(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After four years spent in Switzerland, where he was treated for epilepsy at a sanatorium, Prince Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg. On the train, the threadbare shabbiness of his clothing attracts the attention of the other passengers. One of these, Parfen Rogozhin, begins to question him. By the time they reach St. Petersburg, the prince and Rogozhin are well informed about each other, and Rogozhin offers to take the prince to his home and to give him money.

Myshkin, however, first wants to introduce himself to General Epanchin, whose wife is distantly related to him. At the Epanchin home, he meets the general and his secretary, Ganya, who invites him to become one of his mother’s boarders. The prince interests the general, who gives him some money, and fascinates the general’s wife and three daughters. His lack of sophistication, his naïveté, and his frankness charm and amuse the family. Soon they begin to call him “the idiot,” half in jest, half in earnest, but he remains on good terms with them.

Ganya, a selfish young man given to all kinds of scheming, wants to marry the beautiful Aglaya Epanchin, chiefly for her money. At the time, he is also involved in an affair with the notorious Natasya, an attractive young woman who lives under the protection of a man she does not love. Extremely emotional and neurotic, Natasya is really innocent of the sins with which she is charged. Myshkin realizes her helplessness and pities her. At a drinking party one night soon after his arrival, he asks her to marry him, saying that he received an unexpected inheritance. She refuses, declaring that she has no desire to cause his ruin. Instead she goes with Rogozhin, who brings her a hundred thousand rubles. More than ever, Natasya becomes the object of spirited controversy among the Epanchins and their circle. Myshkin alone remains unembittered and always kindhearted. Ganya and Rogozhin pour out their troubles to him, bare the sordid and shameless nature of their lives, and swear undying friendship to him. They nevertheless distrust Myshkin and plot against him. When Natasya leaves Rogozhin, he swears that he will kill “the idiot” because he is sure that Natasya fled from him because she really loves Myshkin.

Myshkin then becomes the victim of an extortion attempt. During a violent, repugnant scene, at which the Epanchins are present,...

(The entire section is 967 words.)