Study Guide

The Idiot Suffering

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Suffering

"Such suffering! […] when that man stepped upon the scaffold he cried […]. Imagine what must have been going on in that man's mind at such a moment; what dreadful convulsions his whole spirit must have endured; it is an outrage on the soul that's what it is. […]. If there's torture, for instance, then there's suffering, wounds, bodily pain, and it means that all that distracts you from inner torment, so that you only suffer from the wounds until you die. But here I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all—but the certain knowledge that in an hour,—then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now—this very instant—your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man—and that this is certain, certain! […] I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal.

[…]

"Doubtless there may be men who have been sentenced, who have suffered this mental anguish for a while and then have been reprieved; perhaps such men may have been able to relate their feelings afterwards. Christ spoke of this suffering and horror. No, you can't treat a man like that!" (1.2.60-63)

This is probably the key passage about suffering in the whole book. It's totally obsessed with the idea of the condemned person who knows that death is just around the corner. To be fair, Dostoevsky has every right to be fixated on this, since he is one of those men who "have been sentenced and then were reprieved" (check out the "In a Nutshell" section, peeps). Here he puts forward the notion that knowing about one's own certain death is way too cruel and unusual to be used as a punishment. This works well for Myshkin's characterization. But for Myshkin, this idea seems to equate to this: no one should ever be punished for anything, and everyone should always be forgiven. Isn't there some kind of in-between?

Mrs. Epanchin examined the portrait of Nastasya Philipovna for some little while, holding it critically at arm's length.

"Yes, she is pretty," she said at last, "even very pretty. I have seen her twice, but only at a distance. So you admire this kind of beauty, do you?" she asked the prince, suddenly.

"Yes, I do—this kind."

"Do you mean especially this kind?"

"Yes, especially this kind."

"Why?"

"There is much suffering in this face," murmured the prince, more as though talking to himself than answering the question. (1.7.52-58)

Myshkin is a suffering fetishist.

"[Myshkin] is another alternative for me," said Nastasya, turning once more to the actress; "and he does it out of pure kindness of heart. I know him. I've found a benefactor. Perhaps, though, what they say about him may be true—that he's an—we know what. And what shall you live on, if you are really so madly in love with Rogozhin's mistress, that you are ready to marry her—eh?"

"I take you as a good, honest woman, Nastasya Philipovna—not as Rogozhin's mistress."

"Who? I?—good and honest? […] Oh, you get those ideas out of novels, you know. Times are changed now, dear prince; the world sees things as they really are. That's all nonsense. Besides, how can you marry? You need a nurse, not a wife."

The prince rose and began to speak in a trembling, timid tone, but with the air of a man absolutely sure of the truth of his words.

"I know nothing, Nastasya Philipovna. I have seen nothing. You are right so far; but I consider that you would be honouring me, and not I you. I am a nobody. You have suffered, you have passed through hell and emerged pure, and that is very much. Why do you shame yourself by desiring to go with Rogozhin? […] Nastasya Philipovna, I love you! I would die for you. I shall never let any man say one word against you, Nastasya Philipovna!" (1.15.46-62)

It's interesting that this passage really connects Myshkin with Pavlichev, the man who semi-adopted Myshkin as a child, and who is later described as having paternal feelings for sick or disabled children. Check out how Nastasya figures out that what Myshkin really wants is to be is her "benefactor."

It was not more than two or three hundred yards from the Epanchins' house to Lebedev's. The first disagreeable impression experienced by Mrs. Epanchin was to find the prince surrounded by a whole assembly of other guests—not to mention the fact that some of those present were particularly detestable in her eyes. The next annoying circumstance was when an apparently strong and healthy young fellow, well dressed, and smiling, came forward to meet her on the terrace, instead of the half-dying unfortunate whom she had expected to see.

She was astonished and vexed, and her disappointment pleased Kolya immensely. Of course he could have undeceived her before she started, but the mischievous boy had been careful not to do that, foreseeing the probably laughable disgust that she would experience when she found her dear friend, the prince, in good health. Kolya was indelicate enough to voice the delight he felt at his success in managing to annoy Lizabeta Prokofievna, with whom, in spite of their really amicable relations, he was constantly sparring. (2.6.54-55)

What a really great passage for giving us some direct insight into Mrs. Epanchin, who really gives herself over to whatever emotion is uppermost in her mind. At first she is feverishly concerned about Myshkin being sick after his seizure. Then that immediately goes away when she sees some annoying people. And eventually she even feels "disgust" when she sees that all her worrying was about nothing.

