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The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Robin Small

Robin has a BA/MAT in English Ed, and teaches 6th grade English and Writing Lab.

Although perhaps not as well-known a work as his masterpiece Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot is a very important novel. Plagued with lifelong epilepsy and financial woes, Dostoyevsky still was able to produce some of the most significant fiction ever written.

Art Under Pressure

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Portrait of Dostoyevsky

Writing under immense pressure, and amid some of the most painful events and emotions of his life, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tackles the idea of creating a hero who is a ''perfectly beautiful man.'' The result is Prince Myshkin, hero of The Idiot. This Christ-like character brings to life both the beauty of faith and the contradictions that arise in the belief in a loving God. Don't be fooled by the modern understanding of the word ''idiot'' because Prince Myshkin is not a man with low intelligence. In calling him an ''idiot,'' Dostoyevsky is simply referring to Prince Myshkin's epileptic fits and his innocent and gentle nature, which tend to make him an outsider.

Travelers Meet on the Train to Petersburg

Prince Myshkin is traveling to Petersburg, and meets a man by the name of Rogozhin. Information about each character is revealed in their conversation, and readers learn that Rogozhin has stolen money from his father to buy earrings for a woman in town, Nastassya Filippovna. After his father finds out, Rogozhin leaves town to stay with an aunt, and then he falls sick. After recovering, he hears of his father's death and heads back to Petersburg to claim his inheritance and the woman he desperately loves. Meanwhile, Prince Myshkin has made some aquaintances and he tells them that he has just left a mental institution in Switzerland, and when they make fun of him, he is unfazed.

In Petersburg, Prince Myshkin hopes to connect with some of his relatives, and when he arrives at one of their homes, he is dressed in very plain clothes, which arouses suspicion, especially with one of the servants.The servant asks him to wait, and while doing so, he addresses the servant as an equal and engages him in an in-depth conversation. The prince mentions a painting he saw during his travels. It is by Hans Holbein and is called The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. He also talks about an execution he witnessed, where a man was killed by guillotine.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

His relation is Madame Yepanchin, married to General Yepanchin, and once they establish that he wants employment and family rather than handouts, the general welcomes him in and gives him the task of writing some calligraphy, to see if he is proficient enough to hire. While he is there, he hears General Yepanchin and his secretary, a man named Ganya, speculating about the same Nastassya that Rogozhin mentioned on the train.

Nastassya's Past and Future

The narrator fills in some gaps for the reader, and we find out that General Yepanchin, his secretary Ganya, and a powerful, wealthy man by the name of Afanassy Totsky are trying to convince Nastassya to play into their plans. Totsky took Nastassya in as an orphan, and along with housing her and educating her, the narrator suggests he also sexually abused her. Now she is grown, angry, and difficult to control, and Totsky wants her out of his life and as far away as possible, so she cannot damage his reputation. General Yepanchin wants Nastassya out of the way too, so that he can marry his first daughter off to Totsky in a financially and socially lucrative deal. Ganya, however, is in love with Nastassya, and wants to marry her partly to own her, and partly to win the large dowry of 75,000 rubles. When the prince arrives, they are all waiting anxiously for a party later that night, when Nastassya will reveal whether or not she will accept Ganya's proposal.

Love and Trouble Take Root

Prince Myshkin is invited to visit with his distant relation Madame Yepanchin and her three daughters. He tells two stories that further reveal the character of our unlikely hero. The first is about an execution, and he talks about what must go through the mind of someone condemned to death, and he judges the death penalty as cruel. The second story is about a girl named Maria in Switzerland, shunned after she was seduced by a traveler, and how he was able to convince the village children to forgive her and care for her.

There are the beginnings of fascination between Aglaia, the youngest daughter, and Prince Myshkin, but in his innocence he doesn't recognize that she is attracted to him. Before the prince leaves the Yepanchin's, readers also discover more about Ganya's character. He gives Prince Myshkin a note asking Aglaia to marry him, because he doesn't want to go through with the marriage to Nastassya if he has a chance with Aglaia. A marriage to Aglaia would offer Ganya more advantages socially and financially. Aglaia, however, is disgusted with him and turns him down.

Dinner Party Debacle

The dinner party at Nastassya's gets underway, and the characters play a game of confessions. They each tell a story about the worst thing they've ever done. After Totsky's contribution, where he talks about buying all the flowers of a certain color and destroying the hopes of a friend in love, Nastassya stops the game and asks Prince Myshkin if she should marry Ganya, and he tells her no. She turns Ganya down, and tells Totsky she doesn't want his 75,000 rubles, either. Meanwhile, Rogozhin shows up with 100,000 rubles and Nastassya looks at the pile of money and rejects that, too.

Prince Myshkin proposes to her, telling her that her years as Totsky's mistress were not her fault, and that he loves her and says: ''I shall respect you all my life, Nastassya Filippovna.'' At first she accepts, but then she rejects him, telling him that she won't ruin a child, referencing his selfless and innocent nature. She runs away with Rogozhin, but not before humiliating Ganya by throwing the 100,000 rubles in the fire, and telling him to take them out, if he wants money so badly. He doesn't, and faints. She fishes them out of the fire, leaves them next to the unconscious Ganya, and then takes off with Rogozhin and his drunk friends.

Interlude Involving Ippolit's Imminent Death

Ippolit is a young man dying of consumption, a friend of a friend that provides some impressive insights into the mind of someone facing death. He invites all his friends to visit him one night, and Prince Myshkin ends up among the group. Ippolit reveals that he has gathered them there so that he can say goodbye to each of them. He tells them he will kill himself in the morning rather than continue suffering and he reads a lengthy suicide note, which mentions the same painting by Hans Holbien that Prince Myshkin talked about with the servant. His friends think they've talked him out of suicide, but the next morning he tries to shoot himself. The gun does not go off, and they wonder if he was sincere or if he was just trying to get attention.

Attempted Murder, Attempted Love, and Tragic Endings

Rogozhin and Prince Myshkin become close, and the prince confesses that his love for Nastassya is one of compassion rather than passion. Rogozhin still wants to get rid of Prince Myshkin as a rival, and he tries to kill him. Just before Rogozhin stabs him, Prince Myshkin has an attack of epilepsy and Rogozhin doesn't go through with the murder. Once he recovers, the prince apologizes for suspecting his friend of planning to murder him, despite the fact that Rogozhin did in fact try to murder him that evening. His selflessness is almost incomprehensible, and he seems to take no offense at nearly being killed.

Meanwhile, though other subplots are woven in and out, the main characters grow closer to one another. Aglaia pursues Prince Myshkin and he falls passionately in love with her, although he is so naive that he is largely unaware of the depth of his love. The prince is torn between these two rivals for his affection, but when forced to choose, he chooses Nastassya because compassion is the more selfless kind of love. Nastassya has also fallen passionately in love with Prince Myshkin, but she can't accept his selfless love, and goes back to Rogozhin.

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