The Idiot-the strongest female characters

The idiot novel

Of the many characters we see in Dostoyevsky’s novels, few of the principal characters are female.  However, in one of his more famous novels, The Idiot, we find perhaps one of the strongest female characters of most nineteenth-century literature, if not of Europe, then at least of Russia.  Nastasya Filippovna, a proud, yet exploited woman, is by far one of Dostoyevsky’s most intriguing characters.  She has an instantaneous and dramatic effect on the characters surrounding her.  Nastasya Filippovna has been systematically destroyed by her surroundings.  She finds she is unable to survive in the society of her time.  Valued by men only for her beauty or her possessions, feared by jealous women, Nastasya Filippovna succumbs to insanity and finally, her own murder.  Believing herself to be guilty and in need of punishment and purification, Nastasya Filippovna fights yet, finally, submits herself to destructive forces that surround her.

Nastasya Filippovna, defined by her sensual beauty and remarkable looks, is already mentioned by page ten.  Her presence remains strong throughout Book One and we may learn a great deal from this section about the proud Nastasya Filippovna.  The most dominant feature of Nastasya Filippovna is her beauty.  Her great beauty overwhelms even the Prince, who at first we may believe is not inclined to notice sensuality of women.  Looking at her picture he calls her “astonishingly pretty”; he notes her “exquisite simplicity,” her “dark, deep eyes” (31).  Even from her youth Nastasya Filippovna’s beauty has caused her to become the object of men’s sexual desires.  There are three men who are particularly dominant in Nastasya Filippovna’s life prior to the arrival of the Prince: Afansy Ivanovich Totsky, Gavrila Ardalionovich (Ganya), and Parfion Semyyonovich Rogozhin.

Totsky is the first of the three men to become enchanted with Nastasya Filippovna.  Living on Totsky’s land with a German family, the orphaned Nastasya Filippovna developed into a “delightful little girl of about twelve, a clever little thing, winsome and spirited”(42).  Apparently she was also already showing “promise of extraordinary beauty; in this regard Afansy Ivanovich was an infallible judge”(42).  Around sixteen, she was moved into her own home, “[a] fortnight later Afansy Ivanovich himself came visiting…After that he seemed to develop a particular fondness for this remote, steppe-land hamlet of his…”(43).  It appears Totsky engaged himself in an affair with her, taking from her her childhood, her innocence, and her self-respect.  In a society in which female virginity prior to marriage and the chaste life is prized, Nastasya Filippovna has already been robbed of the decision to take control of her own sexuality.

It is this first sexual encounter that has fueled the intense self-destructive activities of Nastasya Filippovna.  Resting quietly for four years, the young girl becomes a woman.  Upon hearing a rumor that Totsky is to be married, the fierce fury of Nastasya Filippovna is wakened.  Up until this point we have accepted the Totskian version of who Nastasya Filippovna is.  However, like Totsky, we find Nastasya Filippovna is no longer a girl, but

[a]ll of a sudden she exhibited unusual resolution and a most unexpected strength of character.  Without the slightest hesitation, she abandoned her little country house and suddenly appeared in Petersburg all on her own,

and went straight to Totsky. (43)

 

To Totsky, who probably never thought to speak to Nastasya Filippovna in her own terms, this change would indeed be sudden.  His condescension and objectification of Nastasya Filippovna are apparent in his treatment and his expectations of her emotional, intellectual, and mental capacities.  He found in front of his a “new” woman. A woman who:

… knew and comprehended a great deal, so much in fact, that it was a

matter of profound astonishment whence such knowledge could

have proceeded and how could she have worked out such precise

formulations for herself (44).

 

It is his “new” and resentful woman with whom Totsky must deal now.  Totsky finds himself face to face with a young woman who he thought he had tailored so well to fit society.  A “new woman [that] declared that she was perfectly indifferent whether, when, or whom he married, but that she had to come to prevent this union out of sheer spite, for the sole reason that she felt like it” (44).  Nastasya Filippovna is indeed resentful of Totsky’s underestimation of her intellect and her emotions.  She resents his exploitation of her sexuality and the objectification of her femininity.  Her bitterness is evident in her violent verbal attacks on him.  Nastasya Filippovna will not allow this man to feel justified nor will she free him from his guilt.  She will prevent this marriage “if only so that [she] can laugh at [him] to [her] heart’s content, because now [she] wants to laugh as well” (44).

