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...
(The entire section is 471 words.)