Study Guide

The Idiot Love

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Love

But the general never murmured later against his early marriage, never regarded it as the infatuation of an improvident youth, and respected his wife so much, and sometimes feared her so much, that he even loved her. (1.2.2)

Wow, what do you think about this game of emotional hopscotch? From respect to fear to love. Shmoop's kind of expecting the next step to lead to the dark side of the force.

"I long sought to meet Marie alone; and at last I did meet her, on the hillside beyond the village. I gave her the eight francs and asked her to take care of the money because I could get no more; and then I kissed her and said that she was not to suppose I kissed her with any evil motives or because I was in love with her, for that I did so solely out of pity for her […]. Just at this moment the whole troop of children saw us. […] I told them how unhappy Marie was, and after a while they stopped their abuse of her, and let her go by silently. Little by little we got into the way of conversing together, the children and I. I concealed nothing from them, I told them all. They listened very attentively and soon began to be sorry for Marie. […] Later, when everyone […] was angry with me for hiding nothing from the children, I pointed out how foolish it was, for they always knew things, only they learnt them in a way that soiled their minds but not so from me. […] They imagined that I was in love with Marie, and this was the only point on which I did not undeceive them." (1.6.15-19)

So if he's such a truth-teller, why does Myshkin withhold the info about not really being in love with Marie from the children? Is this manipulative? Is he engaging in the same kind of censorship that he disparages so much? Is he fooling others or fooling himself?

"She has promised to tell me tonight at her own house whether she consents or not," replied Ganya.

"We have been silent on this subject for three weeks," said his mother, "and it was better so; and now I will only ask you one question. How can she give her consent and make you a present of her portrait when you do not love her? […] how could you so blind her?"

Nina Alexandrovna's question betrayed intense annoyance. Ganya waited a moment and then said, without taking the trouble to conceal the irony of his tone:

"There you are, mother, you are always like that. You begin by promising that there are to be no reproaches or insinuations or questions, and here you are beginning them at once. We had better drop the subject […]. Besides, how do you know that I am deceiving Nastasya Philipovna?" (1.8.133-138)

Ganya might well have the most complicated feelings of any character in the novel. We find out that at one point, he really did love Nastasya, but then as soon as there was money on the table, he began to despise her. That's a little something called transference in psychology jargon. No, no, Shmoop's not really a doctor; Shmoop just plays one in this learning guide.

"I'll tell you what!" cried Rogozhin, and his eyes flashed fire. "I can't understand your yielding her to me like this; I don't understand it. Have you given up loving her altogether? At first you suffered badly—I know it—I saw it. Besides, why did you come post-haste after us? Out of pity, eh? Ha, ha, ha!" His mouth curved in a mocking smile.

"Do you think I am deceiving you?" asked the prince.

"No! I trust you—but I can't understand. It seems to me that your pity is greater than my love." A hungry longing to speak his mind out seemed to flash in the man's eyes, combined with an intense anger.

"Your love is mingled with hatred, and therefore, when your love passes, there will be the greater misery," said the prince. "I tell you this, Parfyon—"

"What! that I'll cut her throat, you mean?"

The prince shuddered. "You'll hate her afterwards for all your present love, and for all the torment you are suffering on her account now." (2.3.93-99)

Nice. We get right to the crux of their love triangle here. Myshkin = pity + love, but really mostly huge, soul-crushing pity. Rogozhin = passion + love + hatred + rage, which can't help but turn violent. It's a lose/lose proposition for Nastasya, isn't it? No wonder she keeps running away from both of them.

"Lev Nicolaevich!" cried Parfyon, before he had reached the next landing. "Have you got that cross you bought from the soldier with you?"

"Yes, I have," and the prince stopped again. […] "Give it to me," said Parfyon.

"Why? do you—"

The prince would rather have kept this particular cross.

"I'll wear it; and you shall have mine. I'll take it off at once."

"You wish to exchange crosses? Very well, Parfyon, if that's the case, I'm glad enough—that makes us brothers, you know."

The prince took off his tin cross, Parfyon his gold one, and the exchange was made.

Parfyon was silent. With sad surprise the prince observed that the look of distrust, the bitter, ironical smile, had still not altogether left his newly-adopted brother's face. At moments, at all events, it showed itself but too plainly. (2.4.28-36)

Why does Rogozhin want to be cross-brothers with Myshkin? Why do they hang out together as much as they do? Do you think, in a different situation without a woman to fight over, they would've been friends?

