Saturday, 28 June 2014

Nastasya Filippovna: A Woman Scorned

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 affect 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. Even the Prince, who at first we may believe is not inclined to notice sensuality of women, is overwhelmed by her great beauty. 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 12, 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 ³Totskian² 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 is 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 she could have worked out such precise formulations for herself (44).
It is his"new" and resentful woman with whom Totsky must deal now. Totsky finds him self 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 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 under estimation 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).
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 her self-respect.

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