The novel takes place in St. Petersburg and Pavlovsk late 1867 – early 1868.
Prince Leo Nikolayevich Myshkin arrives in St. Petersburg from Switzerland. He is twenty-six years old, he is the last of the noble noble family, he was orphaned early, as a child he fell ill with a severe nervous illness and was placed by his guardian and benefactor Pavlishchev in a Swiss sanatorium. There he lived for four years and now returns to Russia with vague but great plans to serve her. On the train the prince gets acquainted with Parfen Rogozhin, the son of a rich merchant, who inherited a huge fortune after his death. From him the prince for the first time hears the name of Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova, mistress of a certain wealthy aristocrat Totsky, whom Rogozhin is passionately passionate about.
Upon arrival, the prince with his modest knot goes to the house of General Epanchin, whose distant relative of the wife, Elizabeth Prokofievna, is. In the Epanchins family there are three daughters – the elder Alexandra, the average Adelaide and the youngest, the common favorite and beautiful Aglaya. The prince amazes everyone with spontaneity, trustfulness, frankness and naivety, so extraordinary that at first they take it very wary, however with increasing curiosity and sympathy. It turns out that the prince, who seemed a simpleton, and someone cunning, is quite intelligent, but in some things he is really deep, for example, when he tells about the death penalty
The prince will learn and some details: the seducer Nastasya Filippovna Totsky, striving to get rid of her and having plans to marry one of the daughters of the Epanchins, weds her for Ganya Ivolgina, giving as a dowry seventy-five thousand. Ganu is attracted by money. With their help, he dreams to break out into people and in the future significantly increase the capital, but at the same time he does not give rest to the humiliation of the situation. He would prefer marriage to Aglaya Epanchina, which, maybe, is even a little in love. He expects her to make the decisive word, making it dependent on her further actions. The prince becomes an involuntary mediator between Aglaya, who suddenly makes him his confidant, and Ganya, causing irritation and anger in that.
Meanwhile, the prince is offered to settle not somewhere, but in the Ivolgin’s apartment. The prince does not have time to occupy the room given to him and get acquainted with all the inhabitants of the apartment, starting with his relatives Gani and ending with the groom of his sister, the young pawnbroker Ptitsyn and the master of incomprehensible occupations of Ferdyshchenko, as two unexpected events occur. In the house suddenly there is none other than Nastasya Filippovna, who came to invite Ganya and his family to her for the evening. She plays, listening to the fantasies of General Ivolgin, who only inflame the atmosphere. Soon there is a noisy company with Rogozhin at the head, who lays out to Nastasia Philipovna eighteen thousand. There is a kind of bargaining, as if with her mockingly contemptuous participation: is it her, Nastasya Filippovna, for eighteen thousand? Rogozhin does not intend to retreat: no, not eighteen or forty. No, not forty – one hundred thousand! ..
For the sister and mother of Ghani, what is happening is unbearably offensive: Nastasya Filippovna is a corrupt woman who can not be allowed into a decent house. For Gani, she is a hope for enrichment. A scandal erupts: indignant sister Ghani Varvara Ardalionovna spits in his face, he is about to strike her, but the prince unexpectedly intervenes for her and gets a slap in the face from the furious Gani, “Oh, how ashamed of your deed!” – in this phrase the whole prince Myshkin, all his incomparable gentleness. Even at this moment he is compassionate for another, even for the offender. His next word, addressed to Nastasya Filippovna: “Are you what you were now”, will be the key to the soul of a proud woman, deeply suffering from her disgrace and fallen in love with the prince for the recognition of her purity.
Conquered by the beauty of Nastasya Filippovna, the prince comes to her in the evening. Here there was a mixed-race society, beginning with General Epanchin, too, fascinated by the heroine, to the jester Ferdyshchenko. On the sudden question of Nastasya Filippovna, whether to go out for Ganya, he answers negatively and thereby destroys the plans of Totsky who is present here. At half past eleven the bell of the bell is heard and a former company headed by Rogozhin appears, who is laying out a hundred thousand wrapped in front of his wife.
And again in the center appears the prince, who painfully hurts what is happening, he confesses his love for Nastasya Filippovna and expresses her readiness to take her, “honest”, and not “Rogozhinskaya”, as a wife. Immediately, it suddenly turns out that the prince received a rather solid inheritance from his deceased aunt. However, the decision was made – Nastasya Filippovna goes with Rogozhin, and throws a fatal bundle with a hundred thousand in a burning fireplace and offers Ghana to get them out of there. Ganya, with the last of his strength, is held back in order not to rush after the flared up money, he wants to leave, but falls unconscious. Nastasya Filippovna herself grabs a bundle of firemen’s tongs and leaves the money to Ghana as a reward for his torment.
It takes six months. The prince, having traveled through Russia, in particular and by hereditary affairs, and simply out of interest in the country, comes from Moscow to Petersburg. During this time, according to rumors, Nastasya Filippovna ran several times, almost from under the crown, from Rogozhin to the prince, stayed with him for a while, but then fled from the prince.
At the station, the prince feels a fierce look on his face, which torments him with a vague premonition. The prince is paying a visit to Rogozhin in his dirty-green, gloomy house on Gorokhovaya street, like a prison, during which the prince does not give rest to the garden knife lying on the table, he now and again takes it in his hands, until Rogozhin at last, in irritation, him from him. In the house of Rogozhin, the prince sees on the wall a copy of a painting by Hans Holbein, on which is depicted a Savior just taken from the cross. Rogozhin says that he likes to look at her, the prince screams in amazement that “… from this picture, in another, faith can disappear”, and Rogozhin confirms this unexpectedly. They exchange crosses, Parfen leads the prince to mother for blessing, because they are now like brothers.
