The Idiot

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This article is about the Dostoyevsky novel. For other uses, see The Idiot (disambiguation).
The Idiot
The Idiot (book cover).jpg
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Idiot
Author Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Original title Идиот[1]
Country Russia
Language Russian language
Genre Philosophical novel
Published 1869

The Idiot (Russian: Идио́т, Idiot) is a novel by the 19th-century Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was first published serially in the journal The Russian Messenger in 1868-9.

The title is an ironic reference to the central character of the novel, Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin, a young man whose goodness and open-hearted simplicity lead many of the more worldly characters he encounters to mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight. In the character of Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky set himself the task of depicting "the positively good and beautiful man".[2] The novel examines the consequences of placing such a unique individual at the centre of the conflicts, desires, passions and egoism of worldly society, both for the man himself and for those with whom he becomes involved. The result, according to philosopher A.C. Grayling, is "one of the most excoriating, compelling and remarkable books ever written; and without question one of the greatest."[3]

Plot summary[edit]

Part 1

Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a fair-haired young man in his mid-twenties and a descendant of one of the oldest Russian lines of nobility, is on a train to Saint Petersburg on a very cold November morning. He is returning to Russia having spent the past four years in a Swiss clinic for treatment of a severe epileptic condition. On the journey Myshkin meets a young man of the merchant class, Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, and is struck by his passionate intensity, particularly in relation to a woman—the dazzling society beauty Nastassya Filippovna—with whom he is obsessed. Rogozhin has just inherited a very large fortune from his dead father and he intends to use it to pursue the object of his desire.

The nominal purpose for Myshkin's trip to St. Petersburg is to make the acquaintance of his very distant relative Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchina, and to make inquiries about a certain matter of business. Madame Yepanchina is the wife of General Yepanchin, a wealthy and respected man in his mid fifties. When the Prince calls on them he is instructed to wait by a servant. He strikes up a conversation with the servant, treating him as an equal and expatiating, to the lackey's surprise, on the subject of the horror of capital punishment. General Yepanchin has an ambitious and vain assistant, Gavril Ardalionovich Ivolgin (Ganya), who the Prince also meets while waiting. He learns that the General and his friend Totsky are seeking to arrange a marriage between Ganya and Nastassya Filippovna. Though herself of noble descent, Nastassya Filippovna became a ward of Totsky at the age of 7, following a family tragedy. When she was 16, Totsky, a highly refined voluptuary, had settled her in a little house in the country and for the next four years treated her as his concubine. Now a grown woman, she has made it frighteningly clear to Totsky that she does not intend to let him off lightly. Totsky, thinking the marriage might settle her and give him back his freedom, has promised 75,000 rubles; but Nastassya Filippovna, unsure of Ganya's motives and aware that his family does not approve of her, has reserved her decision. She has promised, however, to announce it that evening at her birthday soirée. Ganya and the General openly discuss the subject of the proposed marriage in front of Myshkin. Ganya shows him a photograph of her and he is particularly struck by her face. The Prince tells them of Rogozhin's interest in Nastassya Filippovna, and Ganya asks the Prince whether Rogozhin would marry her. The Prince replies that he might well marry her and then murder her a week later.

Myshkin makes the acquaintance of Lizaveta Prokovyevna and her three grown-up daughters—Alexandra, Adelaida and Aglaya, the last being the youngest and the most beautiful. They are all very curious about him and not shy about asking questions and expressing their opinion, particularly Aglaya. He readily engages with them and speaks with remarkable candour on a wide variety of subjects - his illness, his impressions of Switzerland, art, philosophy, donkeys, capital punishment, death and the brevity of life. He ends by describing what he divines about each of their characters from studying their faces, and surprises them by saying that Aglaya is almost as beautiful as Nastassya Filippovna.

The prince rents a room in the Ivolgin apartment, occupied by Ganya; Ganya's sister Varvara Ardalyonovna (Varya); his mother, Nina Alexandrovna; his teenage brother, Nikolai (Kolya); his father, General Ivolgin; and another lodger named Ferdyshchenko. There is much angst within Ganya's family about the proposed marriage, which is regarded, particularly by his mother and sister, as shameful. Just as a quarrel on the subject is reaching a peak of tension, Nastassya Filippovna herself arrives to pay a visit to her potential new family. Shocked and embarrassed, Ganya succeeds in introducing her, but when she bursts in to a prolonged fit of laughter at the look on his face, his expression transforms in to one of murderous hatred. The Prince, fearing something might happen, intervenes to calm him down, and Ganya's rage is diverted toward him in a violent gesture. Ganya recovers himself, but his extreme discomfort is not helped by the entrance of his father—a drunkard with a tendency to tell long, complex, and entirely fictional anecdotes as though they were fact. Nastassya Filippovna flirtatiously encourages the General, and then mocks him. Ganya's humiliation is compounded by the arrival of Rogozhin, accompanied by a rowdy crowd of drunks and rogues. Rogozhin offers a hundred thousand rubles to Nastassya Filippovna if she will marry him instead of Ganya. As the scene begins to assume increasingly scandalous proportions, Varya angrily demands that someone remove the "shameless hussy". Ganya loses all control and violently seizes his sister's arm. Cheered on by Nastassya Filippovna, Varya spits in his face. He is about to strike her when the Prince again intervenes, and Ganya slaps him in the face with all his might. Everyone is deeply shocked, including Nastassya Filippovna, and she struggles to maintain her mocking aloofness as the others seek to comfort the Prince. Myshkin admonishes her, and tells her it is not who she really is. She hurriedly apologises to Ganya's mother and leaves, telling Ganya to be sure to come to her birthday party that evening. Rogozhin and his retinue go off to raise the 100,000 rubles.

