Summary and Analysis
At Nastasya's, Myshkin is admitted by a maid, who displays no surprise at his shabby appearance; she announces him, there is a buzz of gossip at the prince's arrival, and Nastasya Filippovna goes to meet him. Myshkin whispers a few words of admiration to her but she protests; she is not perfection, she says, and he will soon see.
After champagne is served, a petit-jeu is suggested and Ferdyshtchenko proposes a most unusual game: confessing publicly the worst of all the evil acts one has committed. No one is particularly anxious to begin the game but Nastasya insists and lots are drawn. Ferdyshtchenko is first. His story concerns a robbery he committed two years ago; it was a small amount he stole but a maid was accused of the crime and was dismissed. Ptitsyn, who is next, declines and the turn moves to General Epanchin. He also tells about a theft and this time the group learns that long ago the general had a pot stolen from him and, in his anger, he rushed and confronted an old woman who he believed to be guilty. He raved at her but she remained silent, hunched in the corner of a passage. Later, he discovered that the old woman was dying while he vented his anger on her. His guilt was unbearable and he was not at peace until he finally gave a large sum of money to charity. Ferdyshtchenko comments that the general has told not an evil act but, instead, that he has described an act of goodness.
Totsky's turn is next and he confesses to a most curious incident. Years ago, one of his friends was terribly in love with a married woman and, as the eve of a great ball approached, the man wished to present his beloved with a bouquet of camellias (La Dame aux Camélias being the vogue then). To his great disappointment, he discovered that all the camellias in town had been bought; he had no gift of flowers for Anfisa Alexeyevna. By accident, however, he heard of a merchant in a town fifteen miles away who raised camellias and confided to Totsky that at last he was in luck. Totsky mischievously arrived at the merchant's house before Petya Vorhovsky, purchased the entire lot of red camellias and sent them to Anfisa Alexeyevna. Vorhovsky was crushed, was delirious, and had convulsions, and when he recovered, he volunteered for service in the Caucasus. Totsky learned later that he had been killed, all this happened, he says, because of a joke he felt like playing on the lovesick boy.
Nastasya then calls a halt to the stories and says that she will entertain She tells Myshkin that General Epanchin and Totsky wish her to marry Ganya; she asks him if she should and says that she will accept whatever his decision may be. Myshkin stammers and whispers to her not to marry Ganya. She agrees because she considers the prince her only sincere friend, and the party becomes a turmoil of protestation, and questioning. There is more, Nastasya says, when the guests have calmed a bit: she further rejects Totsky's dowry of 75,000 rubles and says that she is leaving Petersburg; there will be no more parties. Again, the excited guests protest but they are silenced by a violent ringing of the doorbell.
The petit-jeu, the "little game" that is played at Nastasya Filippovna's birthday party, is based on confession, a strange concept for a party game. Confession is usually between priest and layman, or between individuals, yet the game suggested involves revealing ones most evil deed to all the other guests; in other words, confessing in order to parade one's blackest side in public — a sort of boasting, as it were. One is to confess not to be forgiven but merely to expose oneself. It is certainly no game, nor is it truly confession that is suggested; it is a mad inverseness, a mood which characterizes the entire evening. Between the guests' conversation and Dostoevsky's comments we are reminded of Nastasya Filippovna's growing hysteria. At the beginning of the party she is rather silent, then becomes merry when Myshkin arrives; she comforts an elderly coughing man, then breaks her usual standard of decorum and offers champagne with no ceremony.
Returning to the game, it is significant that not one of the guests has done anything really terrible, such as murder, for example. That particular crime, one might note, belongs to the book's climax and to a guest yet to arrive at the party. A theft is confessed to, a story told of an accusation leveled at a silent, stone-faced woman, and a teasing prank involving camellias is recalled. None of the stories is really evil, yet of the three we listen to, it is General Epanchin's story which seems the most horrifying, in spite of Ferdyshtchenko's charge that the general described one of his good actions. Ironically, it seems far more damning to the general's character for us to discover that he was able to rid himself of all his guilt by donating a large sum of money to charity. The fact that money has the power to pardon seems incredible, especially in the light of the many references to money already, plus Rogozhin's lust for money, Ganya's hopes of being an "original" man dependent on money, and Totsky and General Epanchin's social positions supported by money. And probably most disturbing is Nastasya Filippovna's being sought, bid for, and sold.
After the "game" has continued for some time, Nastasya Filippovna calls it to a halt. She is very much like a queen here, for although she is not the only woman present, she is, without a doubt, the queen of the evening, and is desired for one reason or another by all the men present. They hang on her every word; she knows it, and they know it. Thus, when she says the game is over, they all turn to her and she turns them from games to real entertainment; if anyone has lied, exaggerated, or colored his confession, then they are about to witness something far more shocking than their make-believe world of confession. This will not be imaginary and not of the past; it will be a very real exposure of Nastasya's madness.
She turns to Prince Myshkin and tells him her predicament. Shall she marry Ganya or not? Myshkin is to decide for Nastasya and she will do as he says. It is highly dramatic but not wholly as irrational as it seems. By this diversion, Nastasya reclaims the attention of her guests and she knows, if she has stopped to consider the matter, what Myshkin's answer will be. The prince obviously adores Nastasya Filippovna; she cannot be unaware of