Nastasya Filippovna has been so fueled by the intense feelings of worthlessness and contempt for Totsky that she has arrived at the point of not caring about anything

least of all herself…Nastasya Filippovna was quite capable of ruining

herself scandalously and irrevocably, risking hard labor in Siberia, just

so long as she could jeer at this man for whom she harboured so inhuman

and aversion (47).

 

How Nastasya Filippovna had accumulated so much resentment

Nastasya Filippovna had accumulated so much resentment, hatred, and anger against the man who took her virginity, apparently against her best interests and before she could have been emotionally ready for such relations; he, an old man, and she, a young girl just beginning to experience life.  The match was far from perfect.  Upon her return to Petersburg, Totsky is struck, yet again, by Nastasya Filippovna’s beauty and “seduced by the novelty of the situation, thought he might exploit this woman once more”(46).  Nastasya Filippovna attaches herself to Totsky, not living with him, but preventing him from living any other life.  Allowing him to pay for her comforts, yet without allowing herself to “succumb to any financial inducements…no matter how large”(47).  Nastasya Filippovna is able to control Totsky at the same time she is able to maintain what is left of her pride and self-respect.

Totsky, tired and desperate, unable to cope with the fierce woman tries to “buy” her off.  He sends her “prospectful” lovers or possible husbands.  Finally, he speaks to her in honest, rational tones, having failed previously, and finds her receptive to his words.  Finding none of her “former hostility and hatred, the laughter which sent cold shivers up Totsky’s spine” Totsky was able to convince her to choose someone to marry.  He seemed surprised that she was “glad to be able to talk to someone amicably and frankly”(50).  Is it any wonder that a woman, who has shut herself off from society and has been shut off by society, should not be pleased to be spoken to with respect? It is ironic that Totsky, who feels he knows so much about women, never thought of treating Nastasya Filippovna in the manner in which she wished to be treated: with respect, honesty, free from seductions and trickery.

It is after this honest and reviving talk with Trotsky that Nastasya Filippovna decides she could marry Gavrila Ardalionivich.  Nastasya Filippovna tries very hard to make a new life for herself and enter into the world again as a lady.  Her pride in herself will not allow her to remain a kept woman.  Her mental attitude takes a change for the better.  She laughs and “confesses that at all events her stormy scenes were a thing of the past … she would like to renew herself”(50).  She even comes to terms with her past with Totsky and “didn’t regard herself as guilty of anything” (51).  As long as the family did not have any “reservations” about allowing her into their family and knew that “if she were receiving money now, it was certainly not as payment for her maidenly shame, in which she was blameless, but simply as a recompose for her ruined life”(51).  Nastasya Filippovna’s pride allows her renewal to take place.

However, Nastasya Filippovna is faced with learning that:

Ganya was marrying her for her money, and that he was a blackguard –

envious, intolerant, and vicious, a monster of self-regard; that formerly

Ganya sought to conquer Nastasya Filippovna, but when the two friends

had made up their minds to exploit this reciprocal passion for their own

ends and buy Ganya by selling him Nastasya Filippovna as his lawful

wedded wife, he had conceived a poisonous hatred for her.  Passion and

hatred seemed strangely intermingled in his heart, and although he agreed

in the end … to marry the awful woman, he swore in his heart to reek

bitter revenge on her for it and “make her smart” (52).

 

How could she face up against this personal insult to everything she was trying to do?  She has been blamed for having an affair against her will, what our modern minds would term child abuse.  She has been blamed for Ganya’s hatred against her, blamed for “making” him want to marry her.  She had nearly allied herself to a man who would most likely think twice about beating her.

Nastasya Filippovna has enough personal pride and indignation to not allow Ganya the satisfaction of being able to take such advantage of her, whether she believed to be a “wanton woman” or not.  Balancing delicately on the edge of sanity and self-destruction, Nastasya Filippovna is losing faith in mankind.  Her trust is rejected and her honesty regarded as lies.  Yet again objectified by a man, reduced into sensuality and capital, Nastasya Filippovna’s identity is taken from her and she is, as of yet, unable to take control of her life.