Among the guests at the party are Totsky, General Yepanchin, Ganya, and Ferdyshchenko, who, with the approval of Nastassya Filippovna, plays the role of cynical buffoon. With the acquiescence of Kolya, Prince Myshkin arrives, uninvited. To enliven the party, Ferdyshchenko suggests a game where everyone must recount the story of the worst thing they have ever done. Others are shocked at the proposal, but Nastassya Filippovna is enthusiastic. When it comes to Totsky's turn he tells a long but completely innocuous anecdote from the distant past. Disgusted and angry, Nastassya Filippovna turns to Myshkin and demands his advice on whether or not to marry Ganya. Myshkin timidly advises her not to, and Nastassya Filippovna, to the dismay of Totsky, General Yepanchin and Ganya, firmly announces that she is following this advice. At this point, Rogozhin and his followers arrive with the promised 100,000 rubles. Myshkin himself offers to marry Nastassya Filippovna instead, announcing that he has recently received a large inheritance. Though surprised and deeply touched by Myshkin's love, Nastassya Filippovna, after throwing the 100,000 rubles in the fire and telling Ganya they are his if he wants to get them out, chooses to leave with Rogozhin. Myshkin follows them.

Part 2

For the next six months Nastassya Filippovna is torn between Myshkin's compassionate and insightful love for her and a self-punishing desire to ruin herself by submitting to Rogozhin's passion. Myshkin is tormented by her suffering, and Rogozhin is tormented by her love for Myshkin and her frequently expressed disdain for his own claims on her. Myshkin's inheritance turns out to be smaller than expected and shrinks further as he satisfies the often fraudulent claims of creditors and alleged relatives. Finally, he returns to St. Petersburg and visits Rogozhin's house. They discuss religion and exchange crosses, but Nastassya Filippovna remains between them. Myshkin becomes increasingly horrified at Rogozhin's attitude to her. Rogozhin confesses to beating her in a jealous rage, and raises the possibility of cutting her throat.

Later that day, Rogozhin, motivated by jealousy, attempts to stab Myshkin in the hall of the prince's hotel, but a sudden epileptic fit saves the prince. Myshkin then leaves St. Petersburg for Pavlovsk, a nearby town popular as a summer residence of St. Petersburg nobility. The prince rents several rooms from Lebedev, a rogue functionary who is, however, a highly complex character, first introduced at the time Myshkin meets Rogozhin on the train to Petersburg. Most of the novel's characters—the Yepanchins, the Ivolgins, Varya and her husband Ptitsyn, and Nastassya Filippovna—spend the summer in Pavlovsk as well.

Burdovsky, a young man who claims to be the illegitimate son of Myshkin's late benefactor, Pavlishchev, demands money from Myshkin as a "just" reimbursement for Pavlishchev's support. Burdovsky is supported by a group of insolent young men, including the consumptive seventeen-year-old Hippolite Terentyev, a friend of Kolya Ivolgin. Although Burdovsky's claim turns out to be based on a false rumour—he is not Pavlishchev's son at all—Myshkin feels compassion for him and is willing to help him financially.

The prince now spends much of his time at the Yepanchins' home. He falls in love with Aglaya and she appears to reciprocate his feelings. A haughty, willful, and capricious girl, she refuses to publicly admit her love and in fact often openly mocks him. Yet her family begins to acknowledge him as her fiancé and even stages a dinner party in the couple's honor for members of the Russian nobility. Over the course of an ardent speech on religion and the future of aristocracy, Myshkin accidentally breaks a beautiful Chinese vase. Later that evening he suffers a mild epileptic fit. Guests and family agree that the sickly prince is not a good match for Aglaya.

