Study Guide

The Idiot Compassion and forgiveness

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Compassion and forgiveness

When Totsky had approached the general with his request for friendly counsel as to a marriage with one of his daughters, he had made a full and candid confession. He had said that he intended to stop at no means to obtain his freedom; even if Nastasya were to promise to leave him entirely alone in future […]. So he and the general determined to try an attempt to appeal to her heart […]. [Totsky] admitted that he was to blame for all, but candidly confessed that he could not bring himself to feel any remorse for his original guilt towards herself, because he was a man of sensual passions which were inborn and ineradicable, and that he had no power over himself in this respect; but that he wished, seriously, to marry at last […]. General Epanchin took up his part and spoke in the character of father of a family; he spoke sensibly, and without wasting words over any attempt at sentimentality, he merely recorded his full admission of her right to be the arbiter of Totsky's destiny at this moment. He then pointed out that the fate of his daughter, and very likely of both his other daughters, now hung upon her reply. (1.4.23)

Wow, that's some arrogant bastardry right there—check out how Totsky does one of those politician-style apologies ("I'm so sorry that you were offended"). What does it say about Epanchin that he goes along with this without calling Totsky on it? Does this gibe with the Epanchin we see later in the novel?

The door opened at this point, and in came Ganya most unexpectedly.

He was not in the least disconcerted to see Varya there, but he stood a moment at the door, and then approached the prince quietly.

"Prince," he said, with feeling, "I was a blackguard. Forgive me!" His face gave evidence of suffering. The prince was considerably amazed, and did not reply at once. "Oh, come, forgive me, forgive me!" Ganya insisted, rather impatiently. "If you like, I'll kiss your hand. There!"

The prince was touched; he took Ganya's hands, and embraced him heartily, while each kissed the other.

"I never, never thought you were like that," said Muishkin, drawing a deep breath. "I thought you—you weren't capable of—"

"Of what? Apologizing, eh? And where on earth did I get the idea that you were an idiot? You always observe what other people pass by unnoticed; one could talk sense to you, but—" (1.11.22-27)

This is a pretty good window into Ganya's soul, no? Sure he's a jerk who punches his sister. The reason he isn't a successful jerk like Totsky though, is that he can't help but give in to the tiny better part of his nature every now and again. This is also why he can't bring himself to marry Nastasya, or make a serious play for Aglaya.

"I assure you I am not a thief, and yet I have stolen; […] on Maria Ivanovna's writing-table, I observed a three-rouble note. […]. There was no one about. I took up the note and put it in my pocket; why, I can't say. […] In half an hour or so the loss was discovered, and the servants were being put under examination. Darya, the housemaid was suspected. I exhibited the greatest interest and sympathy, and I remember that poor Darya quite lost her head, and that I began assuring her, before everyone, that I would guarantee her forgiveness on the part of her mistress, if she would confess her guilt. They all stared at the girl, and I remember a wonderful attraction in the reflection that here was I sermonizing away, with the money in my own pocket all the while. […] [the maid] was turned out next day, of course. It's a very strict household, there!"

"And you allowed it?"

"I should think so, rather! I was not going to return and confess next day," laughed Ferdishenko, who seemed a little surprised at the disagreeable impression which his story had made on all parties. (1.14.7-14)

This insane episode of a man acting totally without compassion is so bizarre and horrifying that we don't really know what to say. Why is Ferdishenko surprised that his little story is so poorly received? How does this round of stories at Nastasya's party compare with Myshkin's tales?

Concerning the seventy-five thousand—Afanasy Ivanovich need not have been so embarrassed to speak of it. She understood the value of money and, of course, would take it. She thanked Afanasy Ivanovich for his delicacy, for not having mentioned it to even the general, let alone to Gavrila Ardalionovich, but anyhow, why should he not also know about it beforehand? She had no need to be ashamed of this money on entering their family. In any case, she had no intention of apologizing to anyone for anything, and wished that to be known. She would not marry Gavrila Ardalionovich until she was sure that neither he nor his family had any hidden thoughts concerning her. In any case, she did not consider herself guilty of anything, and Gavrila Ardalionovich had better learn on what terms she had been living all those years in Petersburg, in what relations with Afanasy Ivanovich, and how much money she had saved. Finally, if she did accept the capital now, it was not at all as payment for her maidenly dishonor, for which she was not to blame, but simply as a recompense for her maimed life. (1.4.25)

Two things that are striking about this passage. First is the fact that this is written in the mode of indirect discourse. (Whosawhatsit, Shmoop? No worries, that's just a technical term for a pretty cool writer's trick: instead of writing something that someone says in quotations marks as direct speech from that character, the narrator retells what the character says, thus giving us the speech indirectly.)

