For a long time now I’ve been tormented by a certain idea, but I’ve been afraid to make a novel out of it, because the thought is too difficult, and I’m not ready for it, though it’s thoroughly tempting thought and I love it. The idea is -- to portray a perfectly beautiful man. Nothing, in my opinion, can be more difficult than that, especially in our time.—Fyodor Dostoevsky, in a letter to Apollon Maikov, January 12, 1868
Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin returns to St Petersburg after a several-year stay at a Swiss sanatorium. He had received treatment for epilepsy and supposed mental deficiencies, and now that his treatments are at an end, he’s eager to “be with people” again.
What Prince Myshkin finds within his very first day on Russian soil are people who, whether nobility or lower class, whether old Orthodox or young nihilists, are constantly struggling against each other: struggling for social status, for money, or for romantic conquest. He meets the brooding and passionate Rogozhin, the bitterly philosophical Ippolit, the possibly-mad femme fatale Nastasya, the capricious daughter of nobility Aglaya, and the vain but ordinary Gavrila.
These people, with their crossed purposes and intrigues, are a keg of gunpowder, and Prince Myshkin’s noble qualities--his kindness, humility, and surprising forthrightness-- are the spark that sets them off. Because of Myshkin’s innocence, nearly everyone assumes him to be a fool, and either immediately takes him into their confidence, or tries to exploit him outright. The results are alternately tragic and darkly comic.
- Apologizes a Lot: Lukyan Timofeevich Lebedev, when engaging in Yes-Man mode, will browbeat himself and wax lyrical in his agreement with any criticism flung in his direction.
- Attention Whore: Ippolit Terentyev, possibly. Other characters speculate that he can’t stand the thought that other people are happy while he’s dying of tuberculosis.
- Beam Me Up, Scotty: Happens in-story. Both Ippolit and Aglaya attribute the phrase “Beauty will save the world” to Prince Myshkin. What Myshkin actually said was, “Beauty is difficult to judge; I'm not prepared yet. Beauty is a mystery.”
- Book Ends: Major spoiler. The novel opens with Myshkin having been just released from the Swiss sanatorium. The novel ends with Myshkin recommitted to the sanatorium.
- Bungled Suicide: Ippolit attempts to shoot himself in the head. His gun misfires. (Though, owing to his aforementioned attention whoring, some characters suspect that Ippolit wasn’t actually trying to kill himself and had loaded his gun wrong deliberately.)
- Christianity Is Catholic: Inverted. Prince Myshkin launches into a Character Filibuster denouncing Roman Catholicism as anti-Christian, and worse than atheism.
- Femme Fatale: Nastasya Fillipovna.
- Prince Myshkin, Rogozhin, and Ippolit.
- Nastasya Filliponva and Aglaya Ivanovna Epanchin.
- Foreshadowing: Nastassya Filippovna makes a comment about Rogozhin becoming consumed by his passions and ending up being exiled to Siberia. Much later on, Rogozhin murders her...and is sentenced to fifteen years' hard labor in Siberia.
- Friendship Moment: Myshkin and Rogozhin, in Part Two, meet to discuss their feelings for Nastasya, and exchange crosses before parting.
- Friend to All Children: Myshkin was beloved by children when he was getting over his illness in Switzerland.
- Funetik Aksent: When Lebedev tries to use French words and mispronounces them, the words are written phonetically to convey his accent.
- Heroic BSOD: The finale leaves Prince Myshkin mad and unable to speak.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Prince Myshkin.
- Internalized Categorism: Nastasya believes herself forever soiled by her time as Totsky’s mistress, and decides she might as well be a bad girl.
- Love Dodecahedron: Let's see. Myshkin loves Aglaya, and is briefly in love with Nastasya but mainly just pities her (which nevertheless makes Aglaya see her as a threat). Gavrila loves Aglaya, but for various reasons won't commit himself to her; he doesn't love Nastasya at all, but he's seeking her hand anyway because of her impressive dowry. Rogozhin only has eyes for Nastasya. Nastasya used to be Tostky's mistress but now she hates the man; she seems to despise Gavrila; she's in a full-on Masochism Tango with Rogozhin, so it's unclear whether she loves or hates him; and she seems to be afraid of Myshkin--his love threatens her self-image as a bad person, and in her more selfless moments she fears that she'll hurt him.
- The Masochism Tango: Roghozin and Nastasya are the worst offenders, but everyone gets in on the act to some extent.
- Meaningful Name:
- Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin. In Russian, “lev” means “lion”, and “mysh” means “mouse”. Furthermore, Myshkin shares his name with an architect from Karazim’s History of the Russian State, who designed a large cathedral that collapsed in 1474.
- Nastasya Fillipovna Barashkov. Barashkov is derived from the Russian for “lamb”. Nastasya is short for Anastasia, from the Greek anastasis, meaning “resurrection”.
- The Messiah: Myshkin, not that it does him any good.
- Money to Burn: Nastasya throws a package of ten thousand rubles into her fireplace, and tells Gavrila that he can have the money if he pulls it out with his bare hands.
- Moral Dilemma: Aglaya and Nastasya's confrontation ends with them forcing Prince Myshkin to decide which is more important, his love for Aglaya, or his pity for Nastasya?
- Poke the Poodle: According to the narrator, Gavrila Ardalionovich would constantly insist to himself that he would be as mean as it took to succeed, but could never bring himself to do anything truly mean.
- Poor Communication Kills: It seems no one in this book is capable of actually saying what’s on their mind (assuming that they themselves understand what they’re thinking); the suspicions and misunderstandings that arise are major driving forces on the plot.
- Pride: The major motivation for nearly everybody. Prince Myshkin is darn near the only person not motivated by pride.
- Ridiculously Average Guy: Lampshaded and discussed at length. The narrator launches into an aside about how memorable literary types are actually exaggerations of traits from real life--and inversely, “ordinary” folks are actually watered-down versions of traits from fiction. The narrator then describes a particular class of ordinary folks, those who attempt (unsuccessfully) to make themselves unique or who (falsely) believe themselves to already be unique--and tells us that Varvara Ardalionovna Ptitsyn, her husband Ivan Petrovich Ptitsyn, and her brother Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin all belong to this class.
- Secret Test of Character: Sort of. The aforementioned Money to Burn scene ends with Gavrila refusing outright to go for the money, then fainting. Nastasya then pulls the money out with fire tongs and decides to give it to Gavrila anyway. “So his vanity is still greater than his lust for money. [...] I grant him full possession of it as a reward for... well, for whatever!” What’s unclear is how much (if at all) Nastasya planned any of it.
- Smug Snake: Ferdyshchenko establishes himself as this in one scene. He proposes, as a bizarre parlor game, that everyone confess the worst misdeed they ever committed. He confesses that he once stole 25 rubles for no reason, and allowed a maid to take the blame for the theft. After telling the story, he gets annoyed that no one is impressed with the deed.
- Tsundere: Aglaya, who falls head-over-heels in love and can never bring herself to publicly admit it, so she mocks the object of her affection instead. Contrast to:
- Tsunshun: Nastasya, who uses her pride and anger as a shield to deflect the pain she has gone through in her life.
- Yes-Man: Lebedev.