Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's masterful translation of The Idiot is destined to stand with their versions of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Demons as the definitive Dostoevsky in English.
After his great portrayal of a guilty man in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky set out in The Idiot to portray a man of pure innocence. The twenty-six-year-old Prince Myshkin, following a stay of several years in a Swiss sanatorium, returns to Russia to collect an inheritance and "be among people." Even before he reaches home he meets the dark Rogozhin, a rich merchant's son whose obsession with the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna eventually draws all three of them into a tragic denouement. In Petersburg the prince finds himself a stranger in a society obsessed with money, power, and manipulation. Scandal escalates to murder as Dostoevsky traces the surprising effect of this "positively beautiful man" on the people around him, leading to a final scene that is one of the most powerful in all of world literature.
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July 08, 2003
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Excerpt from The Idiot (Vintage Classics) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In late November, during a thaw, around nine in the morning, a train on the Petersburg-Warsaw railway line was approaching Petersburg at full blast. It was so damp and foggy that it had just barely grown light; within ten paces to the right and left of the rails, it was difficult to make out anything at all from the carriage windows. Among the passengers were some returning from abroad; but the third-class compartments were more crowded, mainly with common folk on business, from not too far away. As usual, everyone was tired, everyone's eyes had grown heavy in the night, everyone was chilled, all the faces were pale and yellow, matching the color of the fog.
In one of the third-class carriages, right by the window, two passengers had, from early dawn, been sitting facing one another--both were young people, both traveled light, both were unfashionably dressed, both had rather remarkable faces, and both expressed, at last, a desire to start a conversation. If they had both known, one about the other, in what way they were especially remarkable in that moment, they would naturally have wondered that chance had so strangely placed them face to face in a third-class carriage of the Warsaw-Petersburg train. One of them was a short man about twenty-seven, with almost black curly hair and small but fiery gray eyes. His nose was broad and flat, his cheekbones high; his thin lips continually curved into a sort of insolent, mocking and even malicious smile; but the high and well-shaped forehead redeemed the ignoble lines of the lower part of the face. What was particularly striking about the young man's face was its deathly pallor, which lent him an exhausted look in spite of his fairly sturdy build, and at the same time something passionate to the point of suffering, which did not harmonize with his insolent and coarse smile and his sharp and self-satisfied gaze. He was warmly dressed in a full, black, sheepskin-lined overcoat, and had not felt the cold at night, while his neighbor had been forced to endure all the pleasures of a damp Russian November night, for which he was evidently unprepared. He had a fairly thick and wide cloak with no sleeves and a huge hood, just like those frequently used by travelers in winter somewhere far abroad, in Switzerland or, for instance, Northern Italy, who do not reckon, of course, on such distances along the journey as from Eydtkuhnen1 to Petersburg. But what was entirely suitable and satisfactory in Italy turned out to be not quite fitting for Russia. The owner of the hooded cloak was a young man, also twenty-six or twenty-seven years old, somewhat above the average in height, with very fair thick hair, with sunken cheeks and a thin, pointed, almost white beard. His eyes were large, blue and intent; there was something calm, though somber, in their expression, something full of that strange look by which some can surmise epilepsy in a person at first glance. The young man's face was otherwise pleasing, delicate and lean, though colorless, and at this moment even blue with cold. From his hands dangled a meager bundle tied up in an old, faded raw-silk kerchief, which, it seemed, contained the entirety of his traveling effects. He wore thick-soled boots and spats--it was all very un-Russian. His dark-haired neighbor in the sheepskin observed all this, partly from having nothing to do, and at last, with that indelicate smile in which satisfaction at the misfortunes of others is sometimes so unceremoniously and casually expressed, he asked:
And he shuddered.
"Very," answered his neighbor, with extraordinary readiness, "and just think, it's thawing, too. What if there were a frost? I didn't even think it would be so cold at home. I've become unused to it."
"From abroad, eh?"
"Yes, from Switzerland."
"Phew! You don't say!" The dark-haired man whistled and burst into laughter.
They struck up a conversation. The readiness of the fair young man in the Swiss cloak to answer all his swarthy companion's inquiries was astonishing and without the merest suspicion of the absolute thoughtlessness, inappropriateness and idleness of some of the questions. In answering, he declared by the by that he had indeed not been in Russia for a long time, a little over four years, that he had been sent abroad on account of an illness, some kind of strange nervous illness, like epilepsy or St. Vitus's dance, resulting in trembling fits and convulsions. The swarthy man chuckled several times as he listened; and he laughed particularly when, in answer to his inquiry, "Well, have they cured you?" the fair one answered, "No, they haven't."
"Ha! You must have wasted a lot of money over it, and we believe in them over here," the swarthy man observed sarcastically.
"That's the honest truth!" interposed a badly dressed gentleman sitting beside them, a petty official type, set in his crusty scrivener's ways, about forty, powerfully built, with a red nose and pimpled face--"That's the honest truth, sir, they only absorb all the resources of Russia for nothing!"
"Oh, you are quite mistaken in my case!" the patient from Switzerland chimed in with a gentle and conciliatory voice. "Of course, I can't argue with you because I don't know all about it, but my doctor even shared his last penny with me for the journey here; and there, he supported me at his expense for nearly two years."
