The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Idiot | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1

Two men in their 20s, Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin, meet in a third-class train carriage and strike up a conversation. The mild-mannered Myshkin is headed for Petersburg to introduce himself to the Epanchins, since Mrs. Epanchin is a distant relation. An overwrought Rogozhin has recently inherited a lot of money from his father and is intent on winning the woman of his dreams, Nastasya Filippovna, currently the mistress of the landowner.

Prince Myshkin easily gains entrance into the Epanchin household because of his innocent and open manner, which charms everyone. He first meets General Epanchin and his assistant Ganya, from whom he will rent a room. The prince overhears the two men talking and learns Ganya is thinking about marrying Nastasya Filippovna, who will receive 75,000 rubles from Totsky. Totsky wishes to marry respectably and is being considered as a husband for Alexandra, the eldest daughter of the general, but first he must get rid of Nastasya. Totsky reared her from childhood and groomed her as his mistress, beginning sexual relations with her when she was 16.

The prince has lunch with Mrs. Epanchin and her daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya. Myshkin tells them he was orphaned and reared by his father's friend Pavlishchev, who then sent him to Professor Schneider in Switzerland. Pavlishchev had hoped the professor could cure Myshkin of his frequent attacks of epilepsy, which made him almost "an idiot." He is much better now, and new circumstances have sent him back to Russia.

Myshkin and Ganya return to Ganya's house, and soon after Nastasya calls upon the family, acting with great rudeness while pretending to invite them to her birthday party. A nasty scene ensues, and after she leaves, Ganya admits he is marrying her for her money. Myshkin now feels compelled to go to the party himself and warn Nastasya.

At the party, attended by Ganya, Totsky, and General Epanchin, among others, Nastasya says she will not marry Ganya. Shortly after Rogozhin bursts in with a crowd of drunken friends and produces 100,000 rubles for Nastasya. The prince now proposes marriage to Nastasya, saying he has fallen in love with her, will respect her and take care of her, and is not the pauper he appears to be, since he has recently inherited money. But she refuses him as well and throws Rogozhin's 100,000 rubles in the fire. Before the money burns, Nastasya retrieves the money and thrusts it on Ganya, and then runs off with Rogozhin.

Part 2

Ganya ends up returning Nastasya's money and quits his job, so his sister Varya marries a well-to-do moneylender Ptitsyn, who can take care of the family. They include Varya's parents General Ivolgin, a drunk and a storyteller, and his long-suffering wife, Nina Alexandrovna, as well as her younger brother Kolya.

In Moscow Nastasya runs away from Rogozhin and stays with Myshkin, who treats her like a sister. The prince remains in Moscow for six months, and during that time he writes a short letter to Aglaya, which indicates he cares for her.

The prince follows Nastasya and Rogozhin back to Petersburg. Nastasya is staying with her friend, Darya Alexeevna. Myshkin visits Rogozhin at his house in an attempt to make Rogozhin view him as a friend who has no intention of interfering in his alliance with Nastasya, although he thinks it will be disastrous for both of them. Rogozhin later follows Myshkin back to his hotel and almost stabs him, but Myshkin falls down in an epileptic fit before he lands the knife.

The prince recovers in Pavlovsk, where he is renting rooms from Lebedev, a meddler and a comic figure in the novel. All of Petersburg's well-to-do citizens go to Pavlovsk, so the Epanchins visit Myshkin, and they get reacquainted. While he is recovering, Myshkin also meets Ippolit, the son of General Ivolgin's mistress Marfa. Ippolit is a young, consumptive nihilist whom he eventually invites stay with him, since Ippolit is dying.

Aglaya and the prince develop a friendship with romantic overtones. Nastasya begins writing to Aglaya, pushing a liaison with Myshkin. She says she will marry Rogozhin only if Myshkin marries Aglaya. Nastasya also discourages a liaison with Aglaya's current suitor Evgeny Pavlovich by smearing his reputation.

