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Literature Study GuidesThe IdiotPart 3 Chapters 5 6 Summary

The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Idiot | Part 3, Chapters 5–6 | Summary



Chapter 5

Ippolit, who has fallen asleep on the sofa, wakes up and announces to the company that Prince Myshkin is in love. He is very drunk and promises Myshkin, who has brought him to live in the dacha (summer house), that he will die soon, but in the meantime he wants to read everyone a manifesto, titled "My Necessary Explanation." A nihilist Ippolit knows who believes dying amounts to nothing told him in no uncertain terms he had not over a month to live. Ippolit confesses he has bad dreams, specifically about a monstrous reptile (but small in size) that resembles a scorpion. Next, he says he wants to live and is clinging to life. He feels resentful toward people who have so much life left to live and yet squander their time. He laments that a person can never fully express their thoughts and must die with the fullness of their ideas trapped in their skulls.

Chapter 6

Ippolit tells a long story about how he was able, by chance, to help a man whose family was in dire poverty. The lesson of the story is that one individual action has innumerable consequences that remain hidden. Next, he reveals that he has had some business with Rogozhin and has been to his house, where he saw the copy of Holbein's painting of Christ (the same one mentioned in Part 2, Chapter 4). While most representations of Jesus after his crucifixion reflect "a shade of extraordinary beauty in his face," this one is fully "the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering." The picture reflects nature alone, the body of a dead man after he has been tormented. Ippolit wonders how his followers could, after seeing such a corpse, believe that Jesus would be resurrected. In the picture nature is like "some huge machine of the most modern construction." This machine looks to him like it has "senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being." The painting expresses "the dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power to which everything is subjected."

Ippolit also claims Rogozhin came to his room in the middle of the night, sat down, and looked at him without speaking, and Ippolit did the same for spite. This went on for some 20 minutes, and it crossed Ippolit's mind that he was seeing an apparition. After being humiliated by this vision, Ippolit resolves "it is impossible to remain in a life that assumes such strange, offensive forms."


Ippolit would perhaps like to be a true nihilist and believe that life is meaningless, but he can't help but write a manifesto in an attempt to make some impression on the people around him and imbue his dying with some meaning. He wants people to believe he is brave, and he would like them to love him. He also writes the manifesto to make sense of his own thoughts and feelings in the face of the terrible pressure and terror he must feel because of impending death.

Since Ippolit is a materialist, he inevitably must end up in despair. In the story of how he helped the impoverished man and his family, Ippolit shows how he did a good deed for its repercussions. This is one way in which people attempt to overcome their mortality—by leaving good works behind them. As literary critic Roger Anderson notes, the monstrous scorpion of Ippolit's dream symbolizes the blind, relentless force of nature, which eventually destroys everything in its maw. To face the death of his material body without hope of metaphysical reprieve makes Ippolit feel as if he is "squashed like a fly."

The Holbein painting of the dead Christ is described in detail in Part 3, Chapter 6, and for Ippolit the lifeless body is confirmation that man is nothing more than his material existence. Ippolit wonders how Jesus's followers could have believed in his resurrection after looking at Christ's human corpse. The subtext here considers how any human being, looking into the abyss of the body's corruption after death, can possibly believe in their own resurrection, or rather, the continuation of their existence on an immaterial plane. The corpse is "a vision of man's terminal objectification in nature," says Roger Anderson. Science can accurately describe the process of decay after death, and on the material level "prove ... humanity's eventual disappearance into an oblivion."

Ippolit's powerfully dark and hopeless vision is the flipside of Dostoevsky's ardent faith, one of the polyphonic voices in The Idiot that cannot be ignored. Ippolit either dreams of Rogozhin as the devil or encounters him in some way in his room. Rogozhin represents the result of materialism taken to its outer limit of despair, and for this reason Ippolit can no longer remain in a life shaped into such an offensive form.

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