Literature Study GuidesThe IdiotPart 1 Chapters 5 6 Summary

The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Idiot | Part 1, Chapters 5–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5

General Epanchin leads his wife to believe her relative is a poor idiot who needs feeding, since he wishes to draw her attention away from his birthday gift for Nastasya Filippovna. When Mrs. Epanchin (in full: Elizaveta Prokofyevna Epanchin) and her daughters meet Prince Myshkin, they are pleasantly surprised to find him both coherent and charming. He tells them in detail about his epilepsy and how, after a series of fits, he seemed to live in a semiconscious state until he came back to himself in Switzerland, when he heard the "braying of an ass in the town market."

In his Swiss village his health improves, and he learns how to be happy. "It seemed to me that in prison, too, you could find an immense life," he observes. He next recounts the story of a young man sentenced to death by firing squad and then reprieved at the last moment. The man remembered with great clarity the 20 minutes before the reprieve. He thought that if he were allowed to live, he would "turn each minute into a whole age" and waste nothing. But in fact, he is unable to keep this promise to himself.

Myshkin also tells the women about the execution he witnessed. "I looked at his face and understood everything," Myshkin says, as he imagines aloud the hours before the condemned man's death until the final moments. He repeats the speculation that a man's head may know "for a second that it has been cut off."

Chapter 6

Next, Prince Myshkin tells the story of Marie, a poor consumptive girl seduced and abandoned by a traveling salesman and then ridiculed by the town. Myshkin goes against the town and develops a friendly relationship with this young woman, and he teaches the village children not to torment her but to be kind. The prince admits that "my comrades have always been children." Last, he says Professor Schneider sent him back to Russia and again alludes to his need to consult with someone on some matter. Finally, he reads the women's faces, noting that Mrs. Epanchin is "a perfect child, in everything," despite her age.

Analysis

The derogatory word "idiot" is used, by Myshkin as well as by others, to refer to the prince over 40 times in the novel. Of course, Prince Myshkin is also the idiot of the novel's title. In Part 1, Chapter 5 Myshkin explains how his epilepsy—a disease that brings on spiritual visions in some people—turned him into an idiot. In using this term he means he became insensible and unaware of his surroundings. He remembers returning to normal consciousness in Switzerland, when he hears an ass braying, an incident that the Epanchin sisters play for comic effect. But more seriously, this awakening upon hearing an ass references the humility of Christ, who entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. Myshkin is meant to be seen as a Christ figure, possessing Jesus's insight and compassion, without Jesus's divinity.

In the first chapter Rogozhin calls Myshkin a "holy fool," a description also connected with Myshkin's idiocy. In the Russian Orthodox Church holy foolishness is a radical form of asceticism, in which a saint pretends to be mad to avoid praise or acclaim. At the same time the saint provides people with spiritual guidance. Myshkin, is the "positively beautiful man" Dostoevsky wished to portray, a living icon of compassion, and an idiot or holy fool for Christ following Russian Orthodoxy. Like Christ, he teaches by parable and example, but he is unconscious of his status as a holy fool in his perfect innocence. Myshkin tells the Epanchin women three parables that teach the transformative power of compassion. In the first story a condemned man reprieved at the last minute (an experience the author lived through) can't keep his promise to himself to live fully in every moment. It is easy for the listener to commiserate with his all-to-human inability to constantly remember his mortality and live through that stark knowledge. In his second story the prince teaches the cruelty of state-sanctioned murder, and in the third story he demonstrates how children who have not yet been corrupted by society can easily learn kindness.

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