The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Part IV

Chapter I.

A WEEK had elapsed since the rendezvous of our two friends on the green bench in the park, when, one fine morning at about half-past ten o’clock, Varvara Ardalionovna, otherwise Mrs. Ptitsin, who had been out to visit a friend, returned home in a state of considerable mental depression.

There are certain people of whom it is difficult to say anything which will at once throw them into relief — in other words, describe them graphically in their typical characteristics. These are they who are generally known as “commonplace people,” and this class comprises, of course, the immense majority of mankind. Authors, as a rule, attempt to select and portray types rarely met with in their entirety, but these types are nevertheless more real than real life itself.

“Podkoleosin” [A character in Gogol’s comedy, The Wedding.] was perhaps an exaggeration, but he was by no means a non-existent character; on the contrary, how many intelligent people, after hearing of this Podkoleosin from Gogol, immediately began to find that scores of their friends were exactly like him! They knew, perhaps, before Gogol told them, that their friends were like Podkoleosin, but they did not know what name to give them. In real life, young fellows seldom jump out of the window just before their weddings, because such a feat, not to speak of its other aspects, must be a decidedly unpleasant mode of escape; and yet there are plenty of bridegrooms, intelligent fellows too, who would be ready to confess themselves Podkoleosins in the depths of their consciousness, just before marriage. Nor does every husband feel bound to repeat at every step, “Tu l’as voulu, Georges Dandin!” like another typical personage; and yet how many millions and billions of Georges Dandins there are in real life who feel inclined to utter this soul-drawn cry after their honeymoon, if not the day after the wedding! Therefore, without entering into any more serious examination of the question, I will content myself with remarking that in real life typical characters are “watered down,” so to speak; and all these Dandins and Podkoleosins actually exist among us every day, but in a diluted form. I will just add, however, that Georges Dandin might have existed exactly as Moliere presented him, and probably does exist now and then, though rarely; and so I will end this scientific examination, which is beginning to look like a newspaper criticism. But for all this, the question remains — what are the novelists to do with commonplace people, and how are they to be presented to the reader in such a form as to be in the least degree interesting? They cannot be left out altogether, for commonplace people meet one at every turn of life, and to leave them out would be to destroy the whole reality and probability of the story. To fill a novel with typical characters only, or with merely strange and uncommon people, would render the book unreal and improbable, and would very likely destroy the interest. In my opinion, the duty of the novelist is to seek out points of interest and instruction even in the characters of commonplace people.

For instance, when the whole essence of an ordinary person’s nature lies in his perpetual and unchangeable commonplaceness; and when in spite of all his endeavours to do something out of the common, this person ends, eventually, by remaining in his unbroken line of routine —. I think such an individual really does become a type of his own — a type of commonplaceness which will not for the world, if it can help it, be contented, but strains and yearns to be something original and independent, without the slightest possibility of being so. To this class of commonplace people belong several characters in this novel; — characters which — I admit — I have not drawn very vividly up to now for my reader’s benefit.

Such were, for instance, Varvara Ardalionovna Ptitsin, her husband, and her brother, Gania.

There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own — to be, in fact, “just like everyone else.”

Of such people there are countless numbers in this world — far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can — that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.

To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving.

Many of our young women have thought fit to cut their hair short, put on blue spectacles, and call themselves Nihilists. By doing this they have been able to persuade themselves, without further trouble, that they have acquired new convictions of their own. Some men have but felt some little qualm of kindness towards their fellow-men, and the fact has been quite enough to persuade them that they stand alone in the van of enlightenment and that no one has such humanitarian feelings as they. Others have but to read an idea of somebody else’s, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The “impudence of ignorance,” if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases; — unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.

This confidence of a stupid man in his own talents has been wonderfully depicted by Gogol in the amazing character of Pirogoff. Pirogoff has not the slightest doubt of his own genius — nay, of his SUPERIORITY of genius — so certain is he of it that he never questions it. How many Pirogoffs have there not been among our writers — scholars — propagandists? I say “have been,” but indeed there are plenty of them at this very day.

Our friend, Gania, belonged to the other class — to the “much cleverer” persons, though he was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the “clever commonplace” person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair. (As a rule, however, nothing tragic happens; — his liver becomes a little damaged in the course of time, nothing more serious. Such men do not give up their aspirations after originality without a severe struggle — and there have been men who, though good fellows in themselves, and even benefactors to humanity, have sunk to the level of base criminals for the sake of originality.