"How dare you grin at me like that?" she shouted furiously, rushing at the invalid, whose mocking smile drove her to distraction. […] "But you must be mad! It is ridiculous! You should take care of yourself; what is the use of holding a conversation now? Go home to bed […]. Oh, sit down, sit down, why are you standing? […] why talk now?" replied Lizabeta Prokofievna, more and more alarmed; "are quite feverish. Just now you would not stop shouting, and now you can hardly breathe. You are gasping."

"[…] Do you know, Lizabeta Prokofievna, that I have dreamed of meeting you for a long while? […] You are an original and eccentric woman; I have seen that for myself—Do you know, I have even been rather fond of you? […] Stay here, and let us spend the evening together. […] Forgive me for being so free and easy—but I know you are kind […]."

"It is quite true," said Mrs. Epanchin decisively. "Talk, but not too loud, and don't excite yourself. You have made me sorry for you." (2.9.48-69)

This reversal from anger to compassion is sort of typical for the Epanchins, no? Compare it to the way General Epanchin's heart kind of melts in response to Myshkin's smile. Is this what makes them socially "off" as a family—that they are willing to acknowledge and act on their emotions? Also, if Mrs. Epanchin is able to experience this kind of transformation, why does it make her angry to witness Myshkin's insta-forgiveness?

The prince had not seen [Nastasya] for more than three months. All these days since his arrival from Petersburg he had intended to pay her a visit, but some mysterious presentiment had restrained him.

[…]

In the very look of this woman there was something which tortured him. In conversation with Rogozhin he had attributed this sensation to pity—immeasurable pity, and this was the truth. The sight of the portrait face alone had filled his heart full of the agony of real sympathy; and this feeling of sympathy, nay, of actual suffering, for her, had never left his heart since that hour, and was still in full force.

[…]

If, loving a woman above everything in the world, or at least having a foretaste of the possibility of such love for her, one were suddenly to behold her on a chain, behind bars and under the lash of a keeper, one would feel something like what the poor prince now felt. (3.2.85-90)

What does it say about Myshkin that he is so drawn to this woman despite feeling nothing but misery every time he is near her? There is a huge contrast between the kind of self-denigration and humility that Jesus calls for in his followers, and the way these virtues are applied in the "real life" world of the novel. Myshkin really just comes off as a glutton for punishment, and it feels like readers have to constantly make a mental effort to adjust their perception of him.

"[A] week ago, I called in a medical student, Kislorodoff, who is a Nationalist, an Atheist, and a Nihilist, by conviction, and that is why I had him. I needed a man who would tell me the bare truth without any humbug or ceremony—and so he did—indeed, almost with pleasure (which I thought was going a little too far).

"Well, he plumped out that I had about a month left me; it might be a little more, he said, under favourable circumstances, but it might also be considerably less. According to his opinion I might die quite suddenly—tomorrow, for instance—there had been such cases. […]

"Kislorodoff told me all this with a sort of exaggerated devil-may-care negligence, and as though he did me great honour by talking to me so, because it showed that he considered me the same sort of exalted Nihilistic being as himself, to whom death was a matter of no consequence whatever, either way." (3.5.6-8)

Now we get to see the condemned-man theme rear its ugly head in person. Of course, Dostoevsky describes it exactly to show that nihilism is an unworkable philosophy. It goes against what we take to be appropriate human feelings. Ironically, even though truth and honesty are nihilistic ideals, we get the sense that acting as a truth-teller actually has the stench of an elaborate performance. (Check out how the doctor has to "exaggerate" to display a careless attitude.) It seems this attitude is just as false as whatever artificial social conventions the nihilists themselves are against.

"[The picture] represented Christ just taken down from the cross. It seems to me that painters as a rule represent the Saviour, both on the cross and taken down from it, with great beauty still upon His face. […] But there was no such beauty in Rogozhin's picture. This was the presentment of a poor mangled body which had evidently suffered unbearable anguish even before its crucifixion, full of wounds and bruises, marks of the violence of soldiers and people, and of the bitterness of the moment when He had fallen with the cross—all this combined with the anguish of the actual crucifixion.

