Study Guide

The Idiot Power

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Power

General Epanchin lived in his own house near the Litaynaya. Besides this large residence—five-sixths of which was let in flats and lodgings—the general was owner of another enormous house in the Sadovaya bringing in even more rent than the first. Besides these houses he had a delightful little estate just out of town, and some sort of factory in another part of the city. In the old days, General Epanchin, as everyone knew, had participated in tax farming. Now he participated and had quite a considerable voice in several important joint-stock companies. He had the reputation of a man with big money, big doings, and big connections. He had made himself indispensable in several quarters, his own department of the government among others; and yet it was a known fact that Fedor Ivanovitch Epanchin was a man of no education whatever, and had absolutely risen from the ranks. (1.2.1)

We kind of forget this when we really get into the plot of the book, but this dude is rolling in it! And think about the influence and connections he must have! Well done, sir.

Ganya used to grind his teeth with rage over the state of affairs; though he was anxious to be dutiful and polite to his mother. However, it was very soon apparent to anyone coming into the house, that Ganya was the tyrant of the family. (1.8.2)

Ganya is totally one of those guys who immediately abuses any sliver of power he gets over anyone else. Seriously, just how lame of a person do you have to be to lord it over your own mom in a house you're not even paying for? Ugh.

"If I am admitted and tolerated here," he had said one day, "it is simply because I talk in this way. How can anyone possibly receive such a man as I am? I quite understand. Now, could I, a Ferdishenko, be allowed to sit shoulder to shoulder with a clever man like Afanasy Ivanovitch? There is one explanation, only one. I am given the position because it is so entirely inconceivable!"

But these vulgarities seemed to please Nastasya Philipovna, although too often they were both rude and offensive. Those who wished to go to her house were forced to put up with Ferdishenko. Possibly the latter was not mistaken in imagining that he was received simply in order to annoy Totsky, who disliked him extremely. Ganya also was often made the butt of the jester's sarcasms, who used this method of keeping in Nastasya Philipovna's good graces. (1.13.31-32)

Check out the layer upon layer of power plays here. Ferdishenko gets his power from being amusing to Nastasya, in whose presence lots of people want to be and therefore put up with the odious Ferdishenko. Nastasya also gets off on Ferdishenko annoying Totsky (and pretty much everyone else). And Ganya leverages the fact that he's willing to sit there and be the target of Ferdishenko's insults as a way of getting closer to Nastasya. That is one heck of a power onion!

Many of them expected to be thrown downstairs at once, without further ceremony, the elegant and irresistible Zaleshoff among them. But the party led by the athlete, without openly showing their hostile intentions, silently nursed contempt and even hatred for Nastasya Philipovna, and marched into her house as they would have marched into an enemy's fortress. Arrived there, the luxury of the rooms seemed to inspire them with a kind of respect, not unmixed with alarm. So many things were entirely new to their experience—the choice furniture, the pictures, the great statue of Venus. They followed their chief into the salon, however, with a kind of impudent curiosity. There, the sight of General Epanchin among the guests caused many of them to beat a hasty retreat into the adjoining room, the "boxer" and "beggar" being among the first to go. (1.15.18)

You gotta love this scene of these drunken louts barging into Nastasya's house and immediately getting browbeaten by the fancy furniture and stuff, and then totally mentally crushed by seeing General Epanchin there. However rowdy they are, these people can't help but know their place!

Nastasya occupied a medium-sized, but distinctly tasteful, flat, beautifully furnished and arranged. At one period of these five years of Petersburg life, Totsky had certainly not spared his expenditure upon her. He had calculated upon her eventual love, and tried to tempt her with a lavish outlay upon comforts and luxuries, knowing too well how easily the heart accustoms itself to comforts, and how difficult it is to tear one's self away from luxuries which have become habitual and, little by little, indispensable.

Nastasya did not reject all this, she even loved her comforts and luxuries, but, strangely enough, never became, in the least degree, dependent upon them, and always gave the impression that she could do just as well without them. In fact, she went so far as to inform Totsky on several occasions that such was the case, which the latter gentleman considered a very unpleasant communication indeed. (1.13.4-5)

Nastasya here uses the power of renunciation—even as Totsky tries the crack dealer approach of getting her hooked on the moolah.

