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, he successfully refutes the charge that he deprived Rogozhin’s supposed illegitimate son of his rightful inheritance. Having proved that the individual who sought the money is not the illegitimate son, he then offers to give money to the extortionist and to become his friend. This action disgusts Madame Epanchin, who considers the prince more of an idiot than ever.
Meanwhile, Aglaya falls in love with Myshkin, but she continues to treat him scornfully and at first refuses to admit that she is in love with him. When her true feelings at last become apparent, Madame Epanchin gives reluctant consent to their betrothal and plans an evening party to introduce Myshkin to St. Petersburg society. Worried lest he should commit some social blunder, she and her daughter advise him to sit quietly and to say nothing during the evening. At the party, however, Madame Epanchin herself draws out the prince, so that he is soon launched on one of his wild and peculiar conversations. The staid, conservative guests are astounded. In the midst of the discussion, he knocks over a huge and priceless vase, then stares at the debris like “an idiot.” A few minutes later, he falls into an epileptic fit and has to be carried...
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to his home. Several days afterward, the Epanchins are cold to him, but Madame Epanchin finally relents and invites him to their home once more.
In the meantime, Aglaya corresponds with Natasya, and a friendship strangely develops between them. One evening Aglaya asks Myshkin to go with her to see Natasya. In Natasya’s apartment a hectic and turbulent argument develops, so that the two women show their anger and bitterness against each other. Aglaya, for the first time, reveals fully her love for Myshkin. During the argument, Natasya faints. When Myshkin rushes to her aid, Aglaya considers herself rejected and angrily leaves the house. The scene between the two women becomes a scandal, and the Epanchins bar their home to Myshkin. Natasya agrees to marry him and makes preparations for the wedding. On the day of the wedding, however, while Myshkin waits at the church, Natasya flees with Rogozhin, still haunted by her own helplessness and his terrible possessiveness.
Myshkin receives the news calmly. Although there are many who laugh at “the idiot,” there are some who are sorry for him when he attempts to discover Natasya’s whereabouts. He leaves the village where the ceremony is to have been performed and goes to the city. There he inquires among Natasya’s acquaintances, but nobody knows where she is. Finally he goes to Rogozhin’s apartment and learns from a porter that Rogozhin slept there the previous night. Myshkin continues his search, convinced that Rogozhin will kill him if he can. Rogozhin, however, stops Myshkin on the street and takes him to the apartment where he finds Natasya lying on the bed. Rogozhin killed her.
Filled with compassion for the miserable Rogozhin, Myshkin spends that night with the body of Natasya and her murderer. At daybreak Natasya’s worried friends and the police break into the apartment. Rogozhin confesses to the murder. Myshkin is questioned by the police, but he is not implicated in the crime. He is sent back to the sanatorium in Switzerland where he is visited, from time to time, by the Epanchin family and other friends. There is little hope that he will ever recover from his epilepsy.