“The Idiot” is a novel in four parts written by the famed Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was originally published in serial form in “The Russian Messenger” from 1868 to 1869. The title is a reference to the main character of the novel and his general good nature and open-mind which lead many of the more jaded characters to think that he is an idiot.
The main character, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin meets a woman named Nastassya on a train when he is returning from staying in a sanatorium to treat his epilepsy. Nastassya is a very beautiful woman who has many suitors, including Myshkin’s friend, Rogozhin. But rather than love her at first sight, Myshkin feels pity for Nastassya. He spends the novel attempting to convince her to marry him so that he can take care of her. Unfortunately in doing so he loses all sight of the more sincere, Aglaya who he actually is in love with and who wishes to marry him.
In the end, Myshkin ends things with Aglaya and plans a wedding with Nastassya but at the last minute the bride runs away with Rogozhin only to be killed by him hours later. Myshkin ends up returning to the sanatorium but this time it is because he has gone insane.
The novel is considered a classic of not only Russian, but worldwide literature today. It has been adapted many times into plays, films and mini-series.
The novel begins with Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin riding a train to Saint Petersburg. Myshkin is a young man and one of the descendants of a long line of Russian nobility. For the past four years he has been staying in a Swiss clinic to treat his epileptic condition. On the trip home, Myshkin meets a man named Rogozhin Semyonovich Rogozhin, a merchant who immediately exhibits a passionate energy that Myshkin finds captivating.
Also on the train is the beautiful Nastassya Filippovna with whom Rogozhin is in love. Rogozhin’s father has recently passed away and left him a large inheritance. He plans to use it to court Nastassya. With them is a civil servant named Lebedyev, a friend of Rogozhin’s who attaches himself to the man for his money. Lebedyev has an enormous knowledge of social gossip and Myshkin thinks of him as being “omniscient”.
Myshkin is setting out on the trip to visit a distant relative, Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin. Myshkin is not only to introduce himself to this relative that he has never met before, but to make a business proposition to her husband, General Yepachin. When Myshkin arrives at the house he is instructed to wait and, much to the surprise of the family servant, strikes up a conversation with the servant about the horrors of capital punishment.
While waiting, Myshkin also meets Ganya, the General’s grasping and self aggrandizing assistant. The General and his aristocratic business partner Totsky are trying to arrange a meeting between Ganya and Nastassya. Nastassya is the former ward of Totsky who was given her own home by him at the age of sixteen and in exchange he treated her as his mistress. Now that she is an adult, Nastassya has informed Totsky that he needs to marry her to make an honest woman of her. Now, Totsky is trying to get Nastassya to marry Ganya so that he, himself will be free to marry the General’s oldest daughter. The General has promised him 75,000 rubles to marry Alexandra.
Nastassya does not think that Ganya’s family approves of her and she has not yet given a decision but has promised to give one that evening at her birthday party. Ganya and the General discuss Nastassya in front of Myshkin. He warns them of Rogozhin’s interest in Nastassya. Ganya asks if he think that Rogozhin would want to marry her. Myshkin replies that he might marry her but then kill her a week later.
Myshkin meets his distant relative, Lizaveta and her three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida and Aglaya. Aglaya is reported to be the most beautiful of the three. Myshkin talks with the three women, all of whom are very engaging and opinionated. At their request he tells them about his time living in Switzerland and his love for a woman named Marie who was a friend that was seduced and then subsequently abandoned by a traveling merchant. Marie was then condemned by her entire village. Myshkin feels that he only felt a great pity for Marie but everyone believed that he was in love with her.
Myshkin rents a room nearby in the same building that Ganya lives with his family. Ganya’s family does not approve of Nastassya and Ganya’s possible engagement to her. That evening, Nastassya surprises the family with a visit. Ganya is shocked by her sudden appearance and Nastassya laughs at his surprise which only makes Ganya begin to get angry.
