Literature Study GuidesThe IdiotPart 1 Chapters 3 4 Summary

The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Idiot | Part 1, Chapters 3–4 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3

Prince Myshkin wishes to make the acquaintance of good people he may be related to, since he's been out of Russia for several years. He also has a piece of business he needs some advice about. The prince's openness and innocence win over General Epanchin. Myshkin was orphaned as a child, and his father's friend Pavlishchev reared him and then sent him to Professor Schneider in Switzerland after his frequent attacks of epilepsy made him almost "an idiot." He is much better now, and new circumstances have sent Myshkin back to Russia. The general thinks he will get Myshkin a government post and asks him to demonstrate his handwriting. While Myshkin is practicing his script, he overhears the conversation between the general and Ganya.

Ganya, another young man in his 20s, has just come from Nastasya Filippovna's after wishing her a happy 25th birthday, and she gives him her portrait. Ganya, Epanchin, and Totsky, Nastasya's guardian and erstwhile lover, will visit her this evening, and the general hopes she will consent to marrying Ganya. When the prince sees the portrait, he remarks on Nastasya's beauty and tells of his meeting with Rogozhin. The general is alarmed to learn a rich man intends to pursue Nastasya, although Ganya seems ambivalent.

Epanchin next leaves to ask his wife about whether she wants to receive the prince. While he is gone Ganya and the prince talk about the portrait. Myshkin remarks that Nastasya has suffered. When Ganya asks if the prince would marry her, he says he is unwell and can't marry. Ganya then asks if Rogozhin would marry Nastasya, and the prince says, "He'd marry her, and a week later he might well put a knife in her." Just then Myshkin is called to have lunch.

Chapter 4

Since Totsky and General Epanchin are good friends and business partners, Totsky is being considered as a possible husband for the eldest Epanchin daughter, Alexandra. Totsky, a middle-aged man of wealth and social standing, wishes to marry respectably, but first he must get rid of Nastasya Filippovna. From a noble but impoverished family, Nastasya is orphaned and sent to live with Totsky's steward. When she is 12, Totsky notices her beauty and intelligence, and he moves her to another location with a governess and fine tutors. When she is 16, he takes her for his lover, visiting her in the country in the summers. When Nastasya is 20, she hears Totsky is attempting to make a respectable match, and she comes to Petersburg to prevent his marriage out of spite.

While she has no legal remedy against Totsky, he fears her willingness to go to extremes without thought to the consequences. Totsky settles her in luxurious comfort in Petersburg, hoping to mollify her. Thus have they remained at an impasse for five years, until Totsky and Epanchin learn Ganya is in love with Nastasya. Totsky finally sees an opening, so he gives her 75,000 rubles for her future, which she accepts as "recompense for her maimed life." There are rumors Ganya now wants to marry Nastasya for her money, and that his love is turning to hatred as a result of the meddling of the older men. Additional rumor has it General Epanchin has been captivated by Nastasya and bought her a string of pearls for her birthday for an enormous sum.

Analysis

In Part 1, Chapter 4 a second important theme is introduced: the corrupting effect of capitalism on society. Capitalism has made its way into Russia by the last half of the 19th century, and in Dostoevsky's view the materialism spawned by capitalism was destroying traditional religious and moral values. General Epanchin begins life as the son of a foot soldier but works his way up the military career ladder and becomes rich by buying property as well as stock in corporations. He has become a friend and business associate of the corrupt Totsky, who is also rich and, now in late middle age, looking for a respectable wife. He lured Nastasya Filippovna into an illicit sexual relationship when she was a teenager, but he doesn't want to marry her because she has been tainted by her relationship with him. It is likely that she would not accept him anyway.

While by current standards Totsky is nothing more than a pedophile, he would not have been considered a criminal in 19th century Russia, since Nastasya at 16 had reached the threshold of womanhood by the standards of her day. Nonetheless, Totsky is clearly a man of low morals who has taken advantage of an innocent child, grooming her from age 12 to be his mistress, not only hijacking her sexual autonomy but also ruining the possibility that she would be able to make a respectable marriage for herself. For women of the middle and upper classes in the 19th century, virginity was essential if they wished to be treated well by a prospective husband and his family.

Despite his bad character, Totsky is considered spousal material by General Epanchin, who wishes to make a match for his eldest daughter Alexandra. Totsky is attractive to the general because he has wealth and social standing and because such a match will further solidify their business partnership. Epanchin easily puts financial considerations above paternal responsibility, never thinking about whether the decadent and immoral Totsky is the kind of man he ought to be pushing toward his daughter. Furthermore, Epanchin follows Totsky in treating the fallen Nastasya as nothing but a commodity. He himself is attracted to her and is planning to give her an expensive string of pearls for her birthday, a clear signal that he is soliciting her for her favors. At the same time he is scheming on Totsky's behalf to convince Ganya to marry Nastasya so that Totsky will be free to marry his eldest daughter.

Both Totsky and General Epanchin are crass materialists who believe that anybody can be bought for the right amount of cash. These two men have taken it upon themselves to interfere in a budding relationship between Ganya and Nastasya, which has now been turned into a financial transaction because of their meddling. Ganya is a lowly assistant to the general and has a large family to support, and it is his dream to move into the middle class. Thus, Nastasya has become the price of the ticket with her 75,000 rubles from Totsky.

Unlike the men who are bartering her, Nastasya has not been seduced by materialism, even if she has succumbed to Totsky's ravishment. Nastasya fights back against Totsky by making herself visible in Petersburg as his sexual protégé (although she is no longer sleeping with him)—thus discouraging any respectable family from considering him as a possible bridegroom. Throughout the novel Nastasya fights back against men's attempts to commodify her, although her strategies are often self-destructive.

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