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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

To St. Petersberg

The novel opens on a train ride in which Prince Myshkin, the title character, Rogozhin, and Lebedyev all head to St. Petersberg. Myshkin is traveling from Switzerland and is trying to located a distant relative who has since married into the Epanchin family. Myshkin shows up at the Epanchin home apparently inappropriately dressed as a guest in this residence and gets into a discussion with a servant about Russia's new judicial system and capital punishment.

Prince recalls witnessing a man being guillotined in France. In talking about the man's final moments, Dostoevsky is recalling his own death sentence that was later commuted. He describes how grief-stricken the man is crying uncontrollably and how his final moments are worse than torture because one knows the hour one will die and there is no hope. In other instances of possible death, there is always hope but when one is given a sentence of death, the final hours are more agonizing than anything imaginable.

To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute. There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut. But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain. There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape, and there is no torture in the world more terrible. (Part I , chapter 2)

As will be evident later, Myshkin places a strong emphasis on the element of hope.  He has a unique ability to empathize with others and show pity.  Myshkin acknowledges that there may be a man sentenced to death that is later told that he may go (as was Dostoevsky), but the convict is submitted to another that must make that decision and can in no way influence that decision. For this reason, Myshkin praises Russia for having no capital punishment. Dostoevsky will continue to return to this issue of a man suffering.

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