Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin - The hero and protagonist of the novel. Myshkin is from an old noble line and a distant relative of Madame Yepanchin. Myshkin has light-brown hair and blue eyes. He is mid-twenties to early thirties. At the beginning of the novel he returns to his native Russia after an absence of four years spent in a sanitarium in Switzerland. Myshkin is a meek man in a land of competition. This is why he is called an “idiot.”
Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov - A recognized alluring female around the same age as Myshkin. Myshkin calls her mad. Nastassya Filippovna was once a ward of Totsky. Later, however, he seduced her and made her his mistress when she was a young woman. She blames herself for her dishonor and, although she loves Prince Myshkin, she considers herself unworthy of marrying him. Nastassya runs away on the day of her proposed wedding to Rogozhin, who takes her away and then, later, stabs her to death.
Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin - A swarthy twenty-seven year-old who is descended from a long line of merchants. Rogozhin is madly in love with Nastassya Filippovna. After receiving a large inheritance, he attempts to woo her [buy her] by bringing her 100,000 rubles. She cannot decide between the two—going first to one and then to the other. When he “rescues” her on her wedding day to Myshkin, he ends up killing her.
Aglaya Ivanovna Yepanchin - A beautiful twenty-year-old beautiful and the youngest daughter of General Yepanchin and Lizaveta Prokofyevna. Aglaya is haughty and childlike in her caprices, but also very romantic and idealistic. She falls in love with Prince Myshkin, but is unable to accept his compassionate love for Nastassya Filippovna. Aglaya ends up running away with a man claiming to be a Polish count, who later abandons her.
Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin - A thin, blonde, attractive young man in his late tweties. Ganya is highly vain and ambitious. Although the epitome of mediocrity, he strives for originality. He is in love with Aglaya, but is willing to marry Nastassya Filippovna—whom he despises—for 75,000 rubles. Of course, this never occurs.
Ivan Fyodorovitch Yepanchin - A fifty-six year-old general. Yepanchin is a wealthy and respected member of St. Petersburg society. At the beginning of the novel he lusts after Nastassya Filippovna. As the novel progresses he begins to fail and becomes something of a bafoon.
Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin - A distant relative of Prince Myshkin and the wife of General Yepanchin. In her willfulness and eccentricity, Lizaveta is very similar to Aglaya. Her greatest anxiety in life is finding suitable husbands for her three daughters.
Alexandra Ivanovna Yepanchin - The oldest daughter of the Yepanchins, who is twenty-five and unmarried. Although Alexandra's parents worry about her marriage, she feels very calm. Highly educated and well read, she has a talent for music.
Adelaida Ivanovna Yepanchin - The middle daughter of the Yepanchins, who is twenty-three. Adelaida, like her older sister, is very cultivated and expresses a talent for painting. She is engaged to Prince S.
Hippolite Terentyev - A seventeen year-old consumptive. Hippolite is well aware of his approaching death and feels like an outcast of nature. He tries to reassert himself by espousing his own views on life and morality in his "Essential Statement" and then by his suicide attempt: shooting himself with an unloaded gun. He is in love with Aglaya, Hippolite is a friend of Kolya and the son of Madame Terentyev, the mistress of General Ivolgin.
Afanassy Ivanovich Totsky - A rich aristocrat in his middle fifties, he tries to arrange the marriage between Nastassya Filippovna and Ganya to get her off his hands. Several years before the action of the novel takes place, he makes her his mistress for several years.
Yevgeny Pavlovich Radomsky - A young and dashing suitor to Aglaya Yepanchin. Radomsky retires from the military just before he takes part in the novel's action. A man of reason, he frequently visits Myshkin in the Swiss sanitarium at the end of the novel.
Prince S. - The good-looking and intelligent fiancé of Adelaida Yepanchin, who later on becomes her husband. Prince S. is hardworking, knowledgeable, and very rich.
Lebedev - A rogue, drunkard, liar, and recently widowed father of a large family. At the beginning of the novel, Lebedev is part of Rogozhin's gang. He later rents out several rooms in his summer cottage in Pavlovsk to Prince Myshkin.
Ivan Petrovitch Ptitsyn - An ordinary man just under thirty who manages to collect a large fortune by being a usurer (lending money for interest). Ptitsyn is suitor and later husband to Varya Ivolgin.
Ardalyon Ivolgin - Ganya's father, an ex-general. General Ivolgin has lost his circle of friends in high society due to constant drinking and lying. He has a stroke late in the book.
Nina Alexandrovna Ivolgin - General Ivolgin's wife. Nina Alexandrovna, a dignified woman of about fifty, is the mother of Varya, Ganya, and Kolya Ivolgin. Despite her husband's lying and keeping of a mistress, she pities him and even helps Hippolite.
