Strangers on a Train

by Robin Feuer Miller

Two of the most disruptive works of nineteenth century literature, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, begin with strangers meeting in a train compartment and entering into elemental conversation with each other. Confession ensues. Despite Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoy’s shared dislike of the railroads and mistrust of the simple, stop-gap “solutions” they represented to complex problems, the train compartment provided fertile literary possibilities as a random, neutral yet intimate space. Moreover, conversations could be overheard there, interpreted, remembered.  Dickens, Zola, Greene, Christie, Highsmith—numerous writers have found the space of the train to be mysterious, thrilling, darkly redolent with modern gothic potentials or with high comedy—witness the incident Ivolgin later that same day plagiarizes and ascribes to himself from The Independence Belge.

And now it is time to mark the 150th anniversary of Myshkin’s fatal encounter with Rogozhin on the train from Warsaw to St. Petersburg! These two do not, like Highsmith’s characters (rendered so powerfully in film by Hitchcock), plot to switch crimes, but the collaboration, the psychic mutuality which arises between them has equally terrible, although unintended consequences. Years later Tolstoy’s Pozdnyshev describes the act of stabbing his wife with a particularity that could gloss Rogozhin’s off-stage knifing of Nastasia Filippovna: “The moment I was doing this, I knew that I was doing something terrible. . . . having plunged the dagger into her body, I instantaneously drew it out again, anxious thereby to remedy what I had done, to stay my hand.  I then stood motionless for an instant, waiting to see what would happen, and whether it was possible to undo it.”  Pozdnyshev lives to tell his tale, and, like the ancient mariner, to tell it over and over again, including to our narrator, that stranger on the train.  Rogozhin may yet as well, yet he and Myshkin, at the time of Nastasia’s murder, are both deprived of language—one lapses into gibberish, the other into silence–intimate strangers or unwilling brothers by the side of a beloved murdered corpse, her death made even more shocking by the busy antics of a buzzing fly.  The conversation begun so easily on that early morning train had led, through good intentions run amok and chains of causality worthy of Tolstoy, to the ruin and shame of the main characters and the several families connected to them. A dark anniversary for commemoration despite the terrible beauty of Dostoevsky’s novel.

If these two, perhaps fifteen years later with Rogozhin returning from Siberia and Myshkin yet again from Switzerland, were by chance to meet in a train compartment, of what would their conversation consist?  Or would they remain silent?


Robin Feuer Miller is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities and Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University. Her most recent books include Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey (2007) and The Brothers Karamazov: The Worlds of the Novel (2008).

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