Study Guide

The Idiot Part 1, Chapter 5

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Part 1, Chapter 5

  • Mrs. Epanchin is totally up in arms over having to deal with this weird hobo who seems to be related to her. Also, remember, she's way p.o.'d at the General for the situation with Nastasya Philipovna. The upshot? She's totally obnoxious about Myshkin, his health, and the idea that he would be allowed to eat with her and the girls.
  • But the girls are all about feeding this dude, so here we are.
  • Before they meet him, they assume that Myshkin is mentally handicapped—based on General Epanchin's description, they are all ready to play little kid games with him and to give him a bib to eat with.
  • The General guides Myshkin into the room, is all "no, no, it'll be fine," and then quickly vamooses to meet Totsky.
  • Quickly, though, over lunch, Prince Myshkin starts to win the ladies over with his patented combo of TMI over-sharing and truth-telling. It's a conversational style that doesn't ever fail. So, you know, something to think about next time you're feeling awkward at a party of people you don't know.
  • Mrs. Epanchin demands a story, and the prince busts out with a thing about how much he likes donkeys after seeing one during his trip to Switzerland. Which, what?
  • (Okay, bear with us here, as we lay a little explanation on you. The story is part crazy non sequitur and part foreshadowing. FYI: foreshadowing is a literary technique where a small detail gives a preview of some bigger deal to come. Like how in the movie Dracula, Dracula gets to say this great line when being offered a glass of wine: "I never drink….wine." Dun-dun-dun. It's foreshadowing that he will eventually drink…something else. You know, water, or maybe some OJ.
  • Um, wait, where were we? Oh, the donkey foreshadowing. Well, one of the main ideas of this novel is the old chestnut, what would happen if Jesus came back to Earth right now? "Right now" in this case being the middle of the 19th century in Russia, which was "now" to Dostoevsky, obviously. Another of the main ideas is the concept of the Non-Divine Christ—the idea popular at that time that Jesus wasn't really the Son of God, but actually just a totally righteous dude that was trying to teach us all how to live, man. So, that's what you get in the character of Prince Myshkin—a mortal man whose personality and character is an updated version of Jesus.
  • Are we forgetting anything? Oh, right, the donkey—well, Jesus famously entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, so yeah, there you go.)
  • The Epanchins are very impressed by this story about the donkey, and then are even more impressed when Myshkin claims that almost the whole time he was in a Swiss village recuperating, he was happy. Could he maybe teach them how to be happy?
  • And since teaching is apparently Myshkin's cup of tea, he quickly lays out his theory that happiness is a state of mind, and not anything to do with what your external life is like. Every moment is sacred. Live for today!
  • Aglaya makes fun of this idea.
  • Myshkin follows up with a story that actually is straight out of Dostoevsky's life. A guy is sentenced to die. The day of execution comes, and he keeps counting down the minutes and seconds until the end. He is led up to the scaffold, blindfolded, and then, just as the firing squad loads, he gets pardoned. (This is what happened to young Dostoevsky, who was part of a pretty poorly plotted rebellion against the tsar, who decided to teach all the rebels a lesson by doing this last-minute save thing. Dostoevsky was deeply affected by this. Which, yeah, makes sense. That's some insanity, right there.)
  • Anyway, Myshkin's point is that two minutes before the death was supposed to happen were the most meaningful two minutes of that guy's life. And he resolves to always live like that.
  • Aglaya is all, yeah, that's all well and good to say, but you can't actually be that intense every minute of your life—there's daily life that happens that distracts you.
  • The prince is all, yeah, true.
  • Then he again points out that he's trying to teach everyone.
  • (Ahem, Non-Divine Christ alert! Myshkin constantly talks by teaching people lessons through parables. Like that other dude.)
  • Aglaya wonders if Myshkin has ever seen an actual execution.
  • Myshkin gets kind of mystical and tells Aglaya about a painting that he thinks someone should paint of a guy who is just-just-just about to be beheaded.
  • Then he lays out a really detailed scene of an execution he saw take place. It's kind of creepy.
  • Which, conversation killer, right there.
  • So, to change the subject, Aglaya asks Myshkin to tell them about when he was in love.

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