"Many people recall his extreme fondness for you as a little boy. Your mother confirms this, and agrees with others in thinking that he loved you the more because you were a sickly child, stammering in your speech, and almost deformed—for it is known that all his life Nikolai Andreevitch had a partiality for unfortunates of every kind, especially children. In my opinion this is most important. I may add that I discovered yet another fact, the last on which I employed my detective powers. Seeing how fond Pavlichev was of you,—it was thanks to him you went to school, and also had the advantage of special teachers—his relations and servants grew to believe that you were his son, and that your father had been betrayed by his wife." (2.9.14)

Um, this might be another little glimpse into good old Dostoevsky here, with his tale of the man who loved to dote on sick kids. Shmoop just wants to point out how this story tries to make sense of the idea that pity or compassion can inspire love. And here it really does seem way more normal than in Myshkin's case. Does the problem lie in trying to mix romantic and compassionate love? Does compassionate love mix with other kinds of love?

At times Lizabeta Prokofievna spoke to her husband in the threatening tone of one who demands an immediate answer. Ivan Fedorovitch would frown, shrug his shoulders, and at last give his opinion […]. "God forbid that he should share your ideas, Ivan Fedorovitch!" his wife flashed back. "Or that he should be as gross and churlish as you!"

The general promptly made his escape, and Lizabeta Prokofievna after a while grew calm again after her explosion. That evening, of course, she would be unusually attentive, gentle, and respectful to her "gross and churlish" husband, her "dear, kind Ivan Fedorovitch," for she had never left off loving him. She was even still "in love" with him. He knew it well, and for which he held her in the greatest esteem. (3.1.9-11)

There might really be a whole essay's worth of material in trying to dissect the Epanchins' marriage, and how they accommodate each other's foibles—she's a loudmouth who speaks before she thinks, he's a guy who's buying jewelry for other women. Still, they seem not to have lost much of their affection for each other. It seems like an unusual match, no?

If anyone had come up at this moment and told [Myshkin] that he was in love, passionately in love, he would have rejected the idea with astonishment, and, perhaps, with irritation. And if anyone had added that Aglaya's note was a love-letter, and that it contained an appointment to a lover's rendezvous, he would have blushed with shame for the speaker, and, probably, have challenged him to a duel.

All this would have been perfectly sincere on his part. He had never for a moment entertained the idea of the possibility of this girl loving him, or even of such a thing as himself falling in love with her. The possibility of being loved himself, "a man like me," as he put it, he ranked among ridiculous suppositions. […] His whole thoughts were now as to next morning early; he would see her; he would sit by her on that little green bench, and listen to how pistols were loaded, and look at her. He wanted nothing more. (3.3.96-99)

Three things here. One, does the prince believe that romantic love is a possible emotion? Even when he lays his feelings for Aglaya on the table, it somehow doesn't quite feel real. Two, note how he's the guy who wrote her that letter that she misread as a love letter, and now she is sending him what is clearly a love letter and he refuses to admit as much. And finally, what's all this stuff about "a man like me" not being able to be loved? Doesn't that kind of self-denigration sound like everyone's favorite self-flagellator Nastasya? Does he feel so much pity for her because he sees a little bit of himself in her?

Farther on, in another place, [Nastasya] wrote: "Do not consider my words as the sickly ecstasies of a diseased mind, but you are, in my opinion—perfection! I have seen you—I see you every day. I do not judge you; I have not weighed you in the scales of Reason and found you Perfection—it is simply an article of faith. But I must confess one sin against you—I love you. One should not love perfection. One should only look on it as perfection—yet I am in love with you. Though love equalizes, do not fear. I have not lowered you to my level, even in my most secret thoughts. I have written 'Do not fear,' as if you could fear. I would kiss your footprints if I could; but, oh! I am not putting myself on a level with you!—Look at the signature—quick, look at the signature!"

"However, observe" (she wrote in another of the letters), "that although I couple you with him, yet I have not once asked you whether you love him. He fell in love with you, though he saw you but once. He spoke of you as of 'the light.' These are his own words—I heard him use them. But I understood without his saying it that you were all that light is to him. I lived near him for a whole month, and I understood then that you, too, must love him. I think of you and him as one." (3.10.8-9)

What does it mean that Nastasya claims to be in love with Aglaya? And just how manipulative are these letters in the first place? Nastasya claims that the point of the letters is to get Myshkin and Aglaya together. But is this true, or is the real method to their madness to try to get inside Aglaya's head and stir up all her jealousy by constantly pointing out how close she and Myshkin used to be. (All those details like "I lived near him for a month," "I heard him use those words"?)

Undoubtedly the fact that he might now come and see Aglaya as much as he pleased again was quite enough to make him perfectly happy; that he might come and speak to her, and see her, and sit by her, and walk with her—who knows, but that all this was quite enough to satisfy him for the whole of his life, and that he would desire no more to the end of time?

(It was this contentment, it seems, that Lizabeta Prokofievna was secretly afraid of; she had divined it; she secretely feared many things that very probably she could not have put into words.) (4.5.125-126)

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, from the mouths of babes—ahem—the mouths of moms: you just can't have a romantic relationship without some sexual component! It's pretty cool that in a 19th century novel, we get this frank admission about how important sexuality is for the womenfolk, no? Way to stay ahead of the progressive curve, there, Dostoevsky.