Part I, Prince Myshkin Returns
“One can't understand everything at once, we can't begin with perfection all at once! In order to reach perfection one must begin by being ignorant of a great deal. And if we understand things too quickly, perhaps we shan't understand them thoroughly.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
The Idiot is one of Dostoevsky's great novels from the final decade of his life. Narrated in the third person it tells a tale of the fate of a truly good man, an apparently naive innocent. This character, Prince Lef Nicolaievitch Myshkin, is a noble man whose behavior at first is only strange and unconventional. Short, slight, with light hair and mustache, nearly white beard, and searching blue eyes, he arrests the attention of all who see him. His naive, unblemished goodness, in part the result of his life-long bout with epilepsy, causes men to doubt him and women to love him. He is considered by some to be in part a prototype for the character of Aloysha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.
After four years spent in Switzerland, where he was treated for his epilepsy at a sanatorium, Prince Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg. On the train, the threadbare shabbiness of his clothing attracts the attention of the other passengers. One of these, Parfen Rogozhin, begins to question him. By the time they reach Petersburg, the prince and Rogozhin are well informed about each other, and Rogozhin offers to take the prince to his home and to give him money.
Myshkin, however, first wants to introduce himself to General Epanchin, whose wife is distantly related to him. At the Epanchin home, he meets the general and his secretary, Ganya, who invites him to become one of his mother’s boarders. The prince interests the general, who gives him some money, and he fascinates the general’s wife and three daughters. His lack of sophistication, his naïveté, and his frankness, charm and amuse the family. Soon they begin to call him “the idiot,” half in jest, half in earnest, but he remains on good terms with them. At one point the narrator relates the Prince's thoughts about being called an idiot: "Everybody also considers me an idiot for some reason, and in fact I was once so ill that I was like an idiot; but what sort of idiot I am now, when I myself understand that I'm considered an idiot? I come in and think: 'They consider me an idiot, but I'm intelligent all the same, and they don't even suspect it . . .' I often have that thought."(p 75)
In this first of four parts of the novel we are introduced to themes of class distinction through the many characters we meet at the Epanchins and elsewhere; while a contrast is developed between Myshkin and those he meets primarily through his indifference to the trappings of society, including their money, dress, and self-serving behavior. Other themes arise such as death, which is emphasized through two stories related by the Prince, and sickness that is endemic to the Prince's physical character. One of the stories about death mirrors an actual experience of Dostoevsky when in his youth he had been imprisoned and taken out to be executed -- an execution that was abrogated at the last moment leaving a permanent scar on Dostoevsky's psyche.
The first part, covers only the first day of the Prince's return to Petersburg, and concludes with several chapters detailing a drinking party given by Nastasya Filippovna, a courtesan. Extremely emotional and neurotic, Nastasya is thought by many to be guilty of sins of which she is really innocent. Myshkin realizes her helplessness and pities her; and he asks her to marry him, saying that he received an unexpected inheritance. She refuses, declaring that she has no desire to cause his ruin. Instead she goes with Rogozhin, who brings her a hundred thousand rubles. Will the prince continue to pursue Nastasya? Perhaps Part Two will tell us.