Study Guide

The Idiot Society and Class

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Society and Class

These Mr. Know-it-alls are met with pretty frequently in a certain class. They know everything, all the restless inquisitiveness of their minds and all their abilities are turned irresistibly in one direction, certainly for lack of more important life interests […] they know where so-and-so works, what his salary is, whom he knows, whom he married, what money his wife had, who are his cousins, and second cousins, etc., etc. For the most part, these know-it-alls go about with holes at the elbows and earn a salary of seventeen roubles a month. The people whose innermost secret they know would, of course, be unable to understand what interests guide them, and yet many of them are positively consoled by this knowledge that amounts to a whole science […]. I have known scholars, writers, poets, political activists who sought and found their highest peace and purpose in this science. (1.1.25-27)

Wow, all of a sudden this passage makes The Idiot sound like Vanity Fair or some other social satire! Do we ever run across another character who actually cares about any of this stuff? This happens so early on in the novel, it raises the question of whether Dostoevsky envisioned this work totally differently before really committing to it.

[General Epanchin], though he was a man of lowly origin, and of poor education, was, for all that, an experienced and talented husband and father. Among other things, he considered it undesirable to hurry his daughters to the matrimonial altar and to worry them too much with assurances of his paternal wishes for their happiness, as is the custom among parents of many grown-up daughters. […] The general considered that the girls' taste and good sense should be allowed to develop and mature deliberately, and that the parents' duty should merely be to keep watch, in order that no strange or undesirable choice be made […].

Besides this, it was clear that the Epanchins' position gained each year, with geometrical accuracy, both as to financial solidity and social weight; and, therefore, the longer the girls waited, the better was their chance of making a brilliant match. (1.4.3)

Ha! Not only is he an excellent dad, totally leaving the kids alone so they don't get stressed about needing to get married or whatever, but also he is completely practical and knows all about the magic of compound interest. Again, a little glimpse into what this novel could have been like if it had gone in a different, more social-satire kind of direction.

"[Aglaya's] pretty, prince, isn't she?"

"Most wonderfully so," said the latter, warmly, gazing at Aglaya with admiration. "Almost as lovely as Nastasya Philipovna, but quite a different type."

All present exchanged looks of surprise.

"As lovely as who?" said Mrs. Epanchin. "As Nastasya Philipovna? Where have you seen Nastasya Philipovna? What Nastasya Philipovna?"

"Gavrila Ardalionovitch showed the general her portrait just now."

"How so? Did he bring the portrait for my husband?"
"Only to show it. Nastasya Philipovna gave it to Gavrila Ardalionovitch today, and the latter brought it here to show to the general."

"I must see it!" cried Mrs. Epanchin.

[…]

"He is a nice fellow, but a little too simple," said Adelaida, as the prince left the room. (1.7.11-19)

Oh, Myshkin. He comes to these people's house and immediately puts both feet entirely into his mouth. The early chapters really make him look like he's totally non-functional, right? How is this the same character who later insightfully begs Lebedev to keep secret General Ivolgin's theft?

The flat occupied by Ganya and his family was on the third floor of the house. It was reached by a clean light staircase, and consisted of seven rooms, a nice enough lodging, and one would have thought a little too good for a clerk on two thousand roubles a year. But it was designed to accommodate a few lodgers on board terms, and had been taken a few months since, much to the disgust of Ganya, at the urgent request of his mother and his sister, Varvara Ardalionovna, who longed to do something to increase the family income a little, and fixed their hopes upon letting lodgings. Ganya scowled and called keeping tenants an outrage; after that it was as if he began to be ashamed in society—that society in which he had been accustomed to pose up to now as a young man of rather brilliant prospects. All these concessions and rebuffs of fortune, of late, had deeply wounded his soul, and his temper had become extremely irritable, his wrath being generally quite out of proportion to the cause. (1.8.1)

This is the last thing a family struggling to stay up on the social ladder is willing to do—rent out rooms. You'll find the stress and embarrassment of this in almost any 19th century novel that deals with family financial upheaval.

"A man, look you, who has thirteen bullets on his breast! You don't believe it? Well, I can assure you it was entirely on my account that Pirogov telegraphed to Paris, and left Sebastopol at the greatest risk during the siege. Nelaton, the Tuileries surgeon, demanded a safe conduct, in the name of science, into the besieged city in order to attend my wounds. The government knows all about it. […] And yet...well...you look as if you didn't believe me.... Well now, why should I not present the son of my old friend and companion to this delightful family—General Ivolgin and Prince Myshkin? You will see a lovely girl—what am I saying—a lovely girl? No, indeed, two, three! Ornaments of this city and of society: beauty, education, culture—the woman question—poetry—everything! Added to which is the fact that each one will have a dowry of at least eighty thousand roubles. No bad thing, eh? In a word I absolutely must introduce you to them: it is a duty, an obligation. General Ivolgin and Prince Myshkin. A tableau!" (1.12.14-26)

Okay, so, as always, the general is totally full of it, but what we love is the way he tries to get the prince interested in these fictional people by inflating their social status. The number of marriageable daughters keeps going up, then their accomplishments are piled on (which would mean the had gone to some fancy finishing school) and then finally their dowry. He really goes all out.

