Those who frequent my blog know that I consider The Idiot to be Dostoyevsky's most moving novel. The extraordinary personality of the main hero, Prince Mychkin, cannot leave anyone indifferent. His "idiocy" is a kind of divine wisdom wrapped in a remarkable clumsiness and a disarming humility. Several "stories within a story", those "Russian dolls" that I wrote about recently, shed light on the deep springs of this quasi-Christic figure.
Let us begin with a double narrative in which Mychkin speaks about the feelings that a person sentenced to death experiences in his last moments. The first one can be found at the beginning of the novel (Book 1, II). Mychkin has just arrived in St. Petersburg. He is waiting in the lobby of the home of General Epantchine, whose wife is a distant relative of the prince. He enters into conversation with the servant who opened the door. They begin talking about the death penalty, which had been abolished in Russia. But the prince has come from abroad. The servant asks: “Does it exist over there?’ – ‘Yes, I saw an execution in France, at Lyons’ (…) – ‘By going to the gallows?” – ‘No, they always cut off people’s heads in France.’ – ‘What did the fellow do? yell?’ – ‘What do you think? It’s lasts a split second. They put a man inside a frame and a sort of broad knife falls by machinery - they call the thing a guillotine - it falls with fearful force and weight - the head springs off so quickly that you can’t wink your eye in between. But all the preparations are so dreadful. When they announce the sentence, you know, and prepare the criminal and tie his hands, and cart him off to the scaffold - that’s the fearful part of the business.”(*)
In the rest of the narrative Mychkin's attention is fully focused on what the condemned person experiences and feels. “…when that man stepped upon the scaffold he cried - he did indeed, - he was as white as a bit of paper. Isn’t it a dreadful idea that he should have cried…” The servant replies: “Well, in any case it is a good thing that there’s no pain when the poor fellow’s head flies off”. But Mychkin goes on: “you made that remark now, and everyone says the same thing, and the machine is designed with the purpose of avoiding pain, this guillotine I mean; but a thought came into my head then: what if it be a bad plan after all? (…) Now with the rack and tortures and so on - you suffer terrible pain of course; but then your torture is bodily pain only (although no doubt you have plenty of that) until you die. But here I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all - but the certain knowledge that in an hour,- then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now - this very instant - your soul must quit your body (…) and that this is certain, certain! That’s the point – the certainty of it. Just that instant when you place your head on the block and hear the iron grate over your head – then - that quarter of a second is the most awful of all.”
Then, Mychkin does not hesitate to assert that: “I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. (…) The man who is attacked by robbers at night, in a dark wood, or anywhere, undoubtedly hopes and hopes that he may yet escape until the very moment of his death (…) But in the case of an execution, that last hope - having which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die, is taken away from the wretch and certainty substituted in its place!”
Moments later, Mychkin is in the Epantchines’ parlor. His relative, Elizaveta Prokofievna, and especially her three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaide and Aglaïa, badger him with questions. Mychkin begins to speak about a man who “had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted” (Book 1, V). One should remember that Dostoevsky himself, sentenced to death for his participation, albeit minor, in the revolutionary circle of Mikhail Petrachevsky, was the object of a mock execution. It was announced that their sentence had been commuted while the firing squad was already taking aim. An event that would make an indelible impression on him.
Now Mychkin, continuing his narrative, emphasizes the terrible trial experienced by the man during the minutes that elapsed between the proclamation of the verdict and the announcement of the commutation. “Twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die (…) He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience (...) He seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions - one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around (…) He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? (…) The repugnance to what must ensue almost immediately, and the uncertainty, were dreadful, he said; but worst of all was the idea, ‘What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!’ He said that this thought weighed so upon him and became such a terrible burden upon his brain that he could not bear it, and wished they would shoot him quickly and have done with it.”
The prince interrupts his narrative and Alexandra, the elder daughter, interjects: “You probably wish to deduce (…) that sometimes five minutes are worth priceless treasures. All this is very praiseworthy; but may I ask about this friend of yours, who told you the terrible experience of his life? He was reprieved, you say; in other words, they did restore to him that ‘eternity of days.’ What did he do with these riches of time? Did he keep careful account of his minutes? – Oh no, he didn’t! I asked him myself. He said that he had not lived a bit as he had intended, and had wasted many, and many a minute...”
Then the conversation continues. Although Adelaide asks him to suggest a subject for a painting, Mychkin resumes the account of the execution by guillotine, insisting even more on what is going on in the mind of the condemned: “… the brain is especially active, and works incessantly - probably hard, hard, hard - like an engine at full pressure. I imagine that various thoughts must beat loud and fast through his head - all unfinished ones, and strange, funny thoughts, very likely! - like this, for instance: ‘That man is looking at me, and he has a wart on his forehead! and the executioner has burst one of his buttons, and the lowest one is all rusty!’ And meanwhile he notices and remembers everything. There is one point that cannot be forgotten, round which everything else dances and turns about; and because of this point he cannot faint, and this lasts until the very final quarter of a second, when the wretched neck is on the block and the victim listens and waits and knows - that’s the point, he knows that he is just now about to die, and listens for the rasp of the iron over his head.”
What is Dostoevsky trying to tell us with these "stories in a story"? First of all, and undoubtedly, he is saying something to us about himself and the terrible experience which he had to endure himself. But also, and above all, he is shedding light on the personality of his hero, Prince Mychkin, a man capable of true and profound compassion, a man vulnerable to the extreme, incapable of condemning and ready to give his life to save the one who is lost, a man of reconciliation and forgiveness. In short, a man in the image of Christ.
Another time I will tell about other "stories in a story" that abound in The Idiot, but that's enough for now.
(*) All the quotations from The Idiot are taken from the English translation of Eva Martin, eBook on www.gutenberg.org