What distinguishes The Idiot from Dostoevsky’s other works- if the first part is worth enough to judge by- is its treatment, in the crudest form, of wealth, more specifically, the power of money. The theme of money is deeply entrenched in most of Dostoevsky’s work with the bleak perception that money is an economic factor of control, that we are defined by our possession of money, or the lack of it. But perhaps “define” is the wrong word to use. Rather, the decisions we make, the lives we lead are greatly affected or shaped by either the pursuit of wealth or the certain social triumph that accompanies the possession of wealth.
This is most clearly explored in Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov’s poverty was not only a problem of necessity, it also paralyzed what was, to his mind, his ascendancy as a member of the superior class of man, to the heights of glory achieved by heroes of history such as Napoleon. His decision to kill the old woman arose in part not so much from dire need but from an assertion of this notion that he was indeed a superior man, and could therefore transgress laws set for ordinary men. The murder was an exercise, or more accurately, a test of his ability so that the emphasis here is more on the domination of a man through his capacity for greatness rather than the potential of money to possess human greed and therefore become his driving force. For Raskolnikov, money is the vehicle for greatness, the lack of which remains an impediment to his ascension, but is not the primary motive behind his crime.
Yet even so, the clout of material wealth prevails in a world that is increasingly defined in terms of pecuniary value, so that nothing is sacred anymore; to survive one must have a source of income, crushing all old-world notions of pride and virtue, so to speak, and forcing all to succumb to this cold lifeline made of currency and property. This sacrifice of the self in exchange for material security is avidly described in Sonya and Dunya’s situations. Both surrender their freedom, bodily and otherwise, in order to support their families. Luzhin’s power over Raskolnikov’s family is solely on the basis of his role as a benefactor, and it is later this very reason that his influence is so limited.
In The Idiot, however, Dostoevsky seems to go even further. The social class that he illustrates in this novel is not marked with poverty in the same way as in Crime and Punishment. None of the characters are engulfed in the kind of decrepit poverty that has become so familiar a setting for many of Dostoevsky’s non-heroes. Yet they, to my mind, seem to be enslaved to the domain of money in a manner unprecedented by any of the previous social milieus that Dostoevsky presents to us, the acute awareness of the humiliation of poverty notwithstanding. The condition of this social class is tied to a vicious, callous consciousness of the cold, hard monetary value of a human being. The refinement of the
No character could embody this more perfectly than Nastasya Filipovna. Her situation manifests the festering moral degradation of the moneyed classes. The lascivious attention paid to her by the many men that continuously hound her is tantamount to bidding over the ownership of her body. The general guilefully offers her priceless pearls while Totsky and Rogozhin bargain over her blatantly with roubles tainted with lust. She has always, as a “kept woman,” been an owned woman. Nastasya speaks of her past with Totsky succinctly, “he kept me like a countess, money, so much money, went on me.” (pg 162) Her entire existence has been broken down into roubles and kopecks, because for Totsky, spending money on her is merely an exercise of maintenance of property.
Nastasya recognizes all too well her financial slavery to these wealthy men. She understands that so long as she remains dependent on their money, she will never truly be her own mistress, “because nothing on me is my own; if I leave, I’ll abandon everything to Totsky [him], I’ll leave every last rag, and who will take me without anything?” (pg 163)This is the marked baseness of evolved, material society; it becomes clear that the quest for material wealth dominates all spheres of life, being in the modern world of capital and investment, the soundest way to acquire power. This quest can for many men eclipse even the most instinctive impulses of human nature, such as happiness. Ganya is, until the end of Part 1, willing to sacrifice any prospects of leading a happy- not necessarily excessively prosperous- life, preparing to marry a woman he has grown to despise just so that he may obtain her dowry.
The prince remains the only man in the room who is willing to take Nastasya as a wife, despite her status as a fallen woman whose only respite lies in the significant dowry that is provided by her despised sexual abuser. Yet perhaps what drives Nastasya to the brink of insanity, is her awareness of her own hypocrisy, “I didn’t live with him for five years, but I took his money and thought I was right! I really got myself confused.” Perhaps this is where Nastasya’s guilt, despite her tempestuous defiance of societal condemnation, stems from- the fact that despite her raging hatred for them, she is still consciously shackled by her financial dependence on these men who seek to own her.
Perhaps this is partly why she chooses, instead of marrying the Prince and sharing in his new-found inheritance and an aristocratic title, to run off with Rogozhin. She senses in the Prince that she has “seen a man for the first time” in that his intentions are pure (inasmuch that they are devoid of any worldly interest. His affinity for suffering and his subsequent need to be moved by compassion are not driven from lust or selfishness in the literal sense of the word). Yet perhaps she considers any decision to marry the prince to be a perpetuation of the same prison of financial dominion- in other words, the prince may have been the answer to her dreams, but she would still be buying her freedom. This she cannot bear, and therefore chooses Rogozhin, because his crude and vulgar offer of a hundred thousand roubles for a night with her, payment up front, is at least honest in its gaping, hideous perversion. There is no facade here, no concealing the despicable truth, no false offerings of propriety garnished with amenable refinement. And this, at least, is bearable precisely because there is no hypocrisy involved.
As Nastasya flings the package of rouble notes into the fire, it is almost a metaphorical act, a ritual, to cleanse herself of the filth of money, to break free from the vice-like grip of the worldly, as much as it is an act of contempt aimed as an insult and test for her enemies. Nastasya, therefore, acts against her own prospects for happiness. This conscious act against her self- interest hearkens back to the notions of desire, freedom through the assertion of self-will that is almost masochistic, that is explored at length by the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground. Nastasya makes a conscious decision to reject the Prince’s proposal and instead run away with Rogozhin, inflicting suffering on herself as a demonstration that she can choose, that she is not shackled by any constraints and acts on free will, exactly the same notion that, so he claims, spurs the Underground Man to choose to harm himself.
This however propels Nastasya to new levels of despair and suffering, because there is no contentment in her decision to come away with Rozoghin, because although he loves her with twisted passion, she is driven to run away out of fear of her feelings for the Prince, so that by damning herself by running away with a man like Rogozhin, she is actually keeping herself safe from the more painful possibility of her failure to fulfill the expectations of the one person who matters the most to her. In this way, her actions are a testament to the Underground Man’s retreat into the abyss of his cellar; it is both an escape from fear of action and an assertion of mastery of fate, so very similar to Nastasya’s continual assertions that “I am my own mistress.”