Gania was a beginner, as it were, upon this road. A deep and unchangeable consciousness of his own lack of talent, combined with a vast longing to be able to persuade himself that he was original, had rankled in his heart, even from childhood.

He seemed to have been born with overwrought nerves, and in his passionate desire to excel, he was often led to the brink of some rash step; and yet, having resolved upon such a step, when the moment arrived, he invariably proved too sensible to take it. He was ready, in the same way, to do a base action in order to obtain his wished-for object; and yet, when the moment came to do it, he found that he was too honest for any great baseness. (Not that he objected to acts of petty meanness — he was always ready for THEM.) He looked with hate and loathing on the poverty and downfall of his family, and treated his mother with haughty contempt, although he knew that his whole future depended on her character and reputation.

Aglaya had simply frightened him; yet he did not give up all thoughts of her — though he never seriously hoped that she would condescend to him. At the time of his “adventure” with Nastasia Philipovna he had come to the conclusion that money was his only hope — money should do all for him.

At the moment when he lost Aglaya, and after the scene with Nastasia, he had felt so low in his own eyes that he actually brought the money back to the prince. Of this returning of the money given to him by a madwoman who had received it from a madman, he had often repented since — though he never ceased to be proud of his action. During the short time that Muishkin remained in Petersburg Gania had had time to come to hate him for his sympathy, though the prince told him that it was “not everyone who would have acted so nobly” as to return the money. He had long pondered, too, over his relations with Aglaya, and had persuaded himself that with such a strange, childish, innocent character as hers, things might have ended very differently. Remorse then seized him; he threw up his post, and buried himself in self-torment and reproach.

He lived at Ptitsin’s, and openly showed contempt for the latter, though he always listened to his advice, and was sensible enough to ask for it when he wanted it. Gavrila Ardalionovitch was angry with Ptitsin because the latter did not care to become a Rothschild. “If you are to be a Jew,” he said, “do it properly — squeeze people right and left, show some character; be the King of the Jews while you are about it.”

Ptitsin was quiet and not easily offended — he only laughed. But on one occasion he explained seriously to Gania that he was no Jew, that he did nothing dishonest, that he could not help the market price of money, that, thanks to his accurate habits, he had already a good footing and was respected, and that his business was flourishing.

“I shan’t ever be a Rothschild, and there is no reason why I should,” he added, smiling; “but I shall have a house in the Liteynaya, perhaps two, and that will be enough for me.” “Who knows but what I may have three!” he concluded to himself; but this dream, cherished inwardly, he never confided to a soul.

Nature loves and favours such people. Ptitsin will certainly have his reward, not three houses, but four, precisely because from childhood up he had realized that he would never be a Rothschild. That will be the limit of Ptitsin’s fortune, and, come what may, he will never have more than four houses.

Varvara Ardalionovna was not like her brother. She too, had passionate desires, but they were persistent rather than impetuous. Her plans were as wise as her methods of carrying them out. No doubt she also belonged to the category of ordinary people who dream of being original, but she soon discovered that she had not a grain of true originality, and she did not let it trouble her too much. Perhaps a certain kind of pride came to her help. She made her first concession to the demands of practical life with great resolution when she consented to marry Ptitsin. However, when she married she did not say to herself, “Never mind a mean action if it leads to the end in view,” as her brother would certainly have said in such a case; it is quite probable that he may have said it when he expressed his elder-brotherly satisfaction at her decision. Far from this; Varvara Ardalionovna did not marry until she felt convinced that her future husband was unassuming, agreeable, almost cultured, and that nothing on earth would tempt him to a really dishonourable deed. As to small meannesses, such trifles did not trouble her. Indeed, who is free from them? It is absurd to expect the ideal! Besides, she knew that her marriage would provide a refuge for all her family. Seeing Gania unhappy, she was anxious to help him, in spite of their former disputes and misunderstandings. Ptitsin, in a friendly way, would press his brother-in-law to enter the army. “You know,” he said sometimes, jokingly, “you despise generals and generaldom, but you will see that ‘they’ will all end by being generals in their turn. You will see it if you live long enough!”

“But why should they suppose that I despise generals?” Gania thought sarcastically to himself.

