The novel begins introducing the reader to two principal characters: Prince Lev Nikolaevick Myshkin (the idiot) and Parfion Semyonovich Rogozhin. The two are traveling to Petersburg on a train when they meet; here, the author notes the "extraordinariness" of this accidental meeting. Myshkin and Rogozhin start to talk, a petty official named Lebedyev joins in, and what the three discuss shapes what will develop in the rest of the novel.
Although Myshkin and Rogozhin are opposites in everyway, they share an almost mysterious mutual attraction to one another; this should direct the reader's attention to the further development of their relationship. Myshkin's attire and stories both suggest that despite his ancient Russian family lineage, he is more a foreigner or an alien in his country. This is because Myshkin has spent the last four years in a mental institution in Switzerland. Without any reserve, however, Myshkin shares this fact with Rogozhin and Lebedyev. He does not even seem to take a bit of offense at the sarcastic tone of his new acquaintances' inquiries, and he even laughs with them. As Rogozhin states, Myshkin has the character of a holy-fool. In his own words, he tells Myshkin, "You're an out-and-out holy fool, and God loves the likes of you."
Rogozhin also tells a story from his life. Some months ago Rogozhin stole a large sum of money from his father to buy a pair of diamond earrings for the town beauty, Nastasya, a woman whom he has passionately fallen in love with. After he Nastasya the earrings, his father found out and became extremely angry. Barely escaping his father's wrath, Rogozhin borrowed money and fled to his aunt's house in another city, where he became ill. He had just recovered when news of his father's death and newly inherited money reached him. Thus, two key issues in the novel are brought to light here. (1) Nastasya Fillipovna makes her debut, whose roll is central to the development of the story. (2) In Rogozhin's story lies a motif of the novel: money.
The stage then moves to the house of the Yepanchins, a family of emerging Russian bourgeoisie. Myshkin has come here to meet his distant cousin, Madame Yepanchina, General Yepanchin's wife. While waiting to be allowed in to see the general, Myshkin openly talks with the servant about many powerful ideas and events he has seen: he relates watching a man be beheaded on a guillotine, explains his theory that torture is better than an instantaneous death (because at least one still has hope if he's being tortured), and argues that "to kill for murder is an immeasurably greater evil than the actual crime itself." These three points Myshkin discuses openly with the servant have all been taken from the author's, Dostoevsky's, own life and ideas. Dostoevsky did in fact witness a killing with the guillotine. And it must also be remembered here that Dostoevsky himself had previously been sentenced to death, only to be "pardoned" by the tsar minutes before his execution was to take place.
Finally, Myshkin is allowed to see the General. The General is suspicious of Myshkin at first, believing that the young man has come for financial help. Myshkin reiterates again and again that his purpose of the visit to his distant relatives lies not in a request for financial help; however, he is interrupted again and again from explaining what real "business" he has in mind.
While Myshkin is fulfilling the general's request to write various specimens of calligraphy, he overhears Nastasya Fillipovna's name in the conversation between the general and Ganya, the general's secretary. The two men anxiously await the coming evening party where Nastasya is expected to announce her decision on whether or not she will leave Mr. Totsky and marry Ganya. Myshkin's knowledge of the lady and the news of Rogozhin's return startle the hosts.
The reader soon learns of the scheme calculated by the general, Ganya, and Totsky. Totsky yearns freedom from Nastasya whom he greatly fears; the general is interested in marrying off his first daughter to Totsky; and Ganya is seeking to marry Nastasya and thus gain a hefty amount of money. The reader finds that Totsky wronged Nastasya in her adolescence; it is hinted that this man, who is seen to be the savior who took her in when she was left a penniless orphan, abused her sexually. As Myshkin observes in her portrait, Nastasya is a sufferer; it is later discovered that she suffers most from her pride and contempt for herself. Her initial revengeful passion with which she arrived in Petersburg five years earlier has been gradually replaced by self-contempt, and only apathy fills her heart.
General Yepanchin introduces Myshkin to his wife, Madame Yepanchin, who is Myshkin's distant relation, and successfully escapes the wife's inquiries about the pearl necklace he recently presented to Nastasya. The wife and three daughters gather in the drawing room to visit with Myshkin.
