Prince Lef Myshkin, the protagonist, is an impoverished nobleman lately released from a Swiss sanatorium where he was treated for epilepsy. He is so free of malice and so unfailingly kind that he inspires both love and contempt in his new friends in St. Petersburg. The most important of these are Parfen Rogozhin, a man of undisciplined passions, and Natasya Filipovna, a neurotic and helpless young person, generally believed to be a “kept woman.”
Myshkin is drawn to Natasya because he recognizes both her essential innocence and her capacity for suffering. He proposes to her at their second meeting. She, however, impulsively rushes off with Rogozhin, who dramatically offers her a hundred thousand rubles for one night of love.
Through no fault of his own, Prince Myshkin becomes embroiled in several scandals. He successfully clears himself from charges of attempted fraud, then befriends the extortionist who wronged him. Returning good for evil only confirms his reputation as an idiot.
The novel ends in disaster: the murder of Natasya, prison for Rogozhin, and a return to the sanatorium with renewed attacks of epilepsy for the saintly protagonist.
Modern American readers are likely to find this story quite implausible. The point is well made, however, that a person who actually follows Christ’s teachings will seem like a fool. Other elements in this most Russian of novels that may seem incredible or obscure to Western readers can be attributed to differences in national mores or temperament.
Curle, Richard. Characters of Dostoevsky: Studies from Four Novels. London: Heinemann, 1950. A fine look at the most important Dostoevski characters of several novels, including The Idiot. Extensive quotations are followed by explanations.
Dalton, Elizabeth. Unconscious Structure in “The Idiot”: A Study in Literature and Psychoanalysis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. Contains two sections. One is on theories of psychoanalytic method in the study of literature, and the other is a demonstration of that method applied to The Idiot. Very worthwhile and interesting insights.
Jones, Malcolm V. Dostoyevsky: The Novel of Discord. London: Elek Books, 1976. Gives an overview of the complexity, chaos, and discord that are to be expected in Dostoyevski. From The Idiot, Dostoyevski’s use of psychological illness versus the ideal is explored. This serious study of Dostoyevski contains extensive notes from the text, a bibliography, and an index.
Leatherbarrow, William J. Fedor Dostoevsky. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Includes a chronology and a biographical sketch of Dostoevski. Designed for the beginner, this is an excellent guide to Dostoevski with commentary on his early work and four major novels, including The Idiot.
Miller, Robin Feuer. Dostoevsky and “The Idiot”: Author, Narrator, and Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. Includes references from Dostoevski’s notebooks for The Idiot and a general synopsis on the writing process as The Idiot took shape. A very thorough guide to The Idiot.