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The Idiot

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part I, Chapters 13–14

Part I, Chapters 11–12

Part I, Chapters 15–16

Summary

As Prince Myshkin walks up the staircase to enter Nastassya Filippovna's apartment, he thinks about why he is going to the party despite the lack of invitation. The only reason he can think of is that he wishes to tell her not to marry Ganya, who clearly wants to marry her only for the money. The maid who meets Myshkin at the apartment is not surprised at the prince's dirty shoes or his rather strange clothes.

Nastassya Filippovna's apartment is small but very well furnished. When she first began living in St. Petersburg, Totsky attempted to seduce her with luxury and therefore spent a lot of money on her. However, though she enjoyed the luxury, she never became dependent upon having it. Indeed, she often made an effort to demonstrate this fact that she could not be controlled by luxury. Totsky did not appreciate this quality in Nastassya Filippovna, nor did he enjoy the company she frequently gathered around her. Despite all that Totsky did not like about her, however, he could not stop being fascinated by her originality and strength.

This evening, before the prince's arrival, a company has already gathered in Nastassya Filippovna's drawing room. The people include Totsky, General Yepanchin, Ganya, Ptitsyn, Ferdyshchenko, an old schoolteacher, a young man, a woman of forty who is an actress, and a young woman who is extraordinarily beautiful. Throughout the evening, the latter four say very little and the only man in good spirits is Ferdyshchenko.

When Myshkin arrives, Nastassya Filippovna goes to greet him. She apologizes for not inviting him to her party that morning and applauds his initiative in coming. As she leads him into the drawing room, he nervously tells her that she is utter perfection. She says that this is untrue, and that her actions at the party will prove that she far from perfect. The company becomes animated. Many people hint that the prince's reason for coming must be that he likes Nastassya Filippovna.

Suddenly Ferdyshchenko suggests a game where everyone must tell the group of the worst thing they have ever done. Although practically none of the guests like the idea, they agree to play to please Nastassya Filippovna, who seems to like it very much. The women are excluded, while the men must draw lots to determine who goes first. The drawn order is Ferdyshchenko, followed by Ptitsyn, the general, and then Totsky. Nastassya Filippovna grows increasingly feverish and agitated.

Ferdyshchenko says the worst thing he has ever done was to steal three rubles at a dinner party and then allow the hosts to suspect the maid, who was later fired as a result. Everyone is disgusted with Ferdyshchenko, not only for stealing but also for allowing the maid to be implicated. When Ferdyshchenko's turn is over, Ptitsyn refuses to play the game, so it becomes General Yepanchin's turn.

The general's worst action was a time when he cursed at an old lady as she was dying. He was, of course, unaware that she was dying at that particular moment, so his blame is questionable. However, because he felt guilty anyway, he decided to provide for two chronically ill ladies. Ferdyshchenko remarks that the general has turned the story of his ostensible worst action into a rather flattering account of himself. Nastassya Filippovna seems disappointed.

Then, Totsky tells a story of how he once knew a young married couple and another young man who was desperately in love with the wife. It happened to be the wife's birthday, and, as Dumas-fils's novel La Dame Aux Camelias was fashionable at the time, she wanted a bouquet of red camelias. These flowers were nowhere to be found, however. But suddenly the young man remembered a possible source for the flowers, an old man in the country. The young man told Totsky, who got there before the young man, bought the camelias from the old man, and gave them to the beautiful woman. As a result of the incident, the young man became delirious and left to fight in the Crimea, where he was killed shortly after.

Upon hearing Totsky's account, Nastassya Filippovna's eyes flash. She turns to Myshkin and asks him whether she should marry Ganya. She adds that she will do whatever he will say. The prince answers that she should not. Totsky and the general protest, but to no avail. Nastassya Filippovna returns the pearls to the general and says she is leaving for good. Suddenly, the door rings. Ptitsyn suggests that it must be Rogozhin with the 100,000 rubles he promised that morning.

Analysis

These chapters are set in the apartment of Nastassya Filippovna; indeed, she is the very center of what occurs there. Like its owner, the apartment is very elegant and luxuriously adorned. Totsky tried to seduce Nastassya Filippovna with luxury, but she was able to withstand becoming used to it. Much as she did to Totsky himself, Nastassya Filippovna indulged in luxury but did not let it control her. The dramatic events that take place in her apartment during the birthday dinner party have many characteristics of a theatrical scene. Dostoevsky characterizes Ferdyshchenko, for example, as playing the role of a fool, with Nastassya Filippovna using him like a theatrical prop to aggravate her other guests. The beautiful young lady who does not speak Russian serves as a form of decoration. Furthermore, Dostoevsky characterizes Rogozhin's arrival as a denouement, suggesting a parallel between a performance and the scene at Nastassya Filippovna's. In this performance the hostess is both the director and the central character. Her state of being is increasingly feverish, agitated, and nervous, and she periodically laughs hysterically—all in all, an enigmatic performance.

Indeed, these two chapters demonstrate Nastassya Filippovna to be a very enigmatic character. We, much like the characters in the novel itself, do not know what to expect from her. She comes across as almost completely free of bounds in her words or actions, controlled neither by those around her nor by broader societal conventions. The game in which the participants reveal the worst things they have ever done is emblematic of Nastassya Filippovna's enjoyment of stepping beyond what is typical and expected. She walks on the border of societal convention, much a she walks on the border between life and death, and later between Rogozhin and Myshkin. Perhaps because no one knows what to expect from her, everyone—including we as readers—finds her so interesting. She cares so little about life, herself, and society that she is willing to risk everything. Analogously, she is willing to gamble even on the question of her marriage. Even she barely knows Myshkin at all, she asks him whether she should marry Ganya or not and says she will do as he advises. Nastassya Filippovna asks this fatal question immediately following Totsky's account of his worst action—a tale that seems ridiculous, as he tells a likely untrue story about camelias rather than the story of seducing Nastassya Filippovna and ruining her honor and life. Totsky's action causes her to gamble during the evening, just as, in a broader sense, he causes her to not care about her own life.

The game of the worst action is a psychological test, a sort of play Nastassya Filippovna stages because she is interested to see what the guests will say and how they will react. Indeed, not only what the guests say, but how they react to the game, reveals much about their respective personalities. Ferdyshchenko, for example, suggests the game in the first place and is quite happy to play. He is so base and unscrupulous that he does not have any qualms about telling his story. He is the epitome of impropriety; he thrives on talking about immoral deeds. General Yepanchin, on the other hand, plays the game in an attempt to please Nastassya Filippovna. He uses the opportunity to tell a story that is clearly not the worst thing he has ever done, and that ends on such a favorable note that he comes off looking good. Totsky—probably the reason Nastassya Filippovna wishes to play the game at all—does not like the idea of it very much, but goes along anyhow. His story and the effect it has on Nastassya Filippovna are significant in establishing both his character and the relationship he has with Nastassya Filippovna.

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