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Dostoevsky's The Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting

Dostoevsky's The Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting

by Sarah Young

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In considering Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot', a novel less easily defined in terms of plot and ideas than his other major fictional works, Sarah Young addresses problems in the novel unresolved by previous interpretations, and in doing so fills a significant gap in Dostoevsky studies. 'Dostoevsky's The Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative' provides an


In considering Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot', a novel less easily defined in terms of plot and ideas than his other major fictional works, Sarah Young addresses problems in the novel unresolved by previous interpretations, and in doing so fills a significant gap in Dostoevsky studies. 'Dostoevsky's The Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative' provides an innovative theoretical framework for an analysis that integrates structural and narratological considerations with thematic (religious and ethical) aspects, by focusing on the characters' interactivity as the most fundamental level on which the ethical systems of the novel are enacted. It examines the questions of what ethical bases are put forward by the novel, what faith-issues and philosophical world-views they derive from, and how, in terms of structuring and narration rather than simply thematically, they are presented in the novel.

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Anthem Press
Publication date:
Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies
Edition description:
First Edition, 1
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

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Dostoevsky's the Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative

Reading, Narrating, Scripting

By Sarah J. Young

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Sarah J. Young
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-114-0



One of the major problems facing the reader of The Idiot is the presentation of the character of Nastas'ia Filippovna. Her motivation and relationships with other characters remain largely obscure, owing to her absence from large sections of the narrative; she makes her entrance in the 'real' time of the novel at the end of chapter nine of Part One, and in Parts Two and Three appears for just three brief scenes. In Part Four, we witness directly only her confrontation with Aglaia, as subsequent details of her marriage preparations and flight with Rogozhin are sketched in by the narrator after the event. In the novel as a whole Nastas'ia Filippovna makes only 131 speech acts – significantly fewer not only than Myshkin, Aglaia and Rogozhin, but also than Lizaveta Prokofievna, Lebedev, Ippolit and Gania.

However, in spite of the fact that she has been the subject of remarkably little criticism, it is clear both from the notebooks and throughout the novel itself that Nastas'ia Filippovna's role is not simply an important one, but that she is central to the plot: 'In reality, N[astas'ia] F[ilippovna], perhaps, plays the main role' (IX, 226). Fridlender notes that Dostoevsky considered her to be the second hero of the novel (XXVIII.2, 241), and highlights the impact on the text of her personality, which constantly holds the attention of the reader. Dostoevsky's belief that she was essential even to his initial conception of the novel is confirmed by the prominent place in his early notebooks of Mignon/Umetskaia, the precursor of the novel's heroine. Moreover, while the character of the 'Idiot' at this stage is as far from the eventual character of Myshkin as it is possible to be, the figure of Mignon is already in all essential respects the same as Nastas'ia Filippovna in the final version of the novel; Dostoevsky describes her as 'an envious and proud woman' whose ambition is to 'take revenge on everyone' (IX, 143), later characterizing her thus: 'in general, with her unarguable originality and the straining of a capriciously challenging and poetic character, she is above all her surroundings' (IX, 151, author's emphasis). What also survives from the notebooks to the final version is the sense of a compelling (for both readers and protagonists) relationship of emotional extremes between the hero and heroine, and between the heroine and other characters in the novel, most significantly between Mignon and her rival (called 'the heroine' at this stage but clearly the precursor of Aglaia):

She also hates the Heroine, because the Heroine clings to the Beauty, but because the latter is so beautiful, Mignon, left alone with her, kisses her hands and feet (and this intensifies her hatred). (She even kisses her feet on purpose, in order to intensify her hatred because of this. 'Because of this I will hate her even more') (IX, 143).

Nastas'ia Filippovna's position in the finished version of the novel is even more pre-eminent. Wasiolek sees her as 'a dominating force in almost everyone's consciousness', and she has a profound and fatal impact not only on Myshkin and Rogozhin, but at various points in the novel also on Totskii, General Epanchin, Gania, Aglaia, Radomskii and Lebedev.

Danow also points out that she is always present in the thoughts and discussions of other protagonists, and in her absence, it is in large part through them that we have to interpret her. However, as the other characters, as well as the narrator, are often as uncertain about her motives as the reader, all parties are forced into the same strategy of filling in the gaps in the text in order to make sense of Nastas'ia Filippovna's actions. It is owing to the joint effort of the readers and characters in the novel to fill in the gaps and provide interpretation that, even though she appears so rarely, Nastas'ia Filippovna comes across as a vibrant and fully-drawn character, to the extent that the first-time reader of The Idiot barely notices that she is absent for most of the narrative. A similar technique is evident in the presentation of Stavrogin in The Devils. Although the hero makes very few appearances in the course of the novel, he is constantly present in the thoughts of the other characters and particularly in their anticipation of his future actions: much of the novel is built around the plans of others which assume Stavrogin's cooperation, and the fact that when he arrives he fails to fulfil expectations. In the meantime, he becomes interesting to the reader by being a constant source of fascination and motivation for the other characters in the novel.