But the silent stranger was scarcely able to understand anything: she was a traveling German lady and did not know a word of Russian, and seemed to be as stupid as she was beautiful. She was a novelty, and it was an accepted thing to invite her to certain evenings, in magnificent costumes, her hair done up as if for an exhibition, and to sit her there like a love picture to adorn the evening, just as some people, for their evenings, borrow some picture, or vase, or statue, or firescreen for one time only. (1.15.7)

Again, we get yet another glimpse into the satirical and meanly funny Dostoevsky. You gotta love the idea of this lady just serving as décor—until you realize that we have restaurants today where the waitresses serve the same purpose. That's right, Hooters, we're calling you out.

"Here is Burdovsky, sincerely anxious to protect his mother; is not that so? And he himself is the cause of her disgrace. The prince is anxious to help Burdovsky and offers him friendship and a large sum of money, in the sincerity of his heart. And here they stand like two sworn enemies—ha, ha, ha! You all hate Burdovsky because his behaviour with regard to his mother is shocking and repugnant to you; do you not? […] Well, let me tell you that perhaps there is not one of you who loved your mother as Burdovsky loved his. As to you, prince, I know that you have sent money secretly to Burdovsky's mother through Ganya. Well, I bet now," he continued with an hysterical laugh, "that Burdovsky will accuse you of indelicacy, and reproach you with a want of respect for his mother!" (2.10.43)

Why is it not embarrassing for Burdovsky to demand the money from the prince, but it is somehow demeaning for the prince to offer him money or to send money to his mother directly?

[Mrs. Epanchin] was, above all distressed by the idea that her daughters might grow up "eccentric," like herself; she believed that no other society girls were like them. "They are growing into Nihilists!" she repeated over and over again. For years she had tormented herself with this idea, and with the question: "Why don't they get married?" "It is to annoy their mother; that is their one aim in life; it can be nothing else. The fact is it is all of a piece with these modern ideas, that wretched woman's question! Six months ago Aglaya took a fancy to cut off her magnificent hair. Why, even I, when I was young, had nothing like it! The scissors were in her hand, and I had to go down on my knees and implore her... She did it, I know, from sheer mischief, to spite her mother, for she is a naughty, capricious girl, a real spoiled child spiteful and mischievous to a degree! And then Alexandra wanted to shave her head, not from caprice or mischief, but, like a little fool, simply because Aglaya persuaded her she would sleep better without her hair, and not suffer from headache! And how many suitors have they not had during the last five years! Excellent offers, too! What more do they want? Why don't they get married?" (3.1.1-6)

One of the ways the novel tries to account for Nastasya's behavior is by connecting her with "the woman question." This is the old-timey shorthand of referring to the movement for women's right and equality that was starting to get a foothold in society in the middle of the 19th century. Here, we get a glimpse into the fact that the young Epanchin girls are also starting to really think about how limited their options are. Seriously, if even a haircut is treated like the apocalypse, you're living a boxed-in life.

"Duel! You've come to talk about a duel, too!" The prince burst out laughing, to the great astonishment of Keller. He laughed unrestrainedly, and Keller, who had been on pins and needles, and in a fever of excitement to offer himself as "second," was very near being offended.

"You caught him by the arms, you know, prince. No man of proper pride can stand that sort of treatment in public."

"Yes, and he gave me a fearful dig in the chest," cried the prince, still laughing. "What are we to fight about? I shall beg his pardon, that's all. But if we must fight—we'll fight! Let him have a shot at me, by all means; I should rather like it." (3.3.81-86)

Here, at least, it really helps not to be all bound up in society's rules. Sure, none of this duel stuff ever comes to pass, but one of the advantages of being Myshkin is that his masculinity isn't defined by displays of toughness. Also, think about the totally random quality of the duel—the guy was going to hit Nastasya, so Myshkin pushed him back, and now it's this guy who feels like he was insulted? Dude, you were about to hit a lady, which, we're pretty sure, doesn't qualify as heroism in the old macho man handbook.

There was a question to be decided—most important, but most difficult; so much so, that Mrs. Epanchin did not even see how to put it into words. Would the prince do or not? Was all this good or bad? If good (which might be the case, of course), why good? If bad (which was hardly doubtful), why, especially, bad? […] According to her opinion, the whole thing had been one huge, fantastical, absurd, unpardonable mistake. "First of all, this prince is an idiot, and, secondly, he is a fool—knows nothing of the world, and has no place in it. Whom can he be shown to? Where can you take him to? What will old Bielokonski say? We never thought of such a husband as that for our Aglaya!"

Of course, the last argument was the chief one. The maternal heart trembled with indignation to think of such an absurdity, although in that heart there rose another voice, which said: "And why is not the prince such a husband as you would have desired for Aglaya?" It was this voice which annoyed Lizabeta Prokofievna more than anything else. (4.5.5-9)

It's her willingness to wrestle with the rules of society, i.e., taking a step back and evaluating the unspoken rules, that makes Mrs. Epanchin and her family slightly "off," as she says. Here, she is trying to figure out if her main objection to Myshkin is that he is kind of socially awkward, which she realizes would be way too superficial to actually prevent the marriage.