The first time Nastasya Filippovna is actually seen in the novel is not until the end of Chapter Eight in Part One.  Her presence at Ganya’s is unexpected and arouses a great deal of activity.  From her first entrance, we see that she has undergone some changes since the milder, forgiving Nastasya Filippovna at the end of Chapter Four.  Her eyes “flashed in annoyance” at the sight of the Prince, not knowing whom he was, presuming him to be a servant, “flung” her coat at him (107).  This startling and unusual entrance allows the reader to see Nastasya Filippovna at the height of her pride, the pinnacle of her haughty behavior.  Her tone is harsh and condescending, she commands respect, almost to the point of fear.  She has a regal presence that immediately captures our attention.

This scene reveals a great deal about Nastasya Filippovna’s apparently free laugh and haughty attitude.  We learn that she “laughed in fact, and hid her feelings beneath a show of good humor” (107).  Rejected by Ganya’s mother and sister, Nastasya Filippovna makes little attempt to make them feel comfortable in her presence.  Their coldness towards her “seemed only to intensify her gaiety”(114).  Nastasya Filippovna laughs “hysterically” and “continued laughing”(122), even during Rogozhin’s attempt at “purchasing” her.  Nastasya Filippovna makes no false pretense about whom she likes or not.  She asks questions then does not wait for the response, cutting off the speaker, making them feel small and ridiculous.  Her laughing, almost to the point of wild and insane, is prominent, particularly in this section.

In addition to this untimely, rather odd laughter, we notice how Nastasya Filippovna interacts with those around her.  She questions “mercilessly”(118), she uses a “taunting, imperious stare”(121), “seats herself (without invitation)”(109), and exhibits dominant behavior toward Ganya.  These characteristics would be frightening, yet as readers we know that there is more to this woman than the cynical, harsh speech and inappropriate laughter.  She is just not cold; she is in pain.  It is not until the climax of the scene that we find that there is more to Nastasya Filippovna than what we have previously read.

Rogozhin’s entrance onto the scene at Ganya’s

Rogozhin’s entrance onto the scene at Ganya’s creates an even bigger stir that Nastasya Filippovna’s presence.  Rogozhin, determined to win Nastasya Filippovna, starts to bargain for her, starting with fifteen thousand roubles, then offering forty thousand, and finally one hundred thousand.  All throughout the scene we see Nastasya Filippovna’s laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, almost as if she cannot believe the situation.  As the scene gets more and more out of control, Ganya’s sister, Varya, shouts, “Isn’t there one among you to take this shameless woman out of here?”(123).  In the midst of the frenzy, the Prince steps into a violent situation and receives a slap from Ganya intended for Varya.  Nastasya Filippovna:

taken aback, both by Ganya’s action and the prince’s reply.  Her

normally pale and pensive face, which all along had seemed out of

keeping with her affected laughter was now clearly stirred by a new

emotion; she appeared reluctant to betray it, however, and the mocking

expression seemed determined to cling to her features (124).

 

It is the Prince’s selfless action that is able to draw out some of the true Nastasya Filippovna.  It is in the face of truly Christ-like actions that Nastasya Filippovna’s façade lifts and reveals a warm, living woman, who is “not really like this” (125).  At this point in the novel we feel that maybe there is still some hope for Nastasya Filippovna; that perhaps she will be able to find her self-respect.

The next time we see Nastasya Filippovna is in her own home on the night of her birthday.  There is a soiree in her apartment, that, although “magnificently appointed … [is] not excessively large”(144).  Nastasya Filippovna seems to have been able to maintain a balance in her lifestyle, for although she lives in luxury she has not “succumbed” to it.  This suggests that the sensuality associated with her character is a false one, placed on her by the other character’s interpretations of her.  In the setting of her home, Nastasya Filippovna displays irrational, highly emotional and erratic behavior.  She is drinking wine and has “oddly, brusque, rapid outbursts.” She is:

convulsed by fits of laughter … her dark eyes glitter and two red spots had appeared on her ashen cheeks.  The glum squeamish air of some of her guests appeared to inflame her mood of mischief.  Perhaps it was the cynicism and cruelty of the game that appealed to her (152).