For some reason, this tends to make everything the person is described as saying seem like it's dripping with sarcasm—which, in this case, is totally appropriate, since she's not really all about forgiveness. The second thing is that this doesn't really sound like the crazy, incoherent Nastasya we come to know and love later in the novel—this voice is all cocky and obnoxious, but also calm and rational.

"[F]or a day and a half I neither slept, nor ate, nor drank, and would not leave her. I knelt at her feet: 'I shall die here,' I said, 'if you don't forgive me; […] [Nastasya] was like a madwoman all that day; now she would cry; now she would threaten me with a knife; now she would abuse me. She called in Zaleshoff and Keller, and showed me to them, shamed me in their presence. […] 'Are you quite mad?' she said, sharply. 'Why, you'll die of hunger like this.' 'Forgive me,' I said. 'No, I won't, and I won't marry you. I've said it. Surely you haven't sat in this chair all night without sleeping?' 'I didn't sleep,' I said. 'H'm! how sensible of you. And are you going to have no breakfast or dinner today?' 'I told you I wouldn't. Forgive me!' 'You've no idea how unbecoming this sort of thing is to you,' she said, 'it's like putting a saddle on a cow's back. Do you think you are frightening me? […] And what if I don't either forgive you or marry you?' 'I tell you I shall go and drown myself.' 'H'm!' she said, and then relapsed into silence. Then she got angry, and went out. 'I suppose you'd murder me before you drowned yourself, though!' she cried as she left the room.

"An hour later, she came to me again, looking melancholy. 'I will marry you, Parfyon Semeonovitch,' she says, not because I'm frightened of you, but because it's all the same to me how I ruin myself.'" (2.3.84-87)

So, yeah. Rogozhin and Natasya are in quite the S&M relationship, no? He hits her, then kneels down for two days without eating or sleeping for forgiveness. She mocks him and humiliates him in front of his friends, then decides to marry him. Yikes. This might be why the whole Myshkin thing didn't work out, no?

[Myshkin] wished he could meet Rogozhin; he would take his hand, and they would go to [Nastasya] together. […] He said he did not love her with sympathy and pity; true, he added that "your pity is greater than my love," but he was not quite fair on himself there. […] There was insanity on both sides. For him, the prince, to love this woman with passion, was unthinkable. It would be cruel and inhuman. Yes. Rogozhin is not fair to himself; he has a large heart; he has aptitude for sympathy. When he learns the truth, and finds what a pitiable being is this injured, broken, half-insane creature, he will forgive her all the torment she has caused him. He will become her slave, her brother, her friend. Compassion will teach even Rogozhin, it will show him how to reason. Compassion is the chief law of human existence. (2.5.21-25)

Check out that last sentence. That's definitely in the running as the point of the novel, and is certainly a pretty great way to summarize Myshkin's whole deal. Also, it's interesting to check out the contrast between the kind of compassionate relations Rogozhin and Myshkin are capable of with Nastasya. For Rogozhin, forgiveness is pretty heavily tied up (no pun intended) with sexual desire, and seems like part of some sadomasochistic thing. Myshkin on the other hand is almost grossed out at the thought of having sexual feelings towards her, and even has a hard time imagining that Rogozhin does.

"Allow me, Mr. Ivolgin," [Ippolit] said irritably. "What is the good of all this rigmarole? Pardon me. All is now clear, and we acknowledge the truth of your main point. Why go into these tedious details? You wish perhaps to boast of the cleverness of your investigation, to cry up your talents as detective? Or perhaps your intention is to excuse Burdovsky, by proving that he took up the matter in ignorance? Well, I consider that extremely impudent on your part! You ought to know that Burdovsky has no need of being excused or justified by you or anyone else! It is an insult! The affair is quite painful enough for him without that. Will nothing make you understand?" (2.9.12)

So not only do the nihilists value nothing, they don't even acknowledge the idea of forgiveness as a part of human relations. Which kind of makes sense, since the idea of forgiveness has to do with acknowledging and then letting go of an emotional IOU. These guys don't really believe that they could ever owe anyone anything.

