the general's wife and children ask him to leave, he refuses and continues to tell stories of his past—all utter lies. One of the stories General Ivolgin tells is of a time when he was in a train, riding together with a lady who had a dog. When he pulled out a cigar, the lady grabbed the cigar and threw it out the window, at which point the general took the lady's dog and threw it right out the window as well. Nastassya Filippovna catches the general's lie, saying that she has read this same story in the newspaper. Ganya is beyond himself with suffering.

Then another visit is announced. Soon the room is filled with a large and boisterous company of slightly drunk men led by Rogozhin, who is shocked at the sight of Nastassya Filippovna and slightly surprised at the sight of Myshkin as well. With a face of a man condemned to die, Rogozhin announces he has come to bargain with Ganya. He asks Nastassya Filippovna if she plans to marry Ganya. She calmly replies that she does not. Rogozhin tries to bargain with Ganya for Nastassya Filippovna, putting 18,000 rubles on the table and promising 40,000 and then 100,000.

Varya calls Nastassya Filippovna a "shameless woman" and appeals for someone to take her out of their apartment. Enraged at this insult of Nastassya Filippovna, Ganya grabs hold of Varya, who spits in his face. Ganya almost hits his sister, but Myshkin suddenly halts him; Ganya then slaps the prince in the face. The prince tells Ganya that he will be ashamed of his actions. Everyone looks at Ganya reproachfully, while Rogozhin blames him for hurting the "sheep" that is the prince. Suddenly Myshkin turns to Nastassya Filippovna and tells her that she, too, should be ashamed of her actions, especially as her behavior does not reflect who she really is. Nastassya Filippovna turns to Ganya's mother and whispers that Myshkin is right. The visitors leave the apartment.

Analysis

In these chapters we see that Ganya is a vain, ambitious man who is very controlling toward his family members. He clearly wishes to appear of a higher social class than he really is, as we see in the fact that his apartment is beyond what he can afford and in his shame about taking on boarders. Ganya is embarrassed not only by his financial status, but also by his family, particularly his father. Ganya beseeches Myshkin not to tell his family about what happened at the Yepanchins, nor to tell anyone about what Ganya's family is like. When Nastassya Filippovna arrives, Ganya is extremely vexed by the embarrassment his father will cause him. In Ganya's outburst we see the first of several instances in the novel when characters lose control. Ganya's tempter boils over: his anger, caused by his vanity, has no limits. He even goes so far as to hit his sister and then the prince. General Ivolgin also lacks control—over language rather than temper. The general's lies have no motivation whatsoever; he simply tells them compulsively and seemingly for no reason.

There are a number of interesting references to literature in The Idiot, which have different functions in the narrative. In this section, General Ivolgin makes a reference to Dumas's The Three Musketeers, for instance, and tells a lie that is essentially a retelling of a story he once read in the newspaper.

Chapter 9 at last introduces Nastassya Filippovna, an enigmatic woman whose appearance in Ganya's apartment surprises everyone. Both the characters and we ourselves are fascinated with her, as she is someone for whom virtually no limits to action exist. Her behavior is utterly unpredictable, as she refuses to follow any societal prescriptions for how she should act—a trait that makes her dramatically interesting and erratic. Upon arrival at Ganya's apartment, Nastassya Filippovna laughs and acts unceremoniously, as though she assumes the role society expects her—as a fallen woman who has transgressed through extramarital sex—to play. Myshkin appears to be the only one who sees through her behavior and confronts her with the assertion that it does not match her real personality. The prince's claim characterizes both her and him, as his recognition differentiates him from the other characters.

We also see the other characters continue to impose roles upon Myshkin in addition to the most frequent role, that of the "idiot." Nastassya Filippovna mistakes the prince for a butler, while Rogozhin calls him a sheep. The image of Myshkin as a sheep contrasts him with Rogozhin, whose character reminds us of the devil. In fact, Rogozhin's name comes from the Russian word "rog," meaning "horn." A sheep—a common symbol for an innocent who is sacrificed for the sake of others—is a telling characterization of the enigmatic prince. As we read the novel, we must think about whether we see Myshkin in the role of the sacrificial lamb, or whether this portrayal—like the other countless portrayals various characters propose—proves inadequate to describe him.

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