Fearing an altercation, Myshkin intervenes and diverts Ganya’s anger toward himself. This tense situation is compounded by Rogozhin’s arrival with a crowd of rowdy drunks. Seeing Nastassya, Rogozhin begins trying to woo her, offering her one hundred thousand rubles to marry him. Ganya’s sister, Varya insults Nastassya and Ganya violently grabs her arm. Varya spits in his face as and Nastassya cheers. Ganya is about to slap her when Myshkin jumps in and Ganya instead slaps him.
Shock steals over the crowd. Nastassya tries to retain her sarcastic tone but Myshkin stops her by telling her that that is not who she is. Nastassya apologizes to Ganya’s mother and takes her leave. Rogozhin and his group leave to find their hundred thousand rubles. That evening at Nastassya’s birthday party, she plans to announce who she intends to marry. Getting angry at the dull games, Nastassya turns to Myshkin and demands that he tell her if she should marry Ganya. Myshkin advises her not to. Nastassya reports that she is going to follow his advice and the General, Ganya and Totsky are furious.
Rogozhin and his group suddenly arrive having amazingly gathered the money. Nastassya decides that she is going to leave with him in order to humiliate Totsky. Instead, Myshkin offers to marry her himself. He speaks gently and informs her that he will soon be receiving a large inheritance. Nastassya is surprised and somewhat touched by the offer. But she still chooses to leave with Rogozhin after throwing the money into the fire and telling Ganya that he is welcome to get it out if he wishes. Nastassya and Rogozhin leave together and Myshkin follows them.
Six months pass. Nastassya is still pursued by both Myshkin and Rogozhin. She is torn between the gentle, loving Myshkin and the dark, tormented Rogozhin. Myshkin is in love with her and he is tortured by her indecision only because he feels that she is suffering. Rogozhin is also tortured but his anguish is over Nastassya’s love for Myshkin.
Myshkin meets with Rogozhin at his house and is horrified to hear Rogozhin admit to beating Nastassya in a jealous rage. Though they leave on good terms, Myshkin wonders the streets for several hours, troubled. He begins to feel as though Rogozhin is watching him and when he returns to his hotel, Rogozhin leaps out of a stairwell and attacks him with a knife. Myshkin has an epileptic seizure at the same moment and Rogozhin flees in fear.
Myshkin recovers from the seizure on his own. He later goes to the resort town of Pavlovsk to join Lebedyev, whom he is renting a dacha from. Nastassya is also in town as are the General and his family. With the General is his friend, Yevgeny Pavlovich Radomsky, a former military officer who has recently retired from the service who is interested in marrying the General’s youngest daughter. However, Aglaya, the daughter, is interested in Myshkin, much to his own embarrassment.
Myshkin’s visit with the General’s family is interrupted when a man named Burdovsky and his friends arrive. Burdovsky informs Myshkin that he is the illegitimate son of Myshkin’s former benefactor, Pavlishchev who has recently died. Burdovsky demands money from Myshkin as a reimbursement for Pavlishchev’s support of him. But the groups argument is destroyed when Ganya tells them that he has been researching the matter and that Burdovsky’s claim is false. Myshkin kindly tries to offer Burdovsky support anyway but Lizaveta is so disgusted by the lie that she attacks the men, seizing a man named Ippolit by the arm.
Ippolit coughs and informs them that he is near death. He tells them a story about his life that moves Lizaveta almost to tears. But just as Lizaveta and Myshkin are discussing what they can do for the dying man, Ippolit suddenly launches into a torrent of insults at both of them and leaves with the other men, including Burdovsky. The General and his family leave as well, with Lizaveta and Aglaya angered and upset with Myshkin. Only Radomsky smiles at Myshkin as he leaves.
Just then, a richly appointed carriage pulls up and Nastassya calls out to Radomsky. She seems to be familiar with him and tells him not to worry about his I.O.U.s since Rogozhin has bought them. Nastassya leaves and Radomsky appears to be shocked. He confesses to Myshkin that he has no idea what she was talking about.