To serve her brother’s interests, Varvara Ardalionovna was constantly at the Epanchins’ house, helped by the fact that in childhood she and Gania had played with General Ivan Fedorovitch’s daughters. It would have been inconsistent with her character if in these visits she had been pursuing a chimera; her project was not chimerical at all; she was building on a firm basis — on her knowledge of the character of the Epanchin family, especially Aglaya, whom she studied closely. All Varvara’s efforts were directed towards bringing Aglaya and Gania together. Perhaps she achieved some result; perhaps, also, she made the mistake of depending too much upon her brother, and expecting more from him than he would ever be capable of giving. However this may be, her manoeuvres were skilful enough. For weeks at a time she would never mention Gania. Her attitude was modest but dignified, and she was always extremely truthful and sincere. Examining the depths of her conscience, she found nothing to reproach herself with, and this still further strengthened her in her designs. But Varvara Ardalionovna sometimes remarked that she felt spiteful; that there was a good deal of vanity in her, perhaps even of wounded vanity. She noticed this at certain times more than at others, and especially after her visits to the Epanchins.

Today, as I have said, she returned from their house with a heavy feeling of dejection. There was a sensation of bitterness, a sort of mocking contempt, mingled with it.

Arrived at her own house, Varia heard a considerable commotion going on in the upper storey, and distinguished the voices of her father and brother. On entering the salon she found Gania pacing up and down at frantic speed, pale with rage and almost tearing his hair. She frowned, and subsided on to the sofa with a tired air, and without taking the trouble to remove her hat. She very well knew that if she kept quiet and asked her brother nothing about his reason for tearing up and down the room, his wrath would fall upon her head. So she hastened to put the question:

“The old story, eh?”

“Old story? No! Heaven knows what’s up now — I don’t! Father has simply gone mad; mother’s in floods of tears. Upon my word, Varia, I must kick him out of the house; or else go myself,” he added, probably remembering that he could not well turn people out of a house which was not his own.

“You must make allowances,” murmured Varia.

“Make allowances? For whom? Him — the old blackguard? No, no, Varia — that won’t do! It won’t do, I tell you! And look at the swagger of the man! He’s all to blame himself, and yet he puts on so much ‘side’ that you’d think — my word! —‘It’s too much trouble to go through the gate, you must break the fence for me!’ That’s the sort of air he puts on; but what’s the matter with you, Varia? What a curious expression you have!”

“I’m all right,” said Varia, in a tone that sounded as though she were all wrong.

Gania looked more intently at her.

“You’ve been THERE?” he asked, suddenly.


“Did you find out anything?”

“Nothing unexpected. I discovered that it’s all true. My husband was wiser than either of us. Just as he suspected from the beginning, so it has fallen out. Where is he?”

“Out. Well — what has happened? — go on.”

“The prince is formally engaged to her — that’s settled. The elder sisters told me about it. Aglaya has agreed. They don’t attempt to conceal it any longer; you know how mysterious and secret they have all been up to now. Adelaida’s wedding is put off again, so that both can be married on one day. Isn’t that delightfully romantic? Somebody ought to write a poem on it. Sit down and write an ode instead of tearing up and down like that. This evening Princess Bielokonski is to arrive; she comes just in time — they have a party tonight. He is to be presented to old Bielokonski, though I believe he knows her already; probably the engagement will be openly announced. They are only afraid that he may knock something down, or trip over something when he comes into the room. It would be just like him.”

Gania listened attentively, but to his sister’s astonishment he was by no means so impressed by this news (which should, she thought, have been so important to him) as she had expected.

“Well, it was clear enough all along,” he said, after a moment’s reflection. “So that’s the end,” he added, with a disagreeable smile, continuing to walk up and down the room, but much slower than before, and glancing slyly into his sister’s face.

“It’s a good thing that you take it philosophically, at all events,” said Varia. “I’m really very glad of it.”

“Yes, it’s off our hands — off YOURS, I should say.”

“I think I have served you faithfully. I never even asked you what happiness you expected to find with Aglaya.”

“Did I ever expect to find happiness with Aglaya?”

“Come, come, don’t overdo your philosophy. Of course you did. Now it’s all over, and a good thing, too; pair of fools that we have been! I confess I have never been able to look at it seriously. I busied myself in it for your sake, thinking that there was no knowing what might happen with a funny girl like that to deal with. There were ninety to one chances against it. To this moment I can’t make out why you wished for it.”

