Literature Study GuidesThe IdiotPart 1 Chapters 1 2 Summary

The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Idiot | Part 1, Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

Two men in their 20s of very different temperaments and appearance meet in a third-class carriage heading to Petersburg and strike up a conversation. The mild-mannered blonde man, Prince Myshkin (in full: Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin), immediately relates that he has been in a Swiss sanatorium (institution for therapy, treatment, or rehabilitation) for his "falling sickness" (epilepsy) and is now returned home because his guardian Pavlishchev (in full: Nikolai Andreevich Pavlishchev) died two years previously, and his doctor Professor Schneider can no longer keep him at his own expense. Prince Myshkin has only a small bundle and nowhere to go.

A third man, about 40, inserts himself into the conversation and appears to know everyone in Petersburg, including General Epanchin (in full: Ivan Fyodorovich Epanchin), whom Myshkin plans to visit, since the general's wife is his distant relation. The other young man, black-haired and swarthy, introduces himself as Rogozhin (in full: Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin), and the older busybody, Lebedev (in full: Lukyan Timofeevich Lebedev), immediately recognizes Rogozhin as the son of a recently deceased merchant who left 2.5 million in capital. Lebedev also knows about Rogozhin's interest in Nastasya Filippovna (in full: Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov), the mistress of an older man named Totsky (in full: Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky), a landowner and capitalist and friend of General Epanchin. Rogozhin tells how he was instantaneously bewitched by Nastasya Filippovna and stole money from his father to buy her an expensive gift. Now that he is rich, he intends to pursue her. He takes a liking to the prince and invites him to stay with him in Petersburg.

Chapter 2

Despite the fact that General Epanchin is the son of a common soldier, he has several properties and interests in joint-stock companies and is quite rich. His three grown daughters—Alexandra (in full: Alexandra Ivanovna Epanchin), Adelaida (in full: Adelaida Ivanovna Epanchin), and Aglaya (in full: Aglaya Ivanovna Epanchin)—are lovely, educated, and talented, but Aglaya, the youngest, is a special beauty and prized by her sisters. None of the sisters are in a hurry to marry.

When Prince Myshkin arrives at the Epanchin house, his shabby appearance makes the valet reluctant to announce him without approval from the secretary. Nonetheless, the prince wins the valet over by treating him with perfect equality. Myshkin learns that the secretary, Ganya (in full: Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin), has easy access to the general and his family. Myshkin and the valet talk about capital punishment, and the prince describes an execution he saw in France. Myshkin speaks at length about the cruelty of capital punishment, especially the mental cruelty that occurs before the event. "To be killed by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than to be killed by robbers," Myshkin says. When Ganya returns, he agrees to announce the prince.

Analysis

The first two chapters of the novel introduce almost all the main characters, either directly or indirectly. Prince Myshkin, the hero of the story, is a Christlike figure, and Rogozhin—lacking control and a coherent code of ethics—can easily turn to criminal activity if his passions are enflamed. Together they are Dostoevsky doubles, or a pair of characters who are similar or opposite, but whose destinies are intertwined. In this case Myshkin and Rogozhin are opposites, like a photograph and its negative. They will become rivals in a battle over Nastasya Filippovna, perhaps the most fully realized of another "type" found in Dostoevsky's novels, the "fatal woman" (femme fatale), or an irresistibly attractive and seductive female who destroys any man who becomes involved with her. In this novel Nastasya is much more sympathetically portrayed than other similar Dostoevsky heroines, but she will be the instrument for both Myshkin's and Rogozhin's destructions.

These chapters introduce the first important theme in the novel: human terror in the face of both immediate death and its existential threat. The prince tells Rogozhin about the execution he witnessed and then tells the valet the same story, which he will repeat to the Epanchin women in Part 1, Chapter 5, along with the story of a man sentenced to be executed and then reprieved. As noted by critic and novelist A.S. Byatt, The Idiot is a meditation on both the imminence and immanence of death. The tragedy of human life is the sure knowledge of death (imminence), which is always present and must be managed (immanence). Prince Myshkin, the embodiment of compassion, sees capital punishment as the worst kind of torture because it forces a person to face without mediation their certain extinction, along with all their aborted opportunities and missed possibilities.

Myshkin is an outsider, recently back from Europe (the Russians felt themselves to be different from other Europeans) and ready to embrace his homeland. The prince is as innocent as a child, holding nothing back, which disarms other people and allows them to take him into their confidence. The reader also immediately sees that Myshkin is stepping into a world in which money plays an outsized role. Rogozhin believes he now has the means to win Nastasya, the mistress of a wealthy man, because he has money.

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