The General Lizaveta are angry with Myshkin for three days following the incident with Burdovsky. Myshkin wonders about Nastassya’s claim about the I.O.U.s and what she meant about Rogozhin buying them. Ganya tells Myshkin that Nastassya has met with Rogozhin four days earlier. Lebedev admits that he told Nastassya who Myshkin’s guests were and the two assume that she is trying to damage Radomsky’s reputation for some unknown reason. Myshkin meets with the General the following day and the General tells him that he knows the I.O.U.s were fictional. He thinks that Nastassya made them up to get back at him for everything that happened in the beginning of the novel.
After making amends with Lizaveta, Myshkin visits her at her dacha. He believes that he is beginning to fall in love with Aglaya and she feels the same for him, although she is often mocking and sarcastic with him. While they are listening to a band in the park, Myshkin sees Rogozhin and Nastassya in the crowd. Nastassya addresses Radomsky again in a loud voice and tells him that his uncle—a wealthy man who he is expecting to inherit from– has shot himself and he seems to have stolen a large sum of money.
A police man friend of Radomsky’s who witnesses the event says that a whip is needed to deal with women like Nastassya and she overhears. Nastassya grabs a whip from a bystander and snaps the officer in the face with it. The officer tries to attack her but Myshkin restrains him. Rogozhin merely mocks the officer and takes Nastassya away. After regaining his composure, the officer asks Myshkin his name before leaving.
Myshkin follows Lizaveta and her daughters back to their dacha where Aglaya hands him a note. The General asks to speak to Myshkin privately. The General informs him that Nastassya’s information about Radomsky’s uncle has turned out to be true. He is very worried about the woman’s effect on his family.
When he is left alone, Myshkin reads Aglaya’s note which turns out to be a request to meet her secretly the next morning. Rogozhin arrives and tells Myshkin that Nastassya wants to see him. She has been exchanging letters with Aglaya and thinks that Myshkin is in love with the girl. She is desperate to bring the two together. Despite his worry over this news, Myshkin speaks in a friendly tone to Rogozhin and invites him to have a drink to celebrate Myshkin’s birthday the following day.
They return to Myshkin’s house only to find that a surprise party has already assembled there. Many of the characters are present for the party and the atmosphere is positive. However, the atmosphere dissipates when Ippolit begins to read an essay that he has written himself about his impending death. He informs them that he intends to shoot himself in the morning rather than wait for his illness to claim him.
However, because the reading drags on for so long, the sun rises and the guests are so bored by his speech that they appear not to care that Ippolit intends to commit suicide. Ippolit tries to shoot himself while only being restrained by a few guests. However, the gun only clicks. He realizes that he had removed the percussion cap earlier and forgot to put it back in. Devastated, Ippolit tries to convince them that it was a mistake before falling asleep on the couch.
Myshkin leaves to meet with Aglaya but because of the late night he falls asleep while waiting for her at the appointed spot. When she arrives she wakes him. Aglaya says that Nastassya has been entreating her to marry Myshkin but Aglaya believes that Nastassya is still in love with him herself. She demands that Myshkin explain his feelings for Nastassya. Myshkin now believes that Nastassya is insane and that he only pities her. He admits that he did come to Pavlovsk for her sake, however. This angers Aglaya who throws her letters at him before storming off.
Myshkin reads the letters and later is visited by Nastassya who tells him that she will not be writing any more. She begs to know if he is happy and tells him that she is leaving with Rogozhin.
It is obvious to everyone that Aglaya is in love with Myshkin but she continues to deny this. Myshkin feels that he is happy around her and is grieved that she is still angry with him. Trying to smooth things over, Lizaveta throws a dinner party for Myshkin, inviting a large number of influential people from society. Aglaya and Myshkin are both privately worried that he will embarrass himself in front of everyone.