Varvara Ardalyonovna Ivolgin (later Ptitsyn) - Ganya's dignified twenty-three-year-old sister. Varya is among the characters whom the narrator considers ordinary people. She tries to help her brother's chances with Aglaya by befriending the Yepanchin girls, but to no avail.
Nikolai Ardalyonovitch Ivolgin - Ganya's younger brother. Kolya is a simple and good-natured boy who becomes friends with Prince Myshkin, whom he respects greatly. Kolya is also friends with Hippolite, whom he visits throughout his illness until Hippolite's death from consumption.
Ferdyshchenko - An ugly and insolent lodger in the Ivolgin apartment at the beginning of the novel. Ferdyshchenko strives to be original, yet most people regard him contemptuously as a drunkard and an amoral rogue.
Burdovsky - A young man who fraudulently claims to be the son of Pavlishchev, Myshkin's late benefactor. Burdovsky attempts to use the false claim to gain access to a portion of the prince's inheritance. When Myshkin’s hired detective shows this claim to be impossible Burdovsky leaves—but now without Myshkin helping Burdovsky’s mother (who Burdovsky defamed as having him out-of-wedlock).
The book revolves around three people: Prince Myshkin, Nastassya Filippovna, and Rogozhin. Each are “peculiar” in their own ways. At the beginning of the book Myshkin is coming home from Switzerland where he had been having health treatments. It is unclear whether this is really epilepsy. The so-called seizures do not clinically fit this. Instead, I think they are psychological panic attacks. I am not sure whether Dostoevsky read the Hippocratic treatise “On the Sacred Disease.” If he did, then it is probably that Dostoevsky intended Myshkin to be “touched” in a sacred way. Indeed, the prince is a quasi-Christ figure (on the model of Francis of Assisi). Myshkin is simple, but profound. He has money but he gives most of it away. He is not afraid to die, and is not overcome by desire.
Myshkin “falls in love” with two women: (a) a fallen woman in Switzerland; and (b) Nastassya Filippovna, a fallen woman in Russia. He feels sorry for them. He wants to save them. But then there is also Aglaya. He loves her too, but in a different way. She has let out that she loves him and that creates an expectation of marriage. Myshkin agrees (formally) but then Aglava wants to willfully show that she is the preferred woman and she sets up a “choose me or her” situation. Myshkin refuses to choose. That breaks things up and leads to the tragic end where on his wedding day Nastassya asks Rogozhin to save her from the marriage. But the end of love brings death.
There is definitely something crazy going on!
So whence the crazy? Is it the people? Is it the society? Is it humankind, in general (there are quite a few generals in this novel)? So getting beyond the questions, I believe that this novel is about Russia as being the idiot. Prince Myshkin is a decent guy who does not get hung up on his money (which he largely gives away) or any other personal gain. He is a Christ-like stoic who seeks to get on and do good whenever he can. This is totally contrary to the competitive social climbers who inhabit the rest of the volume. There are three key scenes. The first is when Burdovsky (spurred on by some of his friends) seeks to get half of Myshkin’s money claiming that his mother had an out-of-wedlock affair with Myshkin’s benefactor (Pavlishchev) and so HE, Burdovsky is the illegitimate son who is entitled to half of the wealth. This scene is about pure competitive greed. This is a tale told by a real idiot full of sound and fury and signifies nothing. Pavlishchev had been out of the country for a number of years at the time that Burdovsky was born. Myshkin had documentation to prove this. Myshkin is no “pushover” but he is a truly meek man and seeks to set out the truth in a way that is kind. Myshkin was kindto Burdovsky’s mother (which is more than Burdovsky can say).
Second is the statement of Hippolite Terentyev. It is a rambling treatise of a community worldview seen by a man who believes he is about to die. (He does die way before his teen-aged time.) This is essentially a statement of existentialism. The event is heightened when he attempts suicide with an unloaded gun. Is this a stunt (thus negating the statement) or is it the honest mistake of a troubled mind—existentialists say we should all be so troubled.
Third, is when Myshkin is taken by Aglava to Nastassya’s in order to “prove” to herself that Myshkin (who is legally engaged to her) really loves her more than Natassya. Big mistake. Myshkin does not choose women on the basis of love, but rather compassion. Just as he had in Switzerland defended the “fallen woman” here he does the same. He throws away his contentment with a conventional marriage in order to save Natassya. It is a pity that she is not able to accept this.
The message is that Christ-like meekness when introduced into the world is a radical game changer. Christ must be sacrificed and the world is shaken-up.
This book is very ambitious. It is a book of character that revolves around Myshkin and the three key episodes. In some ways these are a bit didactic—but not overly so
Attempt: *****/ Accomplished: ***1/2.
2nd time read: November 2014,