"The face was depicted as though still suffering; as though the body, only just dead, was still almost quivering with agony. […] It is strange to look on this dreadful picture of the mangled corpse of the Saviour, and to put this question to oneself: 'Supposing that the disciples, the future apostles, the women who had followed Him and stood by the cross, all of whom believed in and worshipped Him—supposing that they saw this tortured body, this face so mangled and bleeding and bruised (and they must have so seen it)—how could they have gazed upon the dreadful sight and yet have believed that He would rise again?' […] Nature appears to one, looking at this picture, as some huge, implacable, dumb monster […].

"[…] All those faithful people who were gazing at the cross and its mutilated occupant must have suffered agony of mind that evening; for they must have felt that all their hopes and almost all their faith had been shattered at a blow." (3.6.80-86)

This is a pretty awesome summary of this Holbein painting and the questions it raises about the ability to keep faith in the face of evidence. (Check out the "Symbols" section if you want a whole discussion about it.) That middle section where Ippolit tries to imagine what it must have been like to be a disciple seeing the dead body of Jesus is fascinating, and kind of makes us think of the second where Myshkin imagines seeing Nastasya as a caged insane asylum inmate. Is this disappointment in the object of love? (By the way, when Jesus does come back and shows up at Emmaeus, the dudes there totally don't recognize him until after he leaves.)

"There is nothing which you might not hear. Why I should wish to tell you, and only you, this experience of mine, I really cannot say; perhaps it really is because I love you very much. This unhappy woman is persuaded that she is the most hopeless, fallen creature in the world. Oh, do not condemn [Nastasya]! Do not cast stones at her! She has suffered too much already in the consciousness of her own undeserved shame. And she is not guilty—oh God!—Every moment she bemoans and bewails herself, and cries out that she does not admit any guilt, that she is the victim of circumstances—the victim of a wicked libertine. But whatever she may say, remember that she does not believe it herself,—remember that she will believe nothing but that she is a guilty creature. When I tried to rid her soul of this gloomy fallacy, she suffered so terribly that my heart will never be quite at peace so long as I can remember that dreadful time!—Do you know why she left me? Simply to prove to me what is not true—that she is base. […] Aglaya—perhaps you cannot understand all this. Try to realize that in the perpetual admission of guilt she probably finds some dreadful unnatural satisfaction—as though she were revenging herself upon someone. Now and then I was able to persuade her almost to see light around her again; but she would soon fall, once more, into her old tormenting delusions." (3.8.111-116)

You know, Dostoevsky wasn't a psychologist or anything—um, what with the whole idea of psychology only just starting to be invented elsewhere—but, wow, that's a pretty spot-on psychological profile of a self-destructive person, no? Get this lady some mood stabilizers, stat.

"Oh, but I'm sorry you repudiate the confession, Ippolit—it is sincere; and, do you know, even the absurd parts of it—and these are many" (here Ippolit frowned savagely) "are, as it were, redeemed by suffering—for it must have cost you something to admit what you there say—great torture, perhaps, for all I know. Your motive must have been a very noble one all through." […] Ippolit beamed with gratification. "And yet I must die," he said, and almost added: "a man like me." […] "[Ganya] has developed the idea—or pretends to believe—that in all probability three or four others who heard my confession will die before I do. There's an idea for you—and all this by way of consoling me! Ha! ha! ha! In the first place they haven't died yet; and in the second, if they did die—all of them—what would be the satisfaction to me in that? He judges me by himself. But he goes further, he actually pitches into me because, as he declares, 'any decent fellow' would die quietly, and that 'all this' is mere egotism on my part. He doesn't see what refinement of egotism it is on his own part—and at the same time, what ox-like coarseness! […] Well—leave me now! Au revoir. Look here—before you go, just give me your opinion: how do you think I ought to die, now? I mean—the best, the most virtuous way? Tell me!"

"You should pass us by and forgive us our happiness," said the prince quietly. (4.5.165-181)

Of course, it makes total sense that for Ganya, the schadenfreude of watching other people die before him is somehow totally comforting. (Ooh, you want to know what that awesome German word means? It might well be Shmoop's favorite word ever: "the pleasure derived from the misfortune of another person." You know, like how we enjoy watching celebrities get busted for bad behavior, for example.)