[Prokofievna said,] "[Burdovsky] declares that your humbug of a landlord revised this gentleman's article—the article that was read aloud just now—in which you got such a charming dressing-down." […]

"Absolutely, your excellency," said Lebedev, without the least hesitation.

Mrs. Epanchin almost sprang up in amazement at his answer, and at the assurance of his tone. 

"He actually seems to boast of it!" she cried. […]

"The prince will forgive me!" said Lebedev with emotional conviction. […]

Lizabeta Prokofievna was about to rise, when she saw Ippolit laughing, and turned upon him with irritation. "Well, sir, I suppose you wanted to make me look ridiculous?"

"Heaven forbid!" he answered, with a forced smile. "But I am more than ever struck by your eccentricity, Lizabeta Prokofievna. I admit that I told you of Lebedev's duplicity, on purpose. I knew the effect it would have on you,—on you alone, for the prince will forgive him. He has probably forgiven him already, and is racking his brains to find some excuse for him—is not that the truth, prince?" (2.10.10-30)

Wow, Myshkin really would be completely infuriating to know, what with his immediate and totally baseless forgiveness of pretty much anyone for pretty much anything. Doesn't forgiveness kinda lose its value when someone just hands it out willy-nilly to everyone? If he's willing to forgive those who are clearly crooks and scumbags, then what does it matter that he can look at Nastasya and forgive her as well? Doesn't this kind of put her on the same level as the low-lifes?

"It seems to me, Mr. Kolya, that you were very foolish to bring your young friend down—if he is the same consumptive boy who wept so profusely, and invited us all to his own funeral," remarked Evgeny Pavlovitch. "He talked so eloquently about the blank wall outside his bedroom window, that I'm sure he will never support life here without it." […]

"Oh, you must forgive [Ippolit] the blank wall," said the prince, quietly. "He has come down to see a few trees now, poor fellow."

"Oh, I forgive him with all my heart; you may tell him so if you like," laughed Evgeny.

"I don't think you should take it quite like that," said the prince, quietly, and without removing his eyes from the carpet. "I think it is more a case of his forgiving you."

"Forgiving me! Why so? What have I done to need his forgiveness?"

"If you don't understand, then—but of course, you do understand. He wished—he wished to bless you all round and to have your blessing—before he died—that's all." (3.1.89-96)

That's a pretty cool forgiveness switcheroo here. It doesn't take all that much sympathy on Radomsky's part for him to utter this half-hearted "sorry" about Ippolit's blather about the wall. But when Myshkin flips it around on him, he forces Radomsky to really try to empathize with Ippolit's position. The guy wanted to wax philosophic about death and instead became a laughingstock for his trouble.

"[I]f one of us [Russians] goes over to Roman Catholicism, he is sure to become a Jesuit at once, and a rabid one into the bargain. If one of us becomes an Atheist, he must needs begin to insist on the prohibition of faith in God by force, that is, by the sword. Why is this? Why does he then exceed all bounds at once? […] from spiritual thirst, from anguish of longing for higher things, for dry firm land, for foothold on a fatherland which they never believed in because they never knew it. It is easier for a Russian to become an Atheist, than for any other nationality in the world. And not only does a Russian 'become an Atheist,' but he actually BELIEVES IN Atheism, just as though he had found a new faith […]. But let these thirsty Russian souls find, like Columbus' discoverers, a new world; let them find the Russian world, let them search and discover all the gold and treasure that lies hid in the bosom of their own land! Show them the restitution of lost humanity, in the future, by Russian thought alone, and by means of the God and of the Christ of our Russian faith, and you will see how mighty and just and wise and good a giant will rise up before the eyes of the astonished and frightened world." (4.7.54-56)

This is where Dostoevsky really gets to lay out his program. His idea is that Russian Orthodoxy is the way to save the West from itself and the scourge of liberal thinking. Which, yeah, isn't really the way history went. But embedded in this rant is the idea that Russia owes the West an apology for the "way of the sword" with which foreign policy had been handled—and that forgiveness will be worked out by converting everyone to a new religion. Um, dude, that actually is the way of the sword: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.