Part 3

Aglaya does seem to love the prince, although she acts erratically and impulsively, while he is unambiguously smitten. On his birthday he gets a note from Aglaya to meet him the next morning. That night Myshkin's friends throw him an impromptu birthday party. Most everyone gets drunk, and Ippolit reads a long manifesto in which he tries to show he is brave about dying. At the same time, he is attempting to arouse his listeners' love and sympathy, but he does not succeed. He unsuccessfully tries to kill himself and is put to bed.

When the prince meets Aglaya the next day, she berates him for proposing to Nastasya (earlier on) and running after her. Myshkin tries to teach Aglaya to pity Nastasya, which is the emotion he now feels for her. Aglaya gives him Nastasya's letters, which reveal she herself is in love with the prince, although the prince claims Nastasya feels not love, but something else. Meanwhile, the Epanchin parents are concerned about a possible alliance between Aglaya and Myshkin, whom they think is an unfit suitor.

Part 4

Ippolit has moved in with the Ivolgins and is spreading gossip, even telling Nina Alexandrovna that he stole money from Lebedev. General Ivolgin is in a state because Ippolit is tormenting him and has called him a liar because he makes up stories. The Ivolgin family is concerned with the general's erratic behavior, which has gone beyond his normal antics. Myshkin learns the general has surreptitiously returned Lebedev's wallet with the money, but Lebedev continues to torment him, pretending he has not seen the wallet that has mysteriously been returned to his room. The prince convinces Lebedev to relent, but too late, because the general ends up having a stroke and eventually dies.

Myshkin and Aglaya continue spending time together, and he confesses his love and proposes. Thus, the Epanchin parents resign themselves to the situation and decide to have a party to introduce the prince to society. The party begins well, but then Myshkin gets worked up after someone says his guardian had converted to Catholicism before he died. The prince speaks passionately against Catholicism and lectures on the Russian Christ, and then ends up falling down in an epileptic fit.

The seizure is mild, and the next evening Aglaya insists he come with her to call on Nastasya. Aglaya berates Nastasya about her letters and her interference in Aglaya's relationship with the prince. She also criticizes Nastasya for not becoming a chambermaid rather than living on Totsky's money. Nastasya retaliates against this attack by threatening to order Myshkin to marry her, as he had originally promised. When Nastasya faints, Myshkin does not go after Aglaya, who has stormed out. Aglaya feels humiliated, and the relationship is ruptured.

A few weeks later Nastasya is preparing to marry the prince, who has shouldered the burden of taking care of her, even though he loves Aglaya and wants to be with her. But on her wedding day Nastasya sees Rogozhin in the crowd and runs off with him for the last time. The next day Myshkin looks for them in Petersburg and runs into Rogozhin, who takes him back to his house and shows him the corpse of Nastasya, whom he has murdered with a knife. The prince stays with a fevered Rogozhin through the night until the authorities break in and arrest him.

Rogozhin is sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia. Ippolit dies two weeks after Nastasya. Prince Myshkin is returned to Professor Schneider's clinic in Switzerland, and Evgeny Pavlovich moves to Europe and visits him periodically. The prince has returned to a state of catatonia, and the doctor has no hope of a cure.

The Idiot Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Rogozhin befriends Prince Myshkin on a train to Petersburg.

Rising Action

2 Prince Myshkin meets General Epanchin and his family.

3 Myshkin tells Nastasya Filippovna not to marry Ganya.

4 Prince Myshkin proposes to Nastasya Filippovna.

5 Nastasya Filippovna runs away with Rogozhin.

6 Prince Myshkin goes to Moscow to claim his inheritance.

7 Prince Myshkin returns to Petersburg and Pavlovsk.

8 Rogozhin almost stabs Prince Myshkin before he has a fit.

9 After reading his manifesto, Ippolit tries to kill himself.

10 Prince Myshkin confesses to Aglaya that he loves her.

Climax

11 Aglaya confronts Nastasya Filippovna and humiliates her.

Falling Action

12 Nastasya Filippovna faints, and Aglaya storms out.

13 Nastasya Filippovna leaves Prince Myshkin at the altar.

14 Rogozhin knifes Nastasya Filippovna after rescuing her.

Resolution

15 A catatonic Prince Myshkin returns to Switzerland.

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