Returning to his hotel, the prince at the gate suddenly notices a familiar figure and rushes after her to a dark narrow staircase. Here he sees the same ones as at the station, Rogozhin’s glittering eyes, a knife brought. At the same instant, an epileptic seizure occurs with the prince. Rogozhin runs away.
Three days after the attack, the prince moves to Lebedev’s dacha in Pavlovsk, where there is also a family of Epanchins and, according to rumors, Nastasya Filippovna. On the same evening, he gathered a large society of acquaintances, including the Epanchins, who decided to visit the sick prince. Kolya Ivolgin, Gani’s brother, teases Aglaya with the “knight of the poor,” clearly hinting at her sympathy for the prince and causing a painful interest in Aglaya’s mother, Elizabeth Prokofievna, so that her daughter is forced to explain that a poem depicts a person capable of having an ideal and believing in him, give for this ideal life, and then inspiredly reads the very poem of Pushkin.
A little later, a company of young people, led by a certain young man Burdovsky, allegedly “the son of Pavlishchev.” They are sort of like nihilists, but only, according to Lebedev, “go on with, because business is the first thing.” The lampoon is read from the newspaper about the prince, and then they demand that he, as a noble and honest man, reward the son of his benefactor. However, Gania Ivolgin, whom the Prince instructed to deal with this case, proves that Burdovsky is not at all Pavlishchev’s son. The company retreats in embarrassment, only one of them remains – the consumptive Hippolytus Terentyev, who, asserting himself, begins to “talk”. He wants to be pitied and praised, but he is ashamed of his openness, his enthusiasm is replaced by fury, especially against the prince. Myshkin listens attentively to everyone,
A few days later, the prince visits the Epanchins, then the whole family of the Epanchins, together with Prince Yevgeny Pavlovich Radomsky, caring for Aglaya, and Prince Shch., Adelaide’s fiancé, go for a walk. At the station near them a different company appears, among which Nastasya Filippovna. She famously appeals to Radomsky, informing him of the suicide of his uncle, who has squandered a large amount of government money. Everyone is indignant at the provocation. The officer, Radomsky’s friend, remarks indignantly that “there simply must be a whip, otherwise you can not take anything with this creature!”, In response to his insult, Nastasya Filippovna seized his face from one hand with a cane to the blood. The officer is about to strike Nastasya Filippovna, but Prince Myshkin keeps him.
At the celebration of the birthday of Prince Ippolit Terentyev reads his “My Necessary Explanation” – a stunning confession of almost not living, but a lot of young man reconsidered, doomed to premature death. After reading, he commits suicide, but there is no capsule in the gun. The prince defends Hippolytus, who is painfully afraid of appearing ridiculous, from attacks and ridicule.
In the morning on a date in the park Aglaya offers the prince to become her friend. The prince feels that he truly loves her. A little later in the same park there is a meeting of the prince and Nastasya Filippovna, who kneels before him and asks him if he is happy with Aglaya, and then disappears with Rogozhin. It is known that she writes letters to Aglaya, where she persuades her to marry the prince.
A week later, the prince was formally declared the bridegroom Aglaya. To the Epanchins invited high-ranking guests to a kind of “lookout” of the prince. Although Aglaya believes that the prince is incomparably superior to all of them, the hero, because of her partiality and intolerance, is afraid to make the wrong gesture, is silent, but then painfully encouraged, speaks a lot about Catholicism as anti-Christianity, explains everything to love, breaks the precious Chinese vase and falls in a sequential fit, making a painful and embarrassing impression on those present.
Aglaya appoints Nastasya Filippovna’s meeting in Pavlovsk, to which she comes along with the prince. In addition to them there is only Rogozhin. “The proud young lady” strictly and unkindly asks what right Nastasya Filippovna has to write her letters and in general interfere with her and the prince’s personal life. Insulted by the tone and attitude of the rival, Nastasya Filippovna in a fit of vengeance urges the prince to stay with her and drives Rogozhin. The prince is torn between two women. He loves Aglaya, but he loves Nastasya Filippovna – love-pity. He calls her mad, but unable to leave her. The prince’s condition is getting worse, more and more he is plunged into emotional turmoil.
The wedding of the prince and Nastasya Filippovna is planned. The event is overgrown with rumors of various kinds, but Nastasya Filippovna seems to be happily preparing for him, writing out outfits and staying in enthusiasm, then in an unreasonable sadness. On her wedding day, on her way to the church, she suddenly rushes to Rogozhin, who is standing in the crowd, who grabs her in his arms, sits in a carriage and takes her away.
The next morning after her escape the prince comes to Petersburg and immediately goes to Rogozhin. Togo is not at home, but the prince fancies that Rogozhin seems to be looking at him from behind the curtains. The prince walks around the familiar Nastasya Filippovna, trying to find out something about her, returns to Rogozhin’s house several times, but to no avail: no one, no one knows anything. All day the prince wanders around the hot city, believing that Parfen will certainly appear. And it happens: on the street Rogozhin meets him and whispers to follow him. In the house he leads the prince into a room where, in an alcove on a bed under a white sheet, furnished with bottles of Zhdanov’s liquid, so that the smell of decay is not felt, Nastasya Filippovna lies dead.
The prince and Rogozhin together spend sleepless night over the corpse, and when the next day in the presence of the police they open the door, they find Rogozhin rushing about in a delirium and the prince calming him, who already understands nothing and does not recognize anyone. The events completely destroy Myshkin’s psyche and finally turn him into an idiot.