Study Guide

The Idiot Hypocrisy

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Yet [Ganya's] smile, in spite of its sweetness, was somewhat too subtle; it showed his somewhat too pearly and even teeth; his gaze, for all its cheerfulness and ostensible simple-heartedness, was somewhat too intent and searching.

"When he is alone he probably doesn't look that way, and maybe never laughs," the prince somehow felt. (1.2.70-71)

Wow, that's some perceptive face-reading, mister!

Nastasya had long satisfied herself of the fact that Ganya was merely marrying her for money, and that his nature was gloomy and greedy, impatient and selfish, to an extraordinary degree; and that although he had been indeed tried passionately to win Nastasya Philipovna over before, now that the two friends had agreed to exploit his passion, which had begun to be mutual, for their own purposes, and to buy Ganya by selling him Nastasya Philipovna as a lawful wife, he had begun to hate her like his own nightmare. In his heart passion and hate seemed to hold divided sway, and although he had at last given his consent to marry the woman (as he said), under the stress of circumstances, yet he promised himself that he would "take it out of her," after marriage. (1.4.26)

How is Ganya's love/hate for Nastasya similar to, and different from, Rogozhin's love/hate for Nastasya?

[Aglaya's note from Ganya said,] "This day I must give my word irrevocably. I have no right to ask your help, and I dare not allow myself to indulge in any hopes […]. Say one more such word, and save me from utter ruin. […] if you say but this word, I will take up my cross again with joy, and return once more to my battle with poverty. I shall meet the storm and be glad of it; I shall rise up with renewed strength. Send me back then this one word of sympathy, only sympathy, I swear to you; and oh! do not be angry with the audacity of despair, with the drowning man who has dared to make this last effort to save himself from perishing beneath the waters. G.L."

"This man assures me," said Aglaya, scornfully, when the prince had finished reading the letter, "that the words 'break off everything' do not commit me to anything whatever; and himself gives me a written guarantee to that effect, in this letter. Observe how ingenuously he underlines certain words, and how crudely he glosses over his hidden thoughts. He must know that if he 'broke off everything,' first, by himself, and without telling me a word about it or having the slightest hope on my account, that in that case I should perhaps be able to change my opinion of him, and even accept his—friendship. He must know that, but his soul is such a wretched thing." (1.7.107-110)

Aglaya is really very astute at catching the double meaning behind Ganya's obnoxious note. Ganya's hypocrisy consists of him wanting the women around him to commit to him in ways that he can't bring himself to commit to them.

Completely at a loss, Ganya introduced [Nastasya] to Varya first, and the two women exchanged strange looks before offering each other their hands. Nastasya Philipovna laughed, however, and put on a mask of gaiety; while Varya had no wish to put on a mask and looked at her sullenly and intently; not even the shade of a smile, something required by simple politeness, appeared on her face. Ganya went dead; there was nothing to ask and no time to ask, and he shot such a menacing glance at Varya that she understood, from the force of it, what this moment meant for her brother. Here, it seems, she decided to yield to him and smiled faintly at Nastasya Philipovna. (1.9.5)

So it's not just Myshkin who is unaware that social conventions—like being polite to those you dislike—are a way to mask real feelings with a veneer of civility. Imagine the life Nastasya sees for herself here, if she were to marry Ganya—a life where every single interaction would be with people who just, just might pretend to be civil to her. Cripes.

The prince was very nervous as he reached the outer door; but he did his best to encourage himself with the reflection that the worst thing that could happen to him would be that he would not be received, or, perhaps, received, then laughed at for coming.

But there was another question, which terrified him considerably, and that was: what was he going to do when he did get in? And to this question he could fashion no satisfactory reply. If only he could find an opportunity of coming close up to Nastasya Philipovna and saying to her: "Don't ruin yourself by marrying this man. He does not love you, he only loves your money. He told me so himself, and so did Aglaya Ivanovna, and I have come on purpose to warn you"—but even that did not seem quite a legitimate or practicable thing to do. Then, again, there was another delicate question, to which he could not find an answer; dared not, in fact, think of it; but at the very idea of which he trembled and blushed. However, in spite of all his fears and heart-quakings he went in, and asked for Nastasya Philipovna. (1.13.1-3)

This is a great moment of Myshkin trying to deceive himself by ignoring the hypocrisy of his own thoughts. Whoa, talk about layers upon layers (upon layers)! He is scared of going to the party and pretends to himself that it's just because he doesn't want to be laughed at. When this pretense is broken down, he tells himself that he's only going to warn Nastasya about Ganya—and can't even admit that the real reason he wants to go is to propose to this woman he has only seen once before.

