Initially published in The Russian Messenger, The Idiot is one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s experimental works where he did not follow any of the conventional literary methods but produced a great work nonetheless. The story centers around Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, the character Dostoyevsky refers to as ‘The Idiot’ in his title. The title ironically depicts the character’s positive and optimistic personality in a modern world where only cruelty and selfishness thrives. The story begins with the main character, Prince Myshkin, arriving in St. Petersburg after a four-year treatment for epilepsy in the Swiss clinic.
Upon his arrival, Prince Myshkin introduces himself to his relative Lizaveta Prokofyevna and receives the hospitality of her family, which consists of three young girls, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya and General Epanchin. Aglaya is the most notable of the girls because of her overwhelming beauty. He also finds himself in the presence of the Epanchins’ assistant, Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin (Ganya) who secretly longs for Aglaya despite his politically proposed marriage with Nastassya Filippovna Barashkov, a woman previously betrothed to the aristocrat, Totsky. The aristocrat has promised Ganya an amount of 75,000 rubles in return for his marriage to Anastassya so that he may marry the eldest Epanchin daughter. Ganya feels free to share all of this in front of the Prince due to his simple-mindedness. Myshkin had come to his relative for his own business but now finds himself in a rather difficult situation.
The Prince decides to settle inside the Ivolgin apartment, which happens to be the residence of Ganya’s family. They are not quite supportive of Ganya’s marriage proposal, which often leads to furious arguments. However, the family is surprised when they find Nastasya Filippovna paying them a visit. Ganya tries to be cordial, but finds himself in a fit of rage when Nastasya starts to make a mockery out of him. The Prince attempts to calm the situation but only causes himself trouble and humiliation. Rogozhin arrives in the scene, a man attempting to claim Nastasya’s hand in return for an amount of 100,000 rubles for his demands to be met.
It is the night of Nastasya’s birthday and all the key characters are present. They all engage in a game where they share the worst experiences of their lives and Nastasya finds herself disgusted by Totsky’s contribution. She seeks Myshkin’s advice on whether or not to marry him and decides to follow his advice when he says not to. Rogozhin soon arrives, having collected 100,000 rubles. Nastasya humiliates all the guests by throwing the money into the fire and tells Ganya to collect it from there while she leaves with Rogozhin. In the midst of it all, Myshkin asks Nastasya to marry him, promising her great wealth, but she leaves regardless. Instead of giving up, Myshkin decides to trail them.
The second part takes place six months following the previous events. Nastasya’s uncertainty regarding her decision to be with Rogozhin rears its ugly head. As more time goes by, her love for Rogozhin fades and she longs to be with Myshkin. Rogozhin handles his jealousy poorly and resorts to abusing his lover. Myshkin, worried for Nastasya, pays Rogozhin a visit, and they both maintain formalities but Myshkin’s troubles grow when he finds out how Nastasya is being treated. When Myshkin leaves for his hotel, he finds his rival waiting to attack him with a knife. Coincidentally, Myshkin suffers from a seizure due to his epilepsy and Rogozhin escapes, horrified.
Myshkin slowly heals from his episode in the care of Lebedyev. Some time later, the Epachins choose to pay him a visit. Aglaya’s infatuation for Myshkin has evidently grown but Burdovsky, a man who claims to be an illegitimate offspring of one of Myshkin’s predecessors, horribly interrupts their meeting by demanding financial support. His claim is soon found to be inaccurate but Myshkin chooses to help him anyway. As a result, Lizaveta becomes extremely disappointed and acts violently with both parties. This causes a dramatic back-and-forth between the Epachins and the unwanted guests and they both leave, showing contempt towards Myshkin.
The next part initiates with Myshkin apologetically visiting the Epachins for the former mishaps, and gradually falling in love with Aglaya. However, their visit is interrupted again, this time by Nastasya and Rogozhin. Nastasya speaks to Yevgeny Pavlovich, a friend of the Epachins, and informs him of the death of his wealthy uncle. They get into a clash with an officer but leave before the situation worsens.
Back in the Epachins’ house, the relationship between Myshkin and Aglaya develops. Aglaya refuses to acknowledge this, but the Epachins start to treat Myshkin as her fiancé. During one of their previous meetings, Aglaya had planted a note inside Myshkin’s pocket asking him to secretly meet her the next morning. Following an extravagant and somewhat dramatic party, Myshkin wanders off into the street and falls asleep right where Aglaya had asked him to meet her. He wakes up abruptly in the morning to Aglaya’s approaching laughter. Aglaya speaks to him for a lengthy period, discussing how Nastasya had been sending her letters as an attempt to persuade her into marrying him. However, Aglaya had found out from the letters that it is, in fact, Nastasya who is attracted to Myshkin. She confronts him and Myshkin categorically denies about the two of them being in love but does admit to coming back to St. Petersburg because for her. Aglaya becomes extremely agitated with his hesitation and runs off, leaving without the letters. Myshkin reads them with contempt. He then finds himself in the company of Nastasya once again. She seems desperate for his happiness and informs him that she’s leaving, promising never to write him letters again. She then disappears with Rogozhin.
The fourth and final part introduces a complicated dynamic between the characters Myshkin and Aglaya. The Epachins are convinced that their daughter will marry the Prince but she continuously denies it and even brings forth the issue of Myshkin and Nastasya’s relationship. Myshkin is helpless in this situation. In an attempt to improve the situation, the Epachins throw a party, inviting all the most influential people in Russia. Hearing the news, Aglaya takes it upon herself to teach Myshkin how to behave in such functions but their history only leads to them having yet another disturbing encounter.
The dinner party commences and Myshkin appears to be quite impressed by the tastefulness of the aristocrat guests. Unfortunately, this is when Ivan Petrovich, a guest, starts to insult religious ideologies and even goes far as to say how Catholicism actually influences atheism in the modern world. Everyone appears stunned by his comments and attempt to distract rest of the guests from the conversation. Myshkin’s attempts, however, leads him to break a valuable Chinese vase belonging to the Epachins and also suffer another epileptic seizure. The crowd makes their disappointment towards Myshkin clear as Aglaya pathetically carries him to his home.
As the following day ensues, Ippolit enters Myshkin’s abode to express how disappointed his peers are of him and how they are all plotting to sway Aglaya from marrying him. On the other hand, Aglaya has arranged for a meeting with both him and Nastasya, hoping to solve everything once and for all. As time goes by and the meeting becomes a reality, it seems clear that Aglaya had only called for the gathering to spite Nastasya, influenced by her unrelenting hatred towards her. The situation becomes dire and Nastasya asks everyone to leave with the exclusion of Myshkin. Surprised by her audacity and also by Myshkin’s weakness towards Nastasya, Aglaya storms off. Myshkin wishes to follow her but stops at Nastasya’s request.
The Prince and Nastasya Filippovna announce their marriage regardless of the endlessly negative public opinion. The Epachins promise to disown Myshkin. Wedding bells ensue and Keller and Burdovsky escort Nastasya in her beautiful wedding dress to Myshkin who is waiting at the church for her arrival. Nastasya, however, notices her former lover, Rogozhin, in the wedding crowd and frantically goes to him, asking him to take her away. Rogozhin does not waste a single minute and immediately agrees to elope. Myshkin, though a little disheartened, is not surprised, since by now the pattern of Nastasya’s actions had led him into believing that something like this was bound to happen. He calmly addresses the guests and makes sure that their needs are met.
The next morning, the Prince leaves for St. Petersburg in search of the culprits but finds no one once he reaches Rogozhin’s house. At last, he finds him at the hotel, and upon going back to his house, discovers the dead body of Nastasya. Rogozhin reveals that he had stabbed her through the heart.
‘The Idiot’ comes to a depressing end with Rogozhin being sentenced to fifteen years in prison, Prince Myshkin losing his sanity over Nastasya’s murder and returning to the swiss medical facility and Aglaya running off with a wealthy man only to be deceived by him.