"I haven't been to see her for five days," [Rogozhin] repeated, after a slight pause. "I'm afraid of being turned out. She says she's still her own mistress, and may turn me off altogether, and go abroad. She told me this herself," he said, with a peculiar glance at Muishkin. "I think she often does it merely to frighten me. […] I took her a shawl one day, the like of which she might never have seen, although she did live in luxury and she gave it away to her maid, Katya. Sometimes when I can keep away no longer, I steal past the house on the sly, and once I watched at the gate till dawn—I thought something was going on—and she saw me from the window. She asked me what I should do if I found she had deceived me. I said, 'You know well enough.'"

[…]

"She said, 'I wouldn't even have you for a footman now, much less for a husband.' 'I shan't leave the house,' I said, 'so it doesn't matter.' 'Then I shall call somebody and have you kicked out,' she cried. So then I rushed at her, and beat her till she was bruised all over." (2.3.75-81)

Okay, before we get into the weird sadomasochism of their relationship—remember this is when he beats her and then kneels for two days without eating or sleeping so that she will forgive him—there is also this financial power aspect to their relationship. What do you make of her giving the fancy shawl away? Is this the same move she used with Totsky? Does it work with Rogozhin or not so much?

"Occasionally I was so much better that I could go out; but the streets used to put me in such a rage that I would lock myself up for days rather than go out, even if I were well enough to do so! I could not bear to see all those preoccupied, anxious-looking creatures continuously surging along the streets past me! Why are they always anxious? What is the meaning of their eternal care and worry? […] Oh, how I longed at that time to be turned out—ME, eighteen years old, poor, half-clothed, turned out into the street, quite alone, without lodging, without work, without a crust of bread, without relations, without a single acquaintance, in some large town—hungry, beaten (if you like), but in good health—and THEN I would show them—[…] to live as I have lived these last six months is to live longer than grey-haired old men. (3.5.97-99)

Ah, the relative nature of power! To the man condemned to die, a life of ragged poverty on the street seems like one rich with infinite possibility. Is this a naïve attitude, even if it makes perfect sense to think like this in his condition?

"'Do you know what has suddenly come into my head?' said I, suddenly—leaning further and further over the rail.

"'Surely not to throw yourself into the river?' cried Bachmatov in alarm. Perhaps he read my thought in my face.

"'No, not yet. At present nothing but the following consideration. You see I have some two or three months left me to live—perhaps four; well, supposing that when I have but a month or two more, I take a fancy for some "good deed" that needs both trouble and time, like this business of our doctor friend, for instance: why, I shall have to give up the idea of it and take to something else—some little good deed, more within my means, eh? Isn't that an amusing idea!'" (3.6.61-63)

This is kind of an interesting thought. At least some of Ippolit's bitterness comes from the fact that he won't be alive to do any grand good deeds for anyone anymore. But honestly, does he do anything good for anyone in any part of the novel? Even the thing with Burdovsky—was he honestly trying to help that guy, or just put one over on Myshkin?

"A little while ago a very amusing idea struck me. What if I were now to commit some terrible crime—murder ten fellow-creatures, for instance, or anything else that is thought most shocking and dreadful in this world—what a dilemma my judges would be in, with a criminal who only has a fortnight to live in any case, now that the rack and other forms of torture are abolished! Why, I should die comfortably in their own hospital—in a warm, clean room, with an attentive doctor—probably much more comfortably than I should at home. […]

"Who, in the name of what Law, would think of disputing my full personal right over the fortnight of life left to me? What jurisdiction can be brought to bear upon the case? Who would wish me, not only to be sentenced, but to endure the sentence to the end? Surely there exists no man who would wish such a thing—why should anyone desire it? For the sake of morality? (3.7.6-11)

Talk about going out with a bang. Why should knowing no one would convict you change your feelings about committing a crime? Or is this a form of self-destructiveness? Do you think he really means to kill himself when his gun misfires or is it all an elaborately staged cry for help?

The fact is that probably Ippolit was not quite so black as Ganya painted him; and it was hardly likely that he had informed Nina Alexandrovna of certain events, of which we know, for the mere pleasure of giving her pain. We must never forget that human motives are generally far more complicated than we are apt to suppose, and that we can very rarely accurately describe the motives of another. It is much better for the narrator, as a rule, to content himself with the bare statement of events. (4.3.5)

Well, this is certainly taking quite a bit of power away from our friend the narrator there! Does the narrator in the novel stick to this rule?