Study Guide

The Idiot Sacrifice

By Fyodor Dostoevsky


Perhaps the sisterly love and friendship of the three girls had more or less exaggerated Aglaya's chances of happiness. In their opinion, the latter's destiny was not merely to be very happy; she was to live in a heaven on earth. Aglaya's husband was to be a compendium of all the virtues, and of all success, not to speak of fabulous wealth. The two elder sisters had agreed that all was to be sacrificed by them, if need be, for Aglaya's sake; her dowry was to be colossal and unprecedented. (1.4.4)

Um, yikes, pressure much? Talk about undue influence. Like many of the novel's sacrifices, this one is meant to be an indication of love, but ends up backfiring.

This apparition was too much for Ganya. Proud and vainglorious to the point of insecurity, of hypochondria; seeking all those two months for at least some point on which he could rest with a certain dignity and show himself nobly; feeling himself still a novice on the chosen path, who might fail to keep to it; finally, in despair, having resolved to become totally insolent in his own house, where he was a despot, but not daring to show the same resolve before Nastasya Philipovna, who went on confusing him until the last moment and merciless kept the upper hand; "an impatient pauper," in Nastasya Philipovna's own phrase, of which he had been informed; having sworn with all possible oaths to exact painful recompense for it later, and at the same time occasionally dreaming childishly to himself of making all ends meet and reconciling all opposites–—he now had to drink this terrible cup as well and, above all, at such a moment! One more unforeseen but most awful toture for a vainglorious man–—the torment of blushing for his own family in his own house–—fell to his lot. "Is the reward finally worth it?" flashed in Ganya's head at that moment. (1.9.36)

Ganya's sacrifices don't really work because he thinks of them as investments—give something up now in order to get something even greater back later.

Over the door, however, there was one of strange and rather striking shape; it was [a painting] six or seven feet in length, and not more than a foot in height. It represented the Saviour just taken from the cross.

The prince glanced at it, but took no further notice. He moved on hastily, as though anxious to get out of the house. But Rogozhin suddenly stopped underneath the picture. […]

"Lev Nicolaevich," said Rogozhin, after a pause, during which the two walked along a little further, "I have long wished to ask you, do you believe in God?"

"How strangely you speak, and how odd you look!" said the other, involuntarily.

"I like looking at that picture," muttered Rogozhin, not noticing, apparently, that the prince had not answered his question.

"That picture! That picture!" cried Muishkin, struck by a sudden idea. "Why, a man could even lose his faith looking at that picture!"

"Lose it he does," agreed Rogozhin, unexpectedly. (2.4.1-10)

It seems pretty significant that Myshkin avoids answering the question of whether he believes in God while standing under that faith-busting Holbein painting. It's like he is actually in the process of weighing his faith right then and there.

[Mrs. Epanchin yelled:] "But even supposing that your mother is a fool, you are none the less, bound to treat her with humanity. Why did you come here tonight so insolently? 'Give us our rights, but don't dare to speak in our presence. Show us every mark of deepest respect, while we treat you like the scum of the earth.' The miscreants have written a tissue of calumny in their article, and these are the men who seek for truth, and do battle for the right! 'We do not beseech, we demand, you will get no thanks from us, because you will be acting to satisfy your own conscience!' What morality! But, good heavens! If you declare that the prince's generosity will excite no gratitude in you, he might answer that he is not bound to be grateful to Pavlichev, who also was only satisfying his own conscience. But you counted on the prince's gratitude towards Pavlichev; you never lent him any money; he owes you nothing; then what were you counting upon if not on his gratitude? And if you appeal to that sentiment in others, why should you expect to be exempted from it?" (2.9.46)

One of the main issues with nihilism and its rejection of standard morality is that it leaves no room for empathy or gratitude. This in a way makes any potential sacrifice or altruistic action a selfish or self-interested one.

The prince did not notice that others were talking and making themselves agreeable to Aglaya; in fact, at moments, he almost forgot that he was sitting by her himself. At other moments he felt a longing to go away somewhere and be alone with his thoughts, and to feel that no one knew where he was.

Or if that were impossible he would like to be alone at home, on the terrace-without either Lebedev or his children, or anyone else about him, and to lie there and think—a day and night and another day again! He thought of the mountains-and especially of a certain spot which he used to frequent, whence he would look down upon the distant valleys and fields, and see the waterfall, far off, like a little silver thread, and the old ruined castle in the distance. Oh how he longed to be there now—alone with his thoughts—to think of one thing all his life—one thing! A thousand years would not be too much time! And let everyone here forget him—forget him utterly! How much better it would have been if they had never known him—if all this could but prove to be a dream. Perhaps it was a dream! (3.2.60-61)

Myshkin has two strains of self-sacrificial thought. One is his dutiful and miserable commitment to Nastasya, which most of the novel deals with. But sometimes, he busts out with these little moments of wanting to just give up the life he knows and stop caring about any of the people in it—which is kind of what he gets in the end, right? So does this mean it's actually a "happy" ending? Or at least a wish-fulfilling one?