 

Yet even in the midst of this madness, Nastasya Filippovna seems to find her peace in her home more than when we saw her in Ganya’s.  She knows she is in “control” of the moment and is not fighting for domination so much in the more relaxing atmosphere.

We learn that “Nastasya Filippovna … for some reason was inordinately fond of eccentric old men and women, even including holy fools”(149).  We have studied Dostoyevsky enough to know that a woman who can love holy fools must be at the heart truly good, for to love a holy fool means to love the very nature which Christ would bless; child-like belief and innocence.  It also helps us to see the pits into which Nastasya Filippovna has fallen.  It seems as though Nastasya Filippovna is jealous of the innocent ones, wishes to be a child and envies the freedom of the “holy fools,” for people are often drawn to those who have characteristics opposite to our own.

Almost parallel to the scene at Ganya’s home, Rogozhin makes an unexpected appearance with the hundred thousand roubles he promised for Nastasya Filippovna.  It is possible to imagine the indignation, the shock, the hurt, and the disbelief Nastasya Filippovna must have felt at the appearance of such a presumptuous and insulting offer.  It is no wonder that she begins yet again the vicious downfall back into despair and perhaps even insanity.  Her self-destructive behavior is not recognized by many of the characters as a result of this insult, but most likely that a woman such as she should expect such a thing to occur and has brought her destruction upon herself.  Because Rogozhin even offers the money, Nastasya Filippovna starts to call herself “Rogozhin’s woman.”  Recognizing how men have prostituted her, she resigns herself and accepts the “role” that society has given her.

In the usual kind of chaotic scene that seems to surround her, Nastasya Filippovna leaves Ganya, taking the advice of the Prince, is proposed to by the Prince, accepts him, rejects him, and then accepts Rogozhin.

Either have a fling with Rogozhin or become a washerwoman tomorrow!

Because I’ve got nothing of my own, when I go, I’ll leave everything of

his, the very last rag, and who will take me without anything …(173).

 

In the final act of her self destruction, as mistress of her own life, Nastasya Filippovna realizes that society has not left a woman such as her to place in life.  Upon the discovery that the Prince had come into an inheritance, Nastasya Filippovna seems to undergo some sort of odd transformation.  Her deterioration began from this point, “everyone affirmed later that Nastasya Filippovna became deranged from that very instant.”

In a fit of what seems to be insanity, Nastasya rages; spouting off a long, angry monologue.  Revealing that she has dreamt of someone like the Prince showing up and telling her “you’re not to blame, Nastasya Filippovna, and I adore you!”  The hopelessness of it sinks in when she cries out “you can go crazy, dreaming away like that”(181).  The money of Rogozhin’s has insulted her, the proposal of the Prince has upset her beyond measure, for it is what she would most desire in the world yet cannot accept it.  She feels as though she, a corrupt woman would “ruin a babe-in-arms like that.”(179).  At the culmination of Part One, Nastasya Filippovna takes the pile of money and throws it into the fire, daring any of the men to be weak enough to pick it out.  She has been left few alternatives.  She resigns and rather than trying to resist anymore she lives according to the expectations society has for her, rejecting herself, her pride, and even her life.  Not allowing herself the life she most desires due to her feelings of inadequacy and corruption, Nastasya chooses the life of destructive punishment, the purifying fire.  Convinced of her own guilt, she has submitted herself to Rogozhin and, ultimately, her own death.

From the beginning of Part One, Nastasya Filippovna appears to be a fascinating, wild creature that is rebelling against the “natural” role of woman for her time.  The shock and scandal that seems to surround her exploits suggests that her actions are not within the confines of her “role.”  However, the more we come to know her the more we see that she has been exploited by society of the time and the men that surround her and desire to possess her.  Unable to stand up under the destructive forces that surrounded her, the strongest, most promising character was reduced to insanity by Dostoyevsky.  It seems that he may sympathize with her situation, given the use of word choice we have seen, and even some of the ironic, yet sad depiction of a young girl violated.  She has been refused her own identity and “renounces the world … she has almost ceased to exist and she knows it”(480).  Nastasya Filippovna must die to escape the tragic and unjust plight of a woman scorned.


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