Yet Aglaya does not renounce Myshkin and even arranges to meet Nastassya Filippovna, who has been writing her letters in an attempt to persuade her to marry Myshkin. At the meeting the two women confront the Prince and demand that he choose between Aglaya, whom he loves romantically, and Nastassya Filippovna, for whom he has compassionate pity. Myshkin demurs, prompting Aglaya to depart, ending all hope for an engagement between them. Nastassya Filippovna then renews her vow to marry the Prince, but goes off with Rogozhin instead.

The prince follows Nastassya and Rogozhin to Saint Petersburg and learns that Rogozhin has slain Nastassya Filippovna during the night. The two men keep vigil over her body, which Rogozhin has laid out in his study. Rogozhin is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia, Myshkin goes mad and returns to the sanatorium and Aglaya, against the wishes of her family, marries a wealthy, exiled Polish count who later is discovered to be neither wealthy, nor a count, nor an exile—at least, not a political exile—and who, along with a Catholic priest, has turned her against her family.


  • Lev Nikoláyevich Mýshkin (Лев Никола́евич Мы́шкин)
  • Nastásya Philíppovna Baráshkova (Наста́сья Фили́пповна Бара́шкова)
  • Parfyón Semyónovich Rogózhin (Парфён Семёнович Рого́жин)
  • General Iván Fyódorovich Epanchín
  • Elizavéta (Lizavéta) Prokófyevna
  • Alexándra Ivánovna
  • Adelaída Ivánovna
  • Agláya Ivánovna
  • General Ardalión Alexándrovich Ivolgin
  • Nína Alexándrovna
  • Gavríla Ardaliónovich (Gánya, Gánechka, Gánka)
  • Varvára Ardaliónovich
  • Lukyán Timoféevich Lébedev
  • Véra Lukyánovna
  • Ippolít Teréntyev
  • Iván Petróvich Ptítisyn
  • Evgény Pávlovich Radómsky
  • Prince Shch.
  • Afanásy Ivánovich Tótsky
  • Ferdýshchenko
  • Lieutenant, ret. Keller
  • Antíp Burdóvsky


Joseph Frank has called The Idiot "perhaps the most original of Dostoevsky's great novels, and certainly the most artistically uneven of them all," and he admitted of "the inconsistencies and awkwardnesses of its structures and motivation."[4]

In her essay "The Epileptic Mode of Being," Elizabeth Dalton wrote that in The Idiot, more than in any other of Dostoevsky's works, we are shown "the actual experience itself" of one mind wrestling with the various tensions of life – rather than simply dwelling on "intellectual speculation," as we see in Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground.[5]

Richard Pevear called The Idiot "Dostoevsky's most autobiographical novel," and notes that, in contrast to Crime and Punishment, setting has very little importance in this novel: "Russia is present in the novel not as a place but as a question – the essence of Russia, the role of Russia and the "Russian Christ" in Europe and in the world."[6]

Adaptations and tributes[edit]

English translations[edit]

Since The Idiot was first published in Russian, there have been a number of translations into English over the years, including those by:

The Constance Garnett translation was for many years accepted as the definitive English translation, but more recently it has come under criticism for being dated. The Garnett translation, however, still remains widely available because it is now in the public domain. Some writers, such as Anna Brailouvsky, have based their translations on Garnett's. Since the 1990s, new English translations have appeared that have made the novel more accessible to English readers. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation (2000) states that the Alan Myers version is the best currently available, though since then, new translations by David McDuff and Pevear & Volokhonsky have also been well received.


  1. ^ Идіотъ in original, pre-1920s spelling
  2. ^ Dostoevsky letter quoted in Peace, Richard (1971). Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels. Cambridge University Press. pp. 59–63. ISBN 0 521 07911 X. 
  3. ^ Grayling, A.C. "The Heart of Things". Google Books. Retrieved October 25, 2010. 
  4. ^ Frank, Joseph (1995). Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–1871. Princeton University Press. p. 340. ISBN 9780691043647. 
  5. ^ Bloom, Harold (1988). Fyodor Dostoevsky: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. p. 183. ISBN 1555462944. 
  6. ^ Pevear, Richard (2003). Introduction to The Idiot. New York: Vintage Classics. pp. xix, vii. ISBN 0375702245. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Bruckner, D.J.R. (December 21, 1992). "The Idiot: Theater in Review". The New York Times. Retrieved May 18, 2013.
  9. ^ Playbill (October 15, 2003). "Who's Who in the Cast". Playbill. Retrieved May 18, 2013.
  10. ^ "Idiot (TV Mini-Series 2003)". IMDB. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  11. ^ "The Idiot Returns". IMDB. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  12. ^ "London Theater". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  13. ^ Hesse, Hermann. "Thoughts on The Idiot by Dostoevsky" (PDF). German, Slavic, and Semitic Studies. University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  14. ^ "L'amour braque". IMDB. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  15. ^ "Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Idiot". BBC. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 

External links[edit]