Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Poor Knight

The Idiot 
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Part II, "The Poor Knight"

"A month ago you were looking through Don Quixote and exclaimed those words, that there is nothing better than the 'poor knight.' I don't know who you were talking about then---Don Quixote, Evgeny Pavlych, or some other person---nut pm;u that you were speaking about someone, and the conversation went on for a long time . . ." (p 247)

Part II of The Idiot begins six months after the party at Nastasya Filippovna's home.  Prince Myshkin left St. Petersburg for Moscow a mere two days later and according to some rumors, he claimed his inheritance, which turned out to be smaller than initially expected. Furthermore, the inheritance shrank considerably because a large number of creditors suddenly appeared, and the prince satisfied all their claims.   Typical of the Prince was his lack of concern for the money and whether the creditors deserved to be paid, although "a few of them had indeed suffered".  

The style of the beginning of Part II contrasts sharply with the end of Part I. The tone is very nonchalant and removed from the events that take place in the lives of the characters. Whereas at the end of Part I it seemed that we were right in the middle of the dramatic intensity of the novel, in the beginning of Part II the plot seems very far away. The narrator himself is not sure of everything that has happened; he has to reconstruct the story by piecing together rumors and letters.

Among the people encountered by the Prince upon his return was one Lebedev, a rogue who was a member of Rogozhin's entourage.  Lebedev relates to the Prince his belief and interpretation of the Apocalypse quoting the passage "and there will follow a pale horse and him whose name is Death, and after him Hell . . ." (Revelation 6:5-8)  The theme of death is even stronger than in Part I.  Even more important is the Prince's meeting with Rogozhin who he first encountered on the train returning to Russia.  Myshkin is entertained at Rogozhin's house, a dark house that is described in as much detail as another character - one which mirrors its owner's characteristic personality.  Myshkin tells him that he does not intend to interfere with his relationship with Nastasya Filippovna. If she decides to run from Rogozhin herself—which is what happened in Moscow—Myshkin will take her in. The prince does not hide his opinion that a marriage between Rogozhin and Nastasya would result in mutual destruction. Myshkin loves her with pity and is also fond of Rogozhin himself.

Before Myshkin leaves, he notices a large garden knife hidden inside one of Rogozhin's books. As Rogozhin escorts the prince out, they pass by a painting by Holbein, of a Christ who has just been taken off the cross. Myshkin cannot help but stare at this painting for a long time; Rogozhin asks him if he believes in God. In response, the prince tells four stories, the fourth of which explains the essence of religion as he understands it. The story is of a young mother delighting in her newborn. The prince thinks that God feels joy in his creation much as the mother feels joy in her child. Myshkin and Rogozhin then exchange crosses, and Rogozhin takes the prince to his mother, who blesses the prince.

In a later scene Myshkin describes his illness for the first time and then suffers an actual fit. He says that an attack is characterized by a momentary feeling of complete clarity of mind and an almost sublime understanding of life and its purpose. This moment is quickly followed by utter darkness. Before his fit, Myshkin wanders about the city. Mirroring his physical wandering, his mind wanders from subject to subject. The narrative becomes a sort of stream of consciousness as we experience Myshkin's thought process and feelings just before and during the epileptic fit. Because the narrator merges with Myshkin's consciousness, we learn little about the reason for the fit. The prince cannot himself clearly explain it.

Prince Myshkin eventually settles himself in Lebedev's summer cottage in Pavlovsk. Though Lebedev makes sure the prince receives few visitors aside from himself, many of the other characters are also in Pavlovsk.  On the third day of Myshkin's stay in Pavlovsk, Madame Yepanchin—who is convinced that the Prince is on his deathbed—comes to call on him along with her three daughters and Prince S., who remembers that he is an old acquaintance of Myshkin. Coincidentally, at about that time, the Ptitsyns, Ganya, and General Ivolgin also come to visit Myshkin. The entire company establishes itself on the spacious veranda of Lebedev's cottage.  Suddenly everyone starts joking about the "poor knight." Madame Yepanchin is a bit irritated because there is a hint that they are talking about Myshkin. Kolya remarks that Aglaya, as she was leafing through Don Quixote, said that there was nothing better than a poor knight. General Yepanchin and Yevgeny Pavlovich Radomsky, Aglaya's suitor, join the company. Aglaya recites Pushkin's poem "The Poor Knight," which is about a knight who idealizes Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Instead of the initials A.M.D., which stand for Ave, Mater Dei, ("Hail, mother of God"), Aglaya says N.F.B.—Nastassya Filippovna Barashkov—implying that Myshkin has chosen Nastassya Filippovna as his ideal. Aglaya begins in a rather mocking tone, but soon changes to speak more seriously and earnestly.  

The plot seems to be lost in all the meetings and discussions -- it will take two more parts to sort out the tale of The Idiot, both a Prince and a Poor Knight.


Brian Joseph said...

It sounds like a very interesting work. Did you find the change i tone between the two part difficult to take. It seems like going from intensity to nonchalance might be anti - climatic and even disorientating.

Yhe narrator being unsure of the facts of the story seems like an intriguing device.

James said...

The "nonchalance" is balanced by a few intense scenes. However the change in tone might be somewhat disorienting to some readers. There are developments with individual characters such as Lebedev and Rogozhin that expand the understanding of their characters. The narrator's lack of certainty seems to be typical of a Dostoevsky novel.