At the party, Myshkin is happy to meet a relative of his benefactor, Pavlishchev. But when the man tells him that Pavlishchev left everything over to the Roman Church in his death, Myshkin begins an angry rant against Catholicism and everyone at the party is shocked and offended. In his anger, he gesticulates widely and accidentally knocks over a priceless Chinese vase. The fury and horror at breaking the vase bring on an epileptic seizure and Aglaya catches Myshkin as he falls to the ground. Myshkin is taken home and the party is dispersed.
Lizaveta and her daughters visit him the next day to check on him. Ippolit arrives as well and tells him that he and some others, like Lebedyev and Ganya have been working against him. They are the ones upsetting Aglaya with talk about Nastassya. They have arranged a meeting between the two women and that evening Aglaya asks Myshkin to join her at the meeting. When they reach the meeting place, Aglaya immediately begins chastising Nastassya and the two exchange insults.
Nastassya orders Rogozhin away and demands that Myshkin stay with her. Myshkin pities her so much that he is unable to refuse and he admonishes Aglaya for her part of the argument. Aglaya storms off and Myshkin goes to follow her but Nastassya stops him by fainting. Nastassya and Myshkin soon become engaged. The General and his family break off their friendship with Myshkin and the public opinion of him falls. He tries to explain that Nastassya needs him because she is broken and tries to speak to Aglaya about this through Radomsky. But Radomsky refuses to facilitate the conversation and wonders if Myshkin might be insane himself.
On the day of the wedding, as she is being escorted to the church, Nastassya sees Rogozhin and rushes to him, begging him to take her away. Rogozhin agrees and Myshkin is upset, but not surprised to be stood up. The next day he takes a train to Rogozhin’s house but finds that the couple is not there. He returns to the hotel in Petersburg where he last saw Rogozhin and finds the man there. Rogozhin takes Myshkin back to his house in secret and shows him that he has stabbed and killed Nastassya in a fit of rage. The men keep vigil over the body that night.
For his crime, Rogozhin is sentenced to a Siberian prison camp for fifteen years. Myshkin goes insane and returns to the sanatorium in Switzerland with the help of Radomsky. The General and his family leave the country and Aglaya marries a wealthy Polish count against the wishes of her family. He is later discovered to be a fraud and turns her against her family entirely.
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin – the protagonist and hero of the novel. Myshkin is the descendent of a royal line that is one of the oldest in Russia. At the beginning of the novel, he is returning from having spent four years in a sanatorium to help treat his epilepsy. Myshkin is meant to be “the idiot” from the books title. Although his “idiocy” is in reference to his medical condition, many of the character in the novel consider Myshkin to be an idiot for his innocent, gentle personality and for his general faith in people.
From the moment he meets Nastassya, Myshkin feels a need to protect her that is not born of love but of pity. He believes that she cannot take care of herself and offers to marry her to free her from having to marry Ganya or Totsky. When Nastassya refuses him he is not as heartbroken as when he has to turn down Aglaya later in the novel. Myshkin is so focused on caring for Nastassya despite her refusal of marriage, that he eventually becomes the catalyst for the sad ending. He throws over Aglaya and tries to marry Nastassya who runs away with Rogozhin. In the end, Rogozhin murders Nastassya and Myshkin ends up back in the sanatorium.
Nastassya Filippovna Barashkov – the troubled, beautiful, femme-fatale of the book, Nastassya is a wealthy young woman who many consider a fallen woman because she was kept as a mistress by her guardian, Totsky. Although she was underage at the time, Nastassya blames herself for falling victim to Totsky’s seduction and she considers herself unworthy of marrying someone as noble and kind as Myshkin.
In many ways, Nastassya thinks she deserves the abusive relationship that Rogozhin offers her because of her past. She frequently returns to Rogozhin although he treats her badly. Nastassya has a tendency toward self-destruction that comes out in many ways throughout the novel. She is intends to run away with Rogozhin to prove to Totsky that he ruined her in the eyes of society.