"Let us examine first the psychological and legal position of the criminal. We see that in spite of the difficulty of finding other food, the accused, or, as we may say, my client, has often during his peculiar life exhibited signs of repentance, and of wishing to give up this clerical diet. Incontrovertible facts prove this assertion. He has eaten five or six children, a relatively insignificant number, no doubt, but remarkable enough from another point of view. It is manifest that, pricked by remorse […]. This criminal ended at last by denouncing himself to the clergy, and giving himself up to justice. We cannot but ask, remembering the penal system of that day, and the tortures that awaited him—the wheel, the stake, the fire!—we cannot but ask, I repeat, what induced him to accuse himself of this crime? Why did he not simply stop short at the number sixty, and keep his secret until his last breath? Why could he not simply leave the monks alone, and go into the desert to repent? Or why not become a monk himself? That is where the puzzle comes in! There must have been something stronger than the stake or the fire, or even than the habits of twenty years! There must have been an idea more powerful than all the calamities and sorrows of this world, famine or torture, leprosy or plague—an idea which entered into the heart, directed and enlarged the springs of life, and made even that hell supportable to humanity!" (3.4.107)

What do you make of this argument about the dude who ate 60 monks and 6 kids? The claim here is that because he confesses his crime before anyone can accuse him of anything, and even though it means inevitable torture for him, shows that there is an internal morality that is more powerful than fear of death. Does Lebedev make his case successfully?

"God knows, Aglaya, that to restore her peace of mind and make her happy I would willingly give up my life. But I cannot love her, and she knows that."

"Oh, make a sacrifice of yourself! That sort of thing becomes you well, you know. Why not do it? And don't call me 'Aglaya'; you have done it several times lately. You are bound, it is your duty to 'raise' her; you must go off somewhere again to soothe and pacify her. Why, you love her, you know!"

"I cannot sacrifice myself so, though I admit I did wish to do so once. Who knows, perhaps I still wish to! But I know for certain, that if she married me it would be her ruin; I know this and therefore I leave her alone. I ought to go to see her today; now I shall probably not go. She is proud, she would never forgive me the nature of the love I bear her, and we should both be ruined. This may be unnatural, I don't know; but everything seems unnatural. You say she loves me, as if this were love! As if she could love ME, after what I have been through! No, no, it is not love." (3.8.141-143)

Myshkin and Aglaya have several conversations like this, where she is just desperately trying to get to the bottom of his situation with Nastasya. The idea that he loves her out of pity, but not with romantic love, is so far out there that it sounds crazy and not really true. It's easy to see why Aglaya would be jealous, and harder to know what other possible emotion she could have in this situation.

"Why do I wish to unite you two? For your sakes or my own? For my own sake, naturally. All the problems of my life would thus be solved; I have thought so for a long time. I know that once when your sister Adelaida saw my portrait she said that such beauty could overthrow the world. But I have renounced the world. You think it strange that I should say so, for you saw me decked with lace and diamonds, in the company of drunkards and wastrels. Take no notice of that; I know that I have almost ceased to exist. God knows what it is dwelling within me now—it is not myself. I can see it every day in two dreadful eyes which are always looking at me, even when not present. These eyes are silent now, they say nothing; but I know their secret. His house is gloomy, and there is a secret in it. I am convinced that in some box he has a razor hidden, tied round with silk, just like the one that Moscow murderer had. This man also lived with his mother, and had a razor hidden away, tied round with white silk, and with this razor he intended to cut a throat." (3.10.15)

This is the first time that Nastasya completely seriously admits that going with Rogozhin would be pretty much suicide-by-psychopath. Because we already have independent confirmation (from Myshkin) that Rogozhin's eyes really can be seen whenever he is lurking around, none of this sounds crazy—just prescient.

"Never told either him or me?" cried Aglaya. "How about your letters? Who asked you to try to persuade me to marry him? Was not that a declaration from you? Why do you force yourself upon us in this way? I confess I thought at first that you were anxious to arouse an aversion for him in my heart by your meddling, in order that I might give him up; and it was only afterwards that I guessed the truth. You imagined that you were doing a heroic action! How could you spare any love for him, when you love your own vanity to such an extent? Why could you not simply go away from here, instead of writing me those absurd letters? Why do you not now marry that generous man who loves you, and has done you the honour of offering you his hand? It is plain enough why; if you marry Rogozhin you lose your grievance; you will have nothing more to complain of. You will be receiving too much honour. " (4.8.128)

What do you think about Aglaya's analysis of Nastasya? What is more in character—that she would write Aglaya letters to try to force herself between the two of them or to point out to everyone how great a sacrifice she is making by giving Myshkin up? How does this compare to Myshkin's own analysis of Nastasya's psychological state (quotation #9 in the "Suffering" section)?

"No one knows [Nastasya] slept here. Last night we came in just as carefully as you and I did today. I thought as I came along with her that she would not like to creep in so secretly, but I was quite wrong. She whispered, and walked on tip-toe; she carried her skirt over her arm, so that it shouldn't rustle, and she held up her finger at me on the stairs, so that I shouldn't make a noise—it was you she was afraid of. She was mad with terror in the train, and she begged me to bring her to this house. I thought of taking her to her rooms at the Ismailofsky barracks first; but she wouldn't hear of it. She said, 'No—not there; he'll find me out at once there. Take me to your own house, where you can hide me.'" (4.11.111)

Even Rogozhin himself is surprised at how willingly Nastasya comes with him to her death!