As Nastas'ia Filippovna's absence is so central, and as her relationship with Myshkin is so essential to the direction of the narrative, we cannot begin to understand the hero's actions without first addressing hers. If the novel is 'about' anything on the level of plot, it is surely the collision of the heroine's outraged suffering and the hero's compassion, and it is therefore necessary to examine both sides of the relationship. This chapter will therefore demonstrate how Nastas'ia Filippovna uses scripting strategies to place herself at the forefront of the other's consciousness and of the narrative even in her absence, the effect this has on others, and its implications for her motivation and self-image.

I Creating the heroine: Rogozhin's story

Although Nastas'ia Filippovna does not appear in the 'real time' of the novel until over half way through Part One, other characters make her the subject of stories, character assessment and plans from the very opening pages. The first story told about her is one of the most striking in the novel: Rogozhin's description of their first encounter and particularly its aftermath arouses enormous interest and crucial in formulating the reader's and Prince Myshkin's opinions of the heroine. Having related the story of first seeing Nastas'ia Filippovna and presenting her with a pair of earrings purchased with his father's money, Rogozhin describes his father's reaction:

He found out ... and anyway Zalezhnev was blabbing about it to everyone we met on the way. The old man took me and locked me in upstairs, then spent an hour teaching me a lesson. 'That's just for starters, he says, and I'll be back to bid you goodnight as well.' And what do you think? The old fellow went round to Nastas'ia Filippovna's, bowing down to the ground, weeping and pleading with her; in the end she brought out the box and flung it at him: 'There's your earrings then,' she says, 'old greybeard, and they're worth ten times more to me now that I know the risk Parfen ran in getting them. Give my greetings to Parfen Semenich and thank him.' Well, meanwhile with Mother's blessing I borrowed twenty rubles off Serezha Protushin and set off to Pskov on the train, and arrived in a fever (VIII, 12–3).

Of major significance here is the undermining function of the final sentence, in which Rogozhin confirms his absence from the scene he has just described so vividly. The direct juxtaposition of the two events raises a fundamental question: if Rogozhin was fleeing St Petersburg at the very moment when the scene between his father and Nastas'ia Filippovna was taking place, and is only just returning to the city as the novel opens, how does he know what happened between them? Rogozhin describes the scene in the manner of an eye-witness, even using the present tense 'says' (govorit) to add immediacy to his report of Nastas'ia Filippovna's speech and echo his previous direct mediation of his father's words. However, as we also know from his own words that he was not there, we must suspect on these grounds alone that he is misleading both his listener (Myshkin) and the reader in some way, and bear in mind the fact that we therefore cannot fully rely on any of the details Rogozhin gives us. Our sense that Rogozhin may not be telling the whole truth about the situation is increased at the end of chapter one, when the train draws into the station; the narrator's comment, 'Rogozhin might have said that he had left without telling anybody, but nevertheless several people were waiting for him' (VIII, 13), deliberately draws attention to the inconsistencies in Rogozhin's story.

The question of the origin of this story is particularly important as Rogozhin's description contains both the heroine's first utterance of note, and the first suggestion of a special connection between them, thereby establishing one of the main plot-threads in the novel. Any doubts over the accuracy of our first view of Nastas'ia Filippovna will therefore have serious implications for later attempts to interpret her actions and motivation. In the presentation of an avowedly enigmatic heroine, all devices which obscure or undermine our knowledge of her are relevant to interpretation, and Rogozhin's comments and those of others on the same incident therefore deserve careful examination in order to establish what we can learn from Nastas'ia Filippovna's initial appearance in the novel.

Although Rogozhin was not present at the meeting between his father and the heroine, and has had minimal opportunity to learn of it in his absence from Petersburg, any suggestion that he has made the story up is soon denied, however, when Myshkin repeats the tale to General Epanchin and Gania, and the General responds, 'I've heard something as well ... After that episode with the earrings Nastas'ia Filippovna told the whole story' (VIII, 28). Significantly, however, there are no details whatsoever in this exchange which would confirm the accuracy of the story we were initially given; we are merely told that Myshkin 'at once told them about his encounter with Rogozhin and related the latter's story', and that Gania replies, 'I've already heard something about him' (VIII, 28). The narrator has already used the device of glossing over repetitions in Myshkin's explanations of his background to the various members of the Epanchin household, in order to save the reader the tedium of reading the same details several times (VIII, 21, 24, and later 46 and 84), but on this occasion the gap is far less innocuous. Whilst appearing to verify Rogozhin's story, it in fact does no such thing; we do not know whether Myshkin tells the story verbatim, or merely outlines the salient features and, as we do not know with what the General is agreeing, his confirmation is little short of meaningless. The facts, and with them the character of Nastas'ia Filippovna, continue to elude us, even though on first reading we experience the exact opposite.