When Nastassya feels that she has been wronged, she also strikes out against others. In order to hurt the General, she attempts to ruin Radomsky’s reputation by shouting slanderous things at him from a carriage and again in the park. In the end, Nastassya runs away with Rogozhin, knowing that he will most likely kill her. Her final act of self-destruction takes her life.
Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin – Rogozhin is the closest thing that the novel has to an antagonist although he and Myshkin remain friends throughout the entirety of it. Rogozhin is descended from a line of merchants and is, therefore technically below both Myshkin and Nastassya in class. Rogozhin is an incredibly violent and jealous man. He becomes obsessed with Nastassya and the obsession manifests in the form of both physical and emotional abuse toward her. While Myshkin is meant to represent a Christ-like figure, Rogozhin, with his dark hair and eyes, is unquestionably meant to represent the devil. In the end, he kills Nastassya in a fit of jealous rage and is sent away to a Siberian prison camp for fifteen years.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Biography
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born on November 11th, 1821 in Moscow, Russia. The son of a doctor he was raised in a family home on the surrounding grounds of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in a low class district in Moscow. Dostoyevsky learned to read at an early age and fell in love with literature and novels. Many of his childhood experiences living near the hospital and seeing the poor patients influenced his writing later in life.
In 1833, he was sent away to a French boarding school and four years later his mother died of tuberculosis. Soon, he and his brother Nikolayev were conscripted into the military although Nikolayev was soon turned away due to poor health. Dostoyevsky was sent to Estonia to begin his military training. Though he did well in the military academy, Dostoyevsky disliked the regimented style of learning and spent most of his time alone, reading.
In 1839, his father died of a stroke. Dostoyevsky soon attained the rank of engineer cadet and then lieutenant engineer. It was during this time that he began writing his own works and his first work, a translation of the French novel ‘Eugenie Grandet’ was published in 1843. He completed several other translations but did not receive much money for them.
In 1845, he completed his first novel, “Poor Folk” and the novel was a commercial success, being described as Russia’s first “social novel”. After resigning his military career, Dostoyevsky began writing full time and published his second novel, “The Double” in 1846. It was during this time that he discovered and became involved in socialism. ‘The Double’ was not as well received in the press and Dostoyevsky began suffering from frequent health issues.
Dostoyevsky joined a socialist circle called ‘Petrashevsky Circle’ which was later investigated by the police. Dostoyevsky was accused of reading banned books and circulating copies of these books. He and the other members of the circle were arrested in 1849 and sent to exile in a Siberian prison camp which was then followed by a term of compulsory military service. The conditions in the camp were so terrible and Dostoyevsky spent most of his time there ill.
After being released in 1854, Dostoyevsky wrote a novel about his experience in the camp called ‘The House of the Dead’ which became the first novel published about Russian prison camps.
In 1855, Dostoyevsky met a woman named Maria Dmitrievna and fell in love. Dostoyevsky was given leave to marry her although, as a convict he remained under police surveillance for the rest of his life. The marriage was an unhappy one and the couple lived apart for most of it.
In the late 1860’s, Dostoyevsky produced some of his most famous works, including “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “The Gambler” (1866) and “The Idiot” (1868).
He married again in 1867 after his first wife died and had a daughter named Sonya who unfortunately passed away as an infant. Despite his literary success, Dostoyevsky suffered from an acute gambling addiction that left his family in a constant state of poverty. In 1871, he had a son named Fyodor and two years later began a new periodical. His health began to decline as he had suffered from seizures for much of his life. In 1875, Dostoyevsky had another son name Alexey and continued to write, publishing “The Adolescent” the same year.
On January 25th, 1881, Dostoyevsky suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage and passed away shortly afterward. Reports of the attendance at his funeral range from 40,000 to 100,000. He was buried in Tikhvin Cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia.