After rousing our interest about the mysterious business Myshkin hopes to transact — hopefully, with General Epanchin's help — and before we are introduced to Nastasya in person, Dostoevsky says outright that further background is needed in order that his story be clear.
First, we are briefly introduced to the strong-willed, well-read, and clever-minded Epanchin daughters, and we learn that the eldest has received a semi-proposal of marriage from Mr. Totsky, the patron of Nastasya Filippovna. Then, for the rest of the chapter, we have the history of Nastasya Filippovna and her relations with Totsky, with General Epanchin, and with Ganya. As Dostoevsky was well aware, a rather detailed synopsis of Nastasya's background is necessary if we are to attempt to accept the contradictory and tempestuous actions of this young woman.
Nastasya Filippovna has no recollection of her real family. When she was very young, fire killed her mother, madness destroyed her father, and whooping cough killed her sister, all within the span of a few months, and Nastasya was taken in and reared by a neighboring German family. During those years there is little Nastasya remembers, save for one important matter: a myth-like tale growing in Nastasya's awareness, and at its center a fabulously wealthy hero, the benevolent estate owner, Mr. Totsky. This man took pity on Nastasya when she was an abandoned orphan and placed her with her foster parents. They often tell of the rescue, and because of his saving her and because of Nastasya's lacking blood relatives, Totsky has become a sort of savior or father figure to the girl. Strangely, however, he remains only that: a princely character in a familiar family narrative, for neither Nastasya nor the German family sees or hears from him.
Chance, however, takes a hand, as if often does in Dostoevsky's novels. Suddenly the quiet and pastoral days of young Nastasya change. Totsky, stopping by accident at the German family's farm, is spellbound by the quiet, perfect beauty of the twelve-year-old girl. Once more Nastasya's life makes a dramatic transition. Totsky sends a Swiss governess to the farm to nurture the young adolescent and, four years later, he sends for her. He presents her with her own country home, several maids, a vast library, musical instruments, paints and brushes, and her own dog. Then, two weeks later, he appears, lays claim to his investment, and begins a series of summer visits to Nastasya's cottage. After the summer fades, and during the rest of the year, Totsky is as mysteriously absent as he was during Nastasya's youth. She is isolated. a virtual prisoner in the remote heart of the Russian steppes, and she remains so during the winters and springs and autumns of four years.
One cannot be certain from whom Nastasya hears the gossip that Totsky is about to be married, and afterward the rumor proves to be not wholly correct, but it is responsible for ending Totsky's summer liaisons.
More important, it is responsible for the emergence of Nastasya as a kind of femme fatale. After considering the consequences of Totsky's prospective marriage, she dresses with special care and goes into Petersburg to confront him with the rumor.
Totsky is jolted at Nastasya's change. No longer is she the young girl he kept at the country estate; she stands before him, poised and articulate, and she is very sarcastic: out of spite, she says, she will prevent his ever marrying. She is so impassioned in her pronouncement that Totsky believes her and wonders whether or not she might attempt murder to make good her threat. Legally he is sure that she can do nothing to him but, certain that she indeed threatens violence or scandal of some kind, he capitulates. He finds himself, however, absolutely bewitched by Nastasya's brazenness. Suddenly be decides to bring her to Petersburg; such a tempestuous mistress will enhance his reputation as a connoisseur of magnificent women.
The apartment in the city which Totsky furnishes for Nastasya is as lavish as he can afford and during the following five years it becomes even more sumptuous. But the apartment remains always far less spectacular than its mistress. Nastasya becomes the belle of Petersburg. From nowhere she appears and establishes herself as the epitome of chic. She is often seen at the operas, concerts, and smart restaurants with Totsky and with authors, princes, politicians, and the like; yet no one, save Totsky, can boast of conquest.
Years pass and gradually Nastasya's goddess-like qualities begin to dissolve. More frequently and for longer periods of time, she withdraws and busies herself with listening to music, and reading and studying. Totsky, meanwhile, continues to be somewhat on the defensive with her in private. He feels that he is reaching the prime of life and needs a change. He and Nastasya have continued their affair for nine years and now he longs for a comfortable home, a respectable marriage, and an end to his bon vivant image. He has tried tempting Nastasya with all sorts of prominent, handsome suitors — but she remains icily charming and unmoved. It is in desperation that he finally persuades General Epanchin, hopefully his prospective father-in-law, to go with him and attempt to convince Nastasya that after all these years, he should have the freedom to marry without fear of her vindictiveness.