Through his selflessness and sincerity brimming on childlike naiveté, he wins the trust and the liking of most of the Yepanchins, including two of the three daughters and Madame Yepanchin. Surrounded by the sharp-tongued yet enthusiastic audience, Myshkin shares two stories: one about capital punishment and the other about compassion. The first is about a man who is sentenced to be hanged, but reprieved at the last moment. Myshkin tells this story with detailed depictions of the psychology of the sentenced, and attacks such treatment of a man, (that is, the death penalty), as the worst deed on earth. He then tells a second story about a young Marie, an outcast of the village where Myshkin lived in Switzerland. The story of Marie is about his compassionate Christian love. The story goes as thus: Marie was ostracized from the village community (including her mother) for having once fallen to sensuality (she was seduced and wronged by a traveling salesman). Myshkin alone took pity on the unfortunate girl and made efforts to restore the village children's love and respect for her. At the time the girls died, she was surrounded by the boundless love of the children. The story of Marie highlights the important idea of compassion in the novel. It also plays a role as a measure of comparison in the novel: Will Myshkin's compassion save Nastasya, another victim and sufferer of seduction, from her destructive pride and apathy?
Before leaving, Myshkin briefly describes what qualities he sees in each of the Yepanchin girls' faces. His comparison of Aglaya's beauty with Nastasya's preludes the two women's rivalry later in the novel. Ganya catches Myshkin as he is leaving, and asks him to send Aglaya a secret note. Ganya is interested in money: if the endorsed Aglaya would marry him, he would not consider marrying Nastasya. Aglaya replies to Ganya's request with the words, "I don't make bargains." This response raises Ganya's anger towards both Aglaya and Myshkin.
The stage moves to the residence of the Ivolgins, Ganya's impoverished family, from which Myshkin plans to rent a room. Motifs of money and revenge are especially abundant in the events that follow. The reader becomes acquainted with Ferdyshtchenko, a fellow boarder, who immediately warns Myshkin not to lend him money. Later Nina Alexandrovna, Ganya's mother, also warns Myshkin, telling him not to lend money to her husband, General Ivolgin. General Ivolgin is a compulsive liar, who throughout the novel tells many fictitious stories, often in hopes of gaining respect. Ganya is not only ashamed of his father, but of the entire household, and especially the fact that they must take boarders in order to survive. Moreover, he is bitterly cold towards his mother and his sister, Varya, who both oppose his marriage with Nastasya. The three-mother, daughter, and son-start quarreling about the planned marriage around the portrait of Nastasya.
Thus, to such a setting, Nastasya Fillipovna makes her first live appearance to the reader as well as to Myshkin. Their first encounter is quite symbolic: mistaking Myshkin as a servant, Nastasya flings off her coat to him, castigates him for his ineptness, and demands that he announce her immediately. Once announced and seated, Nastasya politely, yet cruelly tramples Ganya's dignity by asking about the household's lodgers and laughing at General Ivolgin, egging him on to tell one of his stories. In fact, this fictitious story the General tells Nastasya symbolizes Nastasya's revengeful acts against Ganya. He tells the story of a lapdog he threw out of a moving train's window in order to get revenge against the lapdog's owner who threw his cigar out the window. Nastasya is not letting Ganya's secret contempt for her pass without revenge.
With a loud ringing of a doorbell, another unexpected visitor arrives: Rogozhin with his loud and vulgar friends. Rogozhin is initially taken aback by the presence of Nastasya; however, he resumes to execute his plan of buying of Ganya, whom he correctly accuses as being a person who will do anything for money. What's more, Rogozhin claims that Nastasya herself can be bought and promises her 100,000 rubles by the evening.
As tension builds up in the room, Varya begins to condemn Nastasya for her actions. In rage, Ganya puts up his hand to strike his sister, when Myshkin blocks the blow. Ganya then turns on Myshkin and delivers him the hit he was about to bestow on Varya. Myshkin lets the blow fall, and doesn't strike back. He acts quixotically as the peacemaker between Varya's verbal violence and Ganya's physical violence. This self-sacrificing act of Myshkin arouses the company's general sympathy toward him. Even Nastasya, after Myshkin speaks of her good nature and the superficiality of her haughtiness, drops her sarcastic attitude and kneels to kiss Nina Alexandrovna's hand. Forbidding Ganya to follow but inviting him to the evening party in the same breath, Nastasya rushes away. Rogozhin and his band leave as well, taunting Ganya that he has lost the game, and calling Myshkin "a sheep."
Myshkin retreats to his room where Varya and Kolya soon pay a visit to him. They have booth taken a great liking to him. Then Ganya comes in to ask for an apology from Myshkin. The rebuilding of his pride follows the apology. Ganya boasts with confidence that though she act cold and haughty towards him, Nastasya will marry him. T such a proud Ganya, Myshkin says that he (Ganya) is one of the most ordinary of men and even a trifle weaker than most. Insulted, Ganya makes a statement: with money, he will become an "original" man. He teases Myshkin about his admiration for Nastasya, then leaves.
Myshkin goes to a tavern to meet General Ivolgin, who turns out to need Myshkin for some money. The drunk general promises Myshkin to show him to Nastasya's flat, but instead takes him on a wild goose chase. The two run into Kolya, who mentions the name of his consumptive friend, Ippolit, with whom the reader will be acquainted later. Kolya takes Myshkin to Nastasya's house where the long awaited evening party has already begun.
Myshkin is admitted into Nastasya's residence. The guests of Nastasya's dinner party decide to play an unusual game: public confession of the worst of all evil acts one has committed. Note that in this game, unlike religious confession, one is to confess not to be forgiven but merely to expose oneself. This is neither a true game nor confession: it is a reflection of Nastasya herself and the entire evening. Ferdyshtchenko first confesses a robbery that he committed: he stole a small amount of money and later learned that a maid was accused of doing his crime and was dismissed. General Yepanchin confesses to theft as well: the general had a pot stolen from him and, in his anger, rushed to an old woman whom he believed to be guilty. He later discovered that the silent woman whom he was raving at was dying, or already dead. He ends his story, however, telling the company that to relieve him of his guilt, he donated a large sum of money to a charity. Though Ferdyshtchenko comments that the general has told an act of goodness, the general's story is in a sense the most horrifying for it proves the incredible power of money even to buy redemption. Then Totsky tells his story of a nasty joke he played on a friend in love. Totsky's friend told him that he finally found a merchant who grew camellias, the flower his beloved wanted most to have for a special occasion. Totsky mischievously went to the merchant and purchased the all of the red camellias before his friend had a chance to buy any. This drives his crushed friend into delirium and convulsions. Though he eventually recovered, he was killed during his service in the Caucasus.
Nastasya then calls a halt to the game and says that she will entertain. Nastasya tells Myshkin that General Yepanchin and Totsky wish her to marry Ganya; she then asks him to determine whether or not she should do so. To this stunning request Myshkin answers negatively and Nastasya consents to follow this decision. Moreover, Nastasya announces that she is rejecting Totsky's dowry of 75,000 rubles and that she plans to leave Petersburg. In her growing hysteria, Nastasya starts her rebel against the world corrupted by money.
The story increases its amplitude with another sudden arrival of Rogozhin's band and the promised 100,000 rubles. With the bundle of notes before her, Nastasya reminds her audience how she has always been equated with money, and how she is disgusted with money, which she feels brings out the most base element in all men. With awareness that she is seen as a fallen woman, Nastasya is the first to hold contempt for herself. She finds her fierce pride to be her only weapon against the harsh world. She announces to begin a new life without a penny. To this desperate woman Myshkin offers his hand. He says he loves her and will love her for her true character. When he is ridiculed by snickers, he reveals that he's been promised a large inheritance. Nastasya accepts Myshkin's offer. Myshkin says that he dismisses all of her past, and that he will always respect her.
Nastasya's acceptance of Myshkin's offer is only temporary, for she cannot
forgive herself and fears she will ruin Myshkin. She says that she is corrupt
and low, and she turns to Rogozhin. She readies herself to leave, then
makes one last grand gesture of rebellion abainst General Yepanchin, Totsky,
and Ganya. She tosses in Rogozhin's bundle of 100,000 rubles into the fire
and dares Ganya to expose his greed: if he removes the money from the fire
with his hands, the money will be his. Ganya eventually faints at the absurdity
of this trail. Then Nastasya leaves the money behind for Ganya and takes
off with Rogozhin. Myshkin runs out into the street, following after the
bells of their troikas.