A strange sensation gained possession of him in that dingy and stuffy corridor, a sensation that strove painfully to become a thought; but he still could not guess what that new struggling thought was.
Last night, when I was consuming by the handful the final pages of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, where Prince Myshkin is unflinchingly justifying his choice in marrying one of two women–Nastasya Filippovna, the captivatingly beautiful kept woman with glittering eyes and Aglaia Epanchin, the recklessly innocent youngest daughter of a respectable Petersburg family–I began to understand the climax of this feverish story in a different way than I had, up until this point, been reading it.
When I was reading The Brothers Karamozov a few years back, my uncle suggested that one has to be knowledgeable in Russian history to fully understand the Dostoevsky novels.
Agreed. And though there may be much that I am missing in my reading of this nightmarish, philosophically probing, spiritually penetrating, rapturous labyrinth of human souls (Virginia Woolf calls Dostoevsky’s novels “seething whirlpools”), I began to view Prince Myshkin’s painful love of two women with an awareness of Russia’s long and struggling history.
Nastasya Filippovna (yes the names) feels suffocated by a blanket of shame, a blanket which she lifts at various junctures in her much-gossipped storyline–whether to escape a wedding or to escape the man she ran away with–both dazzling and shocking the community and heaping on more public disgrace. She is described as the kind of woman who thinks every time she looks at her lover: “I’m tormenting him to death now, but I’ll make put for it with my love, later.” Her raving choices seem to be more about her own sense of worth, but they always inflict wounds on the men in her wake.
Aglaia lives a secret life of whispered commitments and private love notes. She herself can’t seem to decide whom to love–the middle class Ganya who has violent emotions and a family to care for, the rich, worldly and somehow wise Yevgeny Pavlovich, or the saintly but embarrassingly honest Prince Myshkin. Aglaia’s romantic impulses seem more about spiting her parents than asserting the freedom she is grasping at.
What became shuddering clear to me last night was the possibility that these characters are not just women caught in the web of social stratification and the constraints of gender politics in their St Petersburg world. Maybe they are allegories for two kinds of Russia–old and new.
One is barbaric, disgraceful, and disgusting, yet with a beauty that can hardly be overlooked, much less forgotten. The other is a sophisticated but troubled offshoot of a culture that loves its libraries and laws and longings but yearns for originality and railroads and protection from the outside world.
To Aglaia, the dreamed-about modern Russia, Myshkin says, “You are exceedingly beautiful. You are so beautiful that one is afraid to look at you.” Aglaia is the one Myshkin more readily trusts and desires, but she is a riddle to him. What drives her? Who will she become?
Of Nastasya, the difficult ancient Russia whose spirit is entrenched in every institution, in every family, in every town (and maybe in every soul, for as one character observes, “The Russian soul is a dark place”), Myshkin marvels:
Whether she were a woman who had read too much poetry…or simply mad, as Myshkin was convinced, in any case this woman–though she sometimes behaved with such cynicism and impudence–was really far more modest, soft, and trustful than might have been believed. It’s true that she was full of romantic notions, of self-centered dreaminess and capricious fantasy, but yet there was much that was strong and deep in her…Myshkin understood that.
In the moment when the two women have their inevitable showdown, Aglaia is overcome by her hate of Nastasya. New hates old. Possibility hates reality. But by her very rejection of her she can never escape.
And the decision rests with Myshkin. Which Russia will he choose? Who as a people, I hear Dostoevsky asking, will we be? And do we still have a choice?
There’s another extremely popular novel in which a choice is made between to lovers, this time in America. I’m thinking of Daisy Buchanan. Will it be her husband or Jay Gatsby? Old money or new? Alliances, power, and prestige, or honesty, aspiration, and originality. Both are extravagant. Both are falsifications of what America truly is, or of what America can be.
This is just a side thought. I wonder for how many novels that explore nationalistic identity we can take this way of reading. Daniel Deronda? Absalom, Absalom? Certainly. The California novels of John Steinbeck? Some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works?
I’ve even begun to ask (and if you’re not familiar with The Idiot, go ahead and skip this paragraph) who else is a metaphor for something. Is Myshkin meant to represent Christian Orthodoxy? Is Rogozhin secular Russia? What does it mean that they exchange crosses early on and that at the end they lie down together on the same couch in tender, brotherly affection after an extraordinarily dark act of violence?
And so, back to Prince Myshkin’s choice. Which Russia will he choose? Which woman will it be?
“But what are you doing, prince?” Yevgeny Pavlovich cried with horror. “So you’re marrying [Nastasya] from a sort of fear? There’s no understanding it! Without even loving her, perhaps?”
“Oh, no. I love her with my whole heart! Why she’s…a child! Now she’s a child, quite a child! Oh, you know nothing about it!”
“And at the same time you have declared your love to Aglaia Ivanovna?”
“Oh, yes, yes!”
“How so? Then you want to love both of them?”
“Of, yes, yes!”
“Upon my word, prince, think what you’re saying!”
I’m still thinking what he’s saying. One hundred forty-eight years later, I’m still thinking what he’s saying.