Both men plead for Nastasya's understanding. Totsky yearns for family life, and the general especially desires a match with Totsky for his aging eldest daughter. Totsky even promises Nastasya 75,000 rubles if she will discreetly break off their relations. Nastasya graciously acquiesces and both men are stupefied. But there are conditions. Nastasya is not to be so easily married off to Ganya Ivolgin, the general's secretary, as Totsky suggests. First, she has heard rumors, and she must be certain that neither Ganya nor his family considers her an inferior because of her past. Second, she reserves the right, until the last moment, to forgo the marriage; Ganya, she also insists, also has such a right.
Far from being pleased with the prospects for his future, Totsky becomes increasingly unsure. Nastasya is said to have heard of Ganya's selfishness and his threat to have his revenge for her past life as soon as they are married. There is also gossip that General Epanchin is attracted to Nastasya. Unfortunately both rumors are absolutely true.
All Petersburg is waiting for Nastasya's promised announcement and General Epanchin is especially eager to learn what her decision will be. He has bought her an expensive string of pearls and already he and his wife have quarreled over the gift. Now he will have to see his wife at lunch and he shrinks from her sharp tongue and the nasty remarks of his three daughters, who, he is sure, will join their mother in her attack on the general. Moment by moment, he grows more nervous as the hour for lunch approaches and is brooding over the approaching eruption when a servant announces an unexpected visitor to his office — Prince Lyov Myshkin. This rare specimen of a long-lost relative seems a godsend, a curiosity he can use to distract his wife and daughters.
The information concerning the Epanchin family makes one matter clear: The novel is filled with intrigue. Scarcely anyone acts without deviousness, save for Prince Myshkin. The elder Epanchins, who set great store on appearances, have deceived themselves, for they imagine that no one is aware of how watchful they really are of their daughters. The Epanchin's appear to be modern, allowing their daughters to make up their own minds about whom and when they will marry, but the parents are carefully on guard and are, at present, successfully steering the eldest, Alexandra, into a marriage with the rich Mr. Totsky. What irony! The Epanchin daughters are as clever as their parents and do exactly as they please. All of them are spoiled, and they follow their own pattern of behavior, seeming to be a new breed of woman, most different from their mother. They are curiously close to one another, having decided that the youngest, Aglaia, will marry ideally and will have a colossal dowry. Dostoevsky speculates that Alexandra's vague "yes," in answer to Totsky's equally vague proposal (Totsky can propose nothing until Nastasya releases him) might be mercenary, an attempt to enrich Aglaia's dowry.
Alongside Dostoevsky's delineation of these three strong-willed young women is his history of Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov. She, too, is strong-willed but she is a vacillating woman. She is contradictory and one never can be sure of what she may do. In large measure her background accounts for this and thus it is necessary for Dostoevsky to supply us with that information.
Nastasya has endless contempt for Totsky; she even admits it to him. But more important, Nastasya has more contempt for herself than she does for Totsky. As a young girl of sixteen, she was overpowered by Totsky's attention, and until she was twenty she could bless him (or blame him, if she chose) for her predicament. She was the mistress of her own lovely house, with library, servants, everything. And she was the mistress of a wealthy man. But after twenty Nastasya could no longer afford the luxury of blaming Totsky for her courtesan status. She is responsible for the continuation of the affair; her pride will not allow Totsky to give her away to one of his friends as casually as he might give away a well read, beautifully bound book. She coerced Totsky into lengthening their liaison for almost five more years.
The price Nastasya paid for this arrangement was excessive, for after the bargain was made she slowly lost all respect for herself. She situated herself in Petersburg but she was never really happy. The material accessories Totsky furnished were extraordinary, yet Nastasya remained indifferent to them. Even her relationship with Totsky was no longer satisfactory; it was not a matter of master and mistress. Totsky had been cowed by Nastasya and she had little respect for him, in addition to the lack of respect she had for herself. Nastasya became a stranger to herself; she began to exist on nerves and defensive pride. At twenty-five, her life seemed without direction, empty of passion and feeling. She had allowed herself to become something very much like a dried bouquet to beautify Totsky's apartment.
We are not, I think, nearly as shocked as Totsky and Epanchin that Nastasya agrees to end the romantic charade; it is almost natural that she would welcome a change, the chance to become a wife, even to someone as socially insignificant as Ganya Ivolgin. True, she does not love Ganya, yet loneliness can produce strange reactions — unexpected acts to break free from growing depression.