“H’m! now, I suppose, you and your husband will never weary of egging me on to work again. You’ll begin your lectures about perseverance and strength of will, and all that. I know it all by heart,” said Gania, laughing.

“He’s got some new idea in his head,” thought Varia. “Are they pleased over there — the parents?” asked Gania, suddenly.

“N— no, I don’t think they are. You can judge for yourself. I think the general is pleased enough; her mother is a little uneasy. She always loathed the idea of the prince as a HUSBAND; everybody knows that.”

“Of course, naturally. The bridegroom is an impossible and ridiculous one. I mean, has SHE given her formal consent?”

“She has not said ‘no,’ up to now, and that’s all. It was sure to be so with her. You know what she is like. You know how absurdly shy she is. You remember how she used to hide in a cupboard as a child, so as to avoid seeing visitors, for hours at a time. She is just the same now; but, do you know, I think there is something serious in the matter, even from her side; I feel it, somehow. She laughs at the prince, they say, from morn to night in order to hide her real feelings; but you may be sure she finds occasion to say something or other to him on the sly, for he himself is in a state of radiant happiness. He walks in the clouds; they say he is extremely funny just now; I heard it from themselves. They seemed to be laughing at me in their sleeves — those elder girls — I don’t know why.”

Gania had begun to frown, and probably Varia added this last sentence in order to probe his thought. However, at this moment, the noise began again upstairs.

“I’ll turn him out!” shouted Gania, glad of the opportunity of venting his vexation. “I shall just turn him out — we can’t have this.”

“Yes, and then he’ll go about the place and disgrace us as he did yesterday.”

“How ‘as he did yesterday’? What do you mean? What did he do yesterday?” asked Gania, in alarm.

“Why, goodness me, don’t you know?” Varia stopped short.

“What? You don’t mean to say that he went there yesterday!” cried Gania, flushing red with shame and anger. “Good heavens, Varia! Speak! You have just been there. WAS he there or not, QUICK?” And Gania rushed for the door. Varia followed and caught him by both hands.

“What are you doing? Where are you going to? You can’t let him go now; if you do he’ll go and do something worse.”

“What did he do there? What did he say?” “They couldn’t tell me themselves; they couldn’t make head or tail of it; but he frightened them all. He came to see the general, who was not at home; so he asked for Lizabetha Prokofievna. First of all, he begged her for some place, or situation, for work of some kind, and then he began to complain about US, about me and my husband, and you, especially YOU; he said a lot of things.”

“Oh! couldn’t you find out?” muttered Gania, trembling hysterically.

“No — nothing more than that. Why, they couldn’t understand him themselves; and very likely didn’t tell me all.”

Gania seized his head with both hands and tottered to the window; Varia sat down at the other window.

“Funny girl, Aglaya,” she observed, after a pause. “When she left me she said, ‘Give my special and personal respects to your parents; I shall certainly find an opportunity to see your father one day,’ and so serious over it. She’s a strange creature.”

“Wasn’t she joking? She was speaking sarcastically!” “Not a bit of it; that’s just the strange part of it.”

“Does she know about father, do you think — or not?”

“That they do NOT know about it in the house is quite certain, the rest of them, I mean; but you have given me an idea. Aglaya perhaps knows. She alone, though, if anyone; for the sisters were as astonished as I was to hear her speak so seriously. If she knows, the prince must have told her.”

“Oh! it’s not a great matter to guess who told her. A thief! A thief in our family, and the head of the family, too!”

“Oh! nonsense!” cried Varia, angrily. “That was nothing but a drunkard’s tale. Nonsense! Why, who invented the whole thing — Lebedeff and the prince — a pretty pair! Both were probably drunk.”

“Father is a drunkard and a thief; I am a beggar, and the husband of my sister is a usurer,” continued Gania, bitterly. “There was a pretty list of advantages with which to enchant the heart of Aglaya.”

“That same husband of your sister, the usurer —”

“Feeds me? Go on. Don’t stand on ceremony, pray.”

“Don’t lose your temper. You are just like a schoolboy. You think that all this sort of thing would harm you in Aglaya’s eyes, do you? You little know her character. She is capable of refusing the most brilliant party, and running away and starving in a garret with some wretched student; that’s the sort of girl she is. You never could or did understand how interesting you would have seen in her eyes if you had come firmly and proudly through our misfortunes. The prince has simply caught her with hook and line; firstly, because he never thought of fishing for her, and secondly, because he is an idiot in the eyes of most people. It’s quite enough for her that by accepting him she puts her family out and annoys them all round — that’s what she likes. You don’t understand these things.”