Nevertheless, General Epanchin's assertion that Nastas'ia Filippovna has been telling the story suggests that if Rogozhin has heard about it, she was the original source of the story. Before he embarks on the tale of his father's visit to Nastas'ia Filippovna, Rogozhin mentions that 'Konev, Vasilii Vasil'ich, came to the rescue and wrote explaining it all' (VIII, 10). Although he is speaking here of his father's death, it is possible that either this letter, or another one he fails to mention, describes the scene to him. In this case, the story he tells can only have come from Nastas'ia Filippovna herself, via one or more intermediaries. This in itself raises further questions of accuracy. If the story came to Rogozhin through an number of intermediaries, it may well have suffered some distortion en route (a hidden case of 'Chinese Whispers', to use Malcolm Jones's analogy). If, on the other hand, Konev, or whoever told Rogozhin, heard it straight from Nastas'ia Filippovna, we can assume her version has survived reasonably intact. In neither case, however, can we discount the possibility that Rogozhin or Nastas'ia Filippovna may have embellished the facts for their own purpose. The 'truth' about the incident remains unknown and unknowable; even before the main characters and plot are established, the ground of The Idiot is shifting under the reader's feet.

Furthermore, once we realize that the story must come from Nastas'ia Filippovna herself, we wonder whether she related it merely as an amusing incident, or with the intention of transmitting it back to Rogozhin, to encourage him to pursue her. This would suggest that she has already perceived shame or death at his hands as an option, a possibility which is emphasized by the generic connections between the two characters. The Gothic overtones of Rogozhin's character and family background provide a literary context of violence, jealousy and obsession, all characteristics of which Nastas'ia later makes use in fulfilling her script for herself. Moreover, the melodramatic aspect of the Gothic also appeals to her well-developed sense of the dramatic, and coincides with her own view of herself as a fallen and doomed woman.

We do not immediately recognize it as such, owing to its early position in the novel, but when it later becomes clear that Nastas'ia Filippovna is attempting to influence the action of the novel from off-stage, we begin to suspect that this is an early indication of the same tendency. We can see in Rogozhin's narrative an early paradigm of scripting, as it involves some of the most vital elements of the process: story-telling, a strong sense of the dramatic, and role-playing, in the magnanimous self-image the heroine presents in order to manipulate the other's response. Furthermore, the active participation of the other is already present. Rogozhin not only tells the story and had an initial role in the incident, but its apparent endorsement of his actions encourages him to pursue his passion for her. Myshkin, meanwhile, not only repeats the story, but more importantly, spends the rest of the novel acting in the light of it, and admits the immediate effect it has on him: 'I've taken a great liking to you, particularly when you were telling the story of the diamond earrings' (VIII, 13). The interest of both men in Nastas'ia Filippovna, which is fundamental to the plot of the entire novel, derives from a story about which we have to entertain serious misgivings, and which highlights the fact that the heroine, in spite of her absence, is using the other both in the assertion of her self-image and in order to provoke them into action, from the opening pages of the novel. In this we see the dialogic interaction which is essential to the event of being within narrative. In its influence on Myshkin and Rogozhin, and in the abiding first impression it leaves of the heroine on the reader, Rogozhin's utterance gains its own 'truth'; the telling of the story by another gives confirmation to Nastas'ia Filippovna's script even before her aims have been established.

The separation of self and other which underlies the process of interpretation impairs our knowledge of the heroine and her relationship with Rogozhin: the 'fundamental asymmetry', in both the protagonists' interpersonal relations and in the relationship between the reader and the text, is widened as the process of interpretation of the self by the other is displaced by an unknown number of possible points of distortion during the transmission of the text between characters and readers. The lack of certainty regarding the accuracy of Rogozhin's narrative, as well as the reasons for its dissemination, also provide the first hint of Nastas'ia Filippovna's defence of her loophole; by being elusive, she prevents others from pinning down the facts of the story and using them to finalize her. In the absence of contradictory information, Rogozhin's version of events takes on the appearance of reality for both reader and listener, but simultaneously indicates the heroine's enigmatic nature, which becomes an essential component of her scripting.

Thus, although the scene between Nastas'ia Filippovna and his father may not have happened as Rogozhin describes, its impact on the hero remains the same. In proposing marriage to Nastas'ia Filippovna at the end of Part One, Myshkin is responding to her apparent appreciation of reckless gallantry with no thought of the consequences for the self, garnered from her story. The prince, consciously or unconsciously, accepts the very first hints of her script and embarks on his own role within its framework, as the pure knight come to rescue her, almost immediately after meeting her, when he insists, without knowing why, on going to Nastas'ia Filippovna's birthday party. Rogozhin's story takes on a life of its own regardless of its accuracy, and is central to both the initial characterization of Nastas'ia Filippovna, and the way Myshkin and the reader relate to her, whilst not giving either a single piece of reliable information about the heroine.


Excerpted from Dostoevsky's the Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative by Sarah J. Young. Copyright © 2004 Sarah J. Young. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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'Original, well argued, convincing and attractively written throughout.' —Malcolm Jones, Professor Emeritus, Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies, University of Nottingham

'A truly outstanding and original piece of work.' —Robin Feuer Miller, Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities, Brandeis University

Meet the Author

Sarah Young is a Leverhulme Special Research Fellow in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK.

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