"I deny nothing, but you must confess that your article—"

"Is a bit thick, you mean? Well, in a way that is in the public interest; you will admit that yourself, and after all one cannot overlook a blatant fact. So much the worse for the guilty parties, but the public welfare must come before everything. As to certain inaccuracies and figures of speech, so to speak, you will also admit that the motive, aim, and intention, are the chief thing. It is a question, above all, of making a wholesome example; the individual case can be examined afterwards; and as to the style—well, the thing was meant to be humorous, so to speak, and, after all, everybody writes like that; you must admit it yourself!" (2.8.58-59)

Is this a broad satire of the exaggerated sensationalism in the press—that Keller article does feel like it's straight off of TMZ? Or just meant to show us what kind of guy Keller is?

[S]aid the prince, trembling a little, and in great agitation. "You say Gavrila Ardalionovitch has private communications with Aglaya?—Impossible!"

"Only quite lately. His sister has been gnawing like a rat to clear the way for him all the winter." 

"I don't believe it!" said the prince abruptly, after a short pause. "Had it been so I should have known long ago."

"Oh, of course, yes; he would have come and wept out his secret on your bosom. Oh, you simpleton—you simpleton! Anyone can deceive you and take you in like a—like a,—aren't you ashamed to trust him? Can't you see that he humbugs you just as much as ever he pleases?" 

"I know very well that he does deceive me occasionally, and he knows that I know it, but—" The prince did not finish his sentence.

"And that's why you trust him, eh?" (2.12-58-66)

So, Myshkin trusts Ganya specifically because every now and again Ganya lies to him? It's kind of a better-the-devil-you-know-than-the-one-you-don't type of situation.

"Don't lose your temper. You are just like a schoolboy. You think that all this sort of thing would harm you in Aglaya's eyes, do you? You little know her character. She is capable of refusing the most brilliant party, and running away and starving in a garret with some wretched student; that's the sort of girl she is. You never could or did understand how interesting you would have seen in her eyes if you had come firmly and proudly through our misfortunes. The prince has simply caught her with hook and line; firstly, because he never thought of fishing for her, and secondly, because he is an idiot in the eyes of most people. It's quite enough for her that by accepting him she puts her family out and annoys them all round—that's what she likes. You don't understand these things. […] If you HAVE a hope left, it is that your suffering air may soften her heart towards you."

"Oh, even she would turn coward in the face of a scandal, despite all her love of novels. Everything up to a certain limit, and everybody up to a certain limit–—you are all the same!" 

"What! Aglaya would have turn coward? You really have a mean little soul, Ganya!" said Varya, looking at her brother with contempt. "Not one of us is worth much. Aglaya may be funny and eccentric, but she is far nobler than any of us, a thousand times nobler!" (4.1.69-73)

Check out how Ganya is only ever capable of judging people based on his own feelings. He might well be the least empathetic character in the novel (since, you know, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes to try to imagine how another person feels). We love that Varya, who has been working her magic on his behalf for months is so exasperated with him and his idiocy here. If only she'd use her powers for good and not evil.

How or why it came about that everyone at the Epanchins' became imbued with one conviction—that something very important had happened to Aglaya, and that her fate was in process of settlement—it would be very difficult to explain. But no sooner had this idea taken root, than all at once declared that they had seen and observed it long ago; that they had remarked it at the time of the "poor knight" joke, and even before, though they had been unwilling to believe in such nonsense.

So said the sisters. Of course, Lizabeta Prokofievna had foreseen it long before the rest; her "heart had been sore" for a long while, she declared, and it was now so sore that she appeared to be quite overwhelmed, and the very thought of the prince became distasteful to her. (4.5.3-4)

Okay, so granted, this desire to take credit for being clairvoyant here is a pretty mild hypocrisy, but it's still interesting how Aglaya's family is fixated on knowing everything about her. You don't see anyone making claims to have predicted anything about Adelaida and Prince Sh., right?

This was the first time in his life that [Myshkin] had seen a little corner of what was generally known by the terrible name of "society." […] It never struck him that all this refined simplicity and nobility and wit and personal dignity might possibly be no more than an exquisite artistic polish. […] much of their superiority was mere veneer, which indeed they had adopted unconsciously and by inheritance. The prince would never so much as suspect such a thing in the delight of his first impression.

He saw, for instance, that one important dignitary, old enough to be his grandfather, broke off his own conversation in order to listen to him—a young and inexperienced man; and not only listened, but seemed to attach value to his opinion, and was kind and amiable, and yet they were strangers and had never seen each other before. Perhaps what most appealed to the prince's impressionability was the refinement of the old man's courtesy towards him. […]

Meanwhile all these people-though friends of the family and of each other to a certain extent—were very far from being such intimate friends of the family and of each other as the prince concluded. There were some present who never would think of considering the Epanchins their equals. There were even some who hated one another cordially. (4.6.106-112)

This is a watershed moment in Myshkin's attitude toward hypocritical behavior—behavior he can never display and generally cannot even recognize.

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