“We shall see whether I understand or no!” said Gania, enigmatically. “But I shouldn’t like her to know all about father, all the same. I thought the prince would manage to hold his tongue about this, at least. He prevented Lebedeff spreading the news — he wouldn’t even tell me all when I asked him —”

“Then you must see that he is not responsible. What does it matter to you now, in any case? What are you hoping for still? If you HAVE a hope left, it is that your suffering air may soften her heart towards you.”

“Oh, she would funk a scandal like anyone else. You are all tarred with one brush!”

“What! AGLAYA would have funked? You are a chicken-hearted fellow, Gania!” said Varia, looking at her brother with contempt. “Not one of us is worth much. Aglaya may be a wild sort of a girl, but she is far nobler than any of us, a thousand times nobler!”

“Well — come! there’s nothing to get cross about,” said Gania.

“All I’m afraid of is — mother. I’m afraid this scandal about father may come to her ears; perhaps it has already. I am dreadfully afraid.”

“It undoubtedly has already!” observed Gania.

Varia had risen from her place and had started to go upstairs to her mother; but at this observation of Gania’s she turned and gazed at him attentively.

“Who could have told her?”

“Hippolyte, probably. He would think it the most delightful amusement in the world to tell her of it the instant he moved over here; I haven’t a doubt of it.”

“But how could he know anything of it? Tell me that. Lebedeff and the prince determined to tell no one — even Colia knows nothing.”

“What, Hippolyte? He found it out himself, of course. Why, you have no idea what a cunning little animal he is; dirty little gossip! He has the most extraordinary nose for smelling out other people’s secrets, or anything approaching to scandal. Believe it or not, but I’m pretty sure he has got round Aglaya. If he hasn’t, he soon will. Rogojin is intimate with him, too. How the prince doesn’t notice it, I can’t understand. The little wretch considers me his enemy now and does his best to catch me tripping. What on earth does it matter to him, when he’s dying? However, you’ll see; I shall catch HIM tripping yet, and not he me.”

“Why did you get him over here, if you hate him so? And is it really worth your while to try to score off him?”

“Why, it was yourself who advised me to bring him over!”

“I thought he might be useful. You know he is in love with Aglaya himself, now, and has written to her; he has even written to Lizabetha Prokofievna!”

“Oh! he’s not dangerous there!” cried Gania, laughing angrily. “However, I believe there is something of that sort in the air; he is very likely to be in love, for he is a mere boy. But he won’t write anonymous letters to the old lady; that would be too audacious a thing for him to attempt; but I dare swear the very first thing he did was to show me up to Aglaya as a base deceiver and intriguer. I confess I was fool enough to attempt something through him at first. I thought he would throw himself into my service out of revengeful feelings towards the prince, the sly little beast! But I know him better now. As for the theft, he may have heard of it from the widow in Petersburg, for if the old man committed himself to such an act, he can have done it for no other object but to give the money to her. Hippolyte said to me, without any prelude, that the general had promised the widow four hundred roubles. Of course I understood, and the little wretch looked at me with a nasty sort of satisfaction. I know him; you may depend upon it he went and told mother too, for the pleasure of wounding her. And why doesn’t he die, I should like to know? He undertook to die within three weeks, and here he is getting fatter. His cough is better, too. It was only yesterday that he said that was the second day he hadn’t coughed blood.”

“Well, turn him out!”

“I don’t HATE, I despise him,” said Gania, grandly. “Well, I do hate him, if you like!” he added, with a sudden access of rage, “and I’ll tell him so to his face, even when he’s dying! If you had but read his confession — good Lord! what refinement of impudence! Oh, but I’d have liked to whip him then and there, like a schoolboy, just to see how surprised he would have been! Now he hates everybody because he — Oh, I say, what on earth are they doing there! Listen to that noise! I really can’t stand this any longer. Ptitsin!” he cried, as the latter entered the room, “what in the name of goodness are we coming to? Listen to that —”

But the noise came rapidly nearer, the door burst open, and old General Ivolgin, raging, furious, purple-faced, and trembling with anger, rushed in. He was followed by Nina Alexandrovna, Colia, and behind the rest, Hippolyte.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:49