"Why, had you no one to pay for you?" asked the swarthy man.
"No; Mr. Pavlishchev, who used to pay for me there, died two years ago. I've since written to Generaless Epanchin, a distant relation of mine, but I've had no answer. So I've come . . ."
"Where are you going then?"
"You mean, where am I going to stay? . . . I don't rightly know yet . . . Somewhere . . ."
"You've not made up your mind yet?" And both his listeners burst out laughing again.
"And no doubt that bundle is all you've got in the world?" asked the swarthy man.
"I'm willing to bet on it," chimed in the red-nosed official with an exceptionally gleeful air, "and that he's got nothing else in the luggage van, though poverty is no vice, which, again, one mustn't neglect to note."
It turned out that this was the case, too; the fair-haired young man acknowledged it at once with extraordinary readiness.
"Your bundle has some value, anyway," the petty official went on, when they had laughed to their heart's content (remarkably, the owner of the bundle finally began to laugh himself, looking at them, which increased their mirth), "and though you could stake your head that it contains no golden rolls of foreign coin with Napoleons or Friedrichs, to say nothing of Dutch Arapchicks, which may already be concluded merely from the spats covering those foreign boots of yours, yet . . . when we add to your bundle such a purported relation as, for ex- ample, Generaless Epanchin, then even the bundle takes on a certain different significance, needless to say, but only in the case that Generaless Epanchin is really your relation and you are not mistaken, out of absentmindedness . . . which a person is very, very wont to do, if only . . . from an excess of imagination."
"Ah, you've guessed right again," the fair young man chimed in. "It really is almost a mistake, that's to say, she is almost no relation; so much so that I really was not at all surprised back then, when I got no answer there. It was what I expected."
"You simply wasted the money for the postage. Hm! . . . Anyway, you are open-hearted and sincere, which is commendable. Hm! . . . As for General Epanchin, we know him, yes sir, for, actually, he is a man everyone knows; and I used to know the late Mr. Pavlishchev, too, who paid your expenses in Switzerland, that is if it was Nikolai Andreevich Pavlishchev, for there were two of them, cousins. The other lives in the Crimea. The late Nikolai Andreevich was a worthy man and well connected, and he'd four thousand serfs in his day . . ."
"Just so, Nikolai Andreevich Pavlishchev was his name."
And having answered, the young man intently and searchingly scrutinized the know-it-all gentleman. One encounters these know-it-all gentlemen sometimes, even fairly often, in a certain well-known social sphere. They know everything. All the restless curiosity and faculties of their mind are irresistibly bent in one direction, no doubt from lack of more important ideas and interests in life, as the contemporary thinker would put it. The phrase "they know everything," by the way, must be taken to apply to a rather limited sphere: where so-and- so serves, with whom he is acquainted, the amount of his net worth, where he was governor, to whom he's married, how much his wife brought in, who are his cousins, who twice removed, etc., etc., and so on in that vein. For the most part, these know-it-alls walk about with worn-out elbows and receive a salary of seventeen rubles a month. The people of whose lives they know every last detail would be at a loss to imagine their motives. Yet, in the meantime many of them are positively consoled by this knowledge, which amounts to a complete science, and derive from it self-respect and even their highest spiritual gratification. And indeed it is a fascinating science. I have seen learned men, literary men, poets, politicians, who sought and found in that very science their greatest worldly comforts and goals, indeed, positively making their careers solely on that account. Throughout this entire conversation the swarthy young man had been yawning, looking aimlessly out of the window and impatiently expecting the end of the journey. He was somehow preoccupied, extremely preoccupied, almost agitated; he was even becoming somewhat strange: at times he would both hear and not hear, look and not look, laugh and not know or understand what he was laughing at.
"Excuse me, whom have I the honor . . ." the pimply gentleman said suddenly, addressing the fair young man with the bundle.
"Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin," replied the latter with prompt and unhesitating readiness.
"Prince Myshkin? Lev Nikolaevich? Don't know . . . Can't say I've ever heard . . ." the official responded thoughtfully. "I don't mean the
name, that is, it's a historical name, it's to be found in Karamzin's History, as it should be; I mean you personally, and indeed there are no
Prince Myshkins to be met with anywhere, one never hears of them anymore."
"I should think not," the prince answered at once, "there are no Prince Myshkins now except me; I believe I am the last of them. And as for our fathers and grandfathers, some of them had even been odnodvortsy. My father, by the way, was a sublieutenant in the army, of the Junkers. But I don't in fact know how Generaless Epanchin also wound up being of the Myshkins, also the last in her line . . ."
"He-he-he! The last in her line! He-he! What a phrase you turn," giggled the official.
The swarthy man smirked, too. The fair man was rather surprised that he had managed to make a pun, and a pretty bad one at that.
"Imagine, I said it without thinking," he explained at last, wondering.
"To be sure, to be sure you did," the official assented good-humoredly.
"So then, Prince, and you've been studying the sciences out there too, with the professor, have you?" asked the swarthy man suddenly.
"Yes . . . I was studying."
"For my part, I've never studied anything."