A chance encounter on the Warsaw-Petersburg train. Sounds like something from an Alfred Hitchcock film. It is true that chance encounters do occur in life, though they can be darned tricky in literature. The author wants the reader to suspend real life and enter the parallel universe of fiction. To do this, anything from the real world that slips in can trigger the reader’s recognition that this fiction – this novel – is an artifice. But Dostoyevsky can and does get away with the chance meeting between Lev Nikolayevitch Myshkin and Parfyon Rogozhin. In fact that moment of chance becomes the fateful intersection of multiple destinies which become the basis of one of his great novels – ‘The Idiot’.
Dostoyevsky had an interesting chance encounter with fate himself when, as a young man of twenty-seven years he was arrested and convicted of being a member of a socialist group. He was condemned to death and actually faced a firing squad before his sentence was commuted and he was sent to a prison in Siberia instead. His own life was one filled with suffering and pain, so it is not surprising that such themes find their way into his work. ‘Notes from Underground’ (1864), ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Idiot’, ‘The Possessed’, and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ are his most notable works.
In Myshkin he created a character that not only reflects 19th-century Russia in all its aspects, but becomes the center of that time. The other characters move around this goodly prince like the arms of a spiral constellation. ‘The Idiot’ becomes not so much a tragedy as a huge slice of life that reveals the human condition.
“Had they known about one another and why they were both at that moment remarkable, they would certainly have marveled that chance had so strangely put them opposite each other in the third-class car…” (quotations take from the Henry and Olga Carlisle translation of 1969). That’s the key to everything in life – had we only known! It is what drives people into the newspaper horoscopes or to seek a glimpse of what is to come from fortune-tellers of every stripe. If we but knew, we could have done things differently. We would have done! But we don’t know. At least, not in specific terms.
What we do know as readers, as authors, and as those who must live our lives as best we can, is that character is everything. Who we are and what we stand for shapes our future, in spite of the events we have yet to face. For that reason character in fiction is more important than plot, style, dialogue, or any other element. By subjecting a character to the action the true person is revealed. The dialogue, the conflict, the style and everything else is intended to reveal the character, and so find themselves in a lesser position. Works that are written to sweep the reader along with a strong plot are destined to be forgotten. The plot of history eventually eclipses them.
Copyright ©2011, James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.
A chance encounter between Daniel Allman and Sarah leads them on an adventure across Europe and into the shadow world that separates reality from insanity in ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ coming out in August.