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The Idiot

- Fyodor Dostoyevsky


About the book:

It centres around a Prince who has returned to Russia after being treated for mental illness in Switzerland, who quickly becomes involved with a woman belonging to the upper-middle echelons of St ...(more)

Excerpt 1:    (Excerpt 2)

Though the Prince was certainly an imbecile - the lackey no longer entertained any doubts on that score - the General's employee did not deem it proper to continue a personal conversation with him; besides, he struck him as really quite likeable, in his own way, of course. For the most part, however, the lackey's feelings were mixed, but markedly inclined towards a strong and unmitigated exasperation.

"And when does the General's Lady receive visitors?" the Prince asked, resuming his former place.

"That I wouldn't know. She has no fixed hours, depends on the person. Her dressmaker may be admitted as early as eleven. Gavrila Ardalionych too is allowed in ahead of others, sometimes even for breakfast."

"You keep your rooms warmer here than is customary abroad in winter," the Prince observed. "But then it's warmer there outside, whereas indoors it's almost unbearably cold for us Russians." "Haven't they got any heating?"

"Yes they have, but the houses are built differently, I mean the windows and stoves."

"Hm! And how long have you been travelling?"

"Four years. But I stayed mainly in one place in the country."

"Do things seem strange to you here?"

"I suppose they do. You might not believe me, but it's a wonder I haven't forgotten my Russian. There I am talking to you now and I can't help feeling, 'I'm not making a bad job of it.' Maybe that's why I can't stop talking. Truly, since yesterday I've not been able to speak Russian enough."

"Hm! Hm! Did you live in St Petersburg before?" Quite despite himself the lackey found it impossible not to maintain such a cordial and agreeable conversation.

"In St Petersburg? Hardly at all, only in passing. And I knew nothing of the place before, and now there are so many new things going on that, I hear, even those who knew what it was like previously have to start all over again. There's much talk about the courts here."

"Ahem!... The courts. The courts, yes, yes, the courts. And what about over there, is there more justice in the courts, or not?"

"I don't know. I heard a lot of good things about ours. For one thing, we haven't got capital punishment."*

"And they have it over there?"

"Yes. I saw it in France, in Lyons. Schneider took me there."

"They hang them, do they?"

"No, in France they chop their heads off, as a rule."

"Do they scream?"

"Good Lord, no! It only takes a second. They lay the condemned out flat, and a broad blade - they call it a guillotine - comes down heavily, powerfully... the head flies off in the blink of an eye. The worst part is the preliminaries. When the sentence is read out, the machine is set up, the prisoner is bound, taken up the scaffold, that's the awful bit! People come running to gape, even women, though they try to discourage them from looking."

"Not the sort of thing for them!"

"No, of course not! The suffering of it all!... The condemned man I saw was an intelligent, fearless, powerful chap, getting on in years, by the name of Legros. Well, I tell you, you don't have to believe me, he was walking up the scaffold - crying, white as a candle. Is that possible? Isn't that dreadful? How can one cry from fear? It never occurred to me that anyone other than a child could cry from fear - and this a man who has never cried in his life, a man of forty-five. What was going on in his soul at the time, what torment was it being subjected to? It was being violated, there's no other word for it! It is written, 'Thou shalt not kill.' So, because he killed, he must be killed? No, that won't do. It's been a month, and I can still see it all. I've had countless dreams."

As he talked, the Prince became more animated and his pale cheeks flushed slightly, though he kept his voice down as before. The lackey observed him with compassionate interest and listened with rapt attention; he was clearly a man with imagination and a reflective mind.

"It's as well that the suffering is not so great," he remarked, "if the head is severed so quickly."

"There you've said it!" the Prince responded fervently. "Everyone makes the same observation, and the machine - the guillotine - was invented for that very purpose. But it occurred to me then - supposing it's actually worse? You may find this strange and ridiculous, but if you stop and think about it there may be something in it. Just think - torture, the resulting suffering and injuries, the pain - it's all physical, and a distraction from the mental agony. As a result, right up to the moment of death, one only has one's physical injuries to contend with. But what if the greatest pain is not in injuries, but rather in the knowledge that in an hour, in ten minutes, then in half a minute, finally now - this instant - you'll be decapitated, and that'll be the end of you as a human being, and that it's irrevocable. Irrevocable, mark you! As you put your head under the blade, and you hear the swish from above, that fraction of a second is the most terrifying of all. You know, it's not just my imagination, many people have said as much. I'm so convinced of this that I'll be frank with you. To punish murder by death is an immensely worse crime than the original murder. Death by edict is far more gruesome than normal murder. He who faces death in the dead of night on the highway, or wherever, still clings to the hope right up to the final moment that he'll survive. There have been cases when, even after a man's throat had been cut, he still didn't lose hope, but tried to escape or pleaded for mercy. Whereas here, that sweetener of death - one's last hope - is taken away in advance. The sentence has been passed, and the knowledge that it is irrevocable is the greatest torture of all, and there can be none greater in the world. Stand a soldier in front of a cannon and shoot point-blank at him, and he will continue to hope, but read out to the same soldier the irrevocable sentence of death, and he will either go out of his mind or begin to cry. Who will claim that human nature can endure such torment without loss of sanity? What is the reason for such abuse - outrageous, senseless, pointless? Perhaps there is a man who has been condemned, made to suffer, and later told, 'Go, you've been reprieved!' Perhaps such a one could provide an answer. Christ spoke of this agony and terror. No, man must not be subjected to such outrage!"

Though the lackey could not have put all this quite like the Prince, he took in most of it as was to be seen by the transformed expression on his face.

"If you really must have a smoke," he said, "I don't see why not, only if you're quick about it. You must be here when you're called. See that door under the stairs? Go through, and you'll find a boxroom on the right where you can have your smoke, only don't forget to open the window, it's against the rules..."

But the Prince was too late to have his smoke. A young man with a bunch of papers in his hand entered the antechamber. The lackey began to help him off with his fur coat. The young man looked askance at the Prince.

"This gentleman, Gavrila Ardalionych," the lackey began deferentially, but with a note of familiarity, "tells me that he is a Prince Myshkin and the Lady's relation. He has just arrived by rail from abroad and that bundle he is holding is the only..." The Prince did not hear the rest, because the lackey lowered his tone to a whisper.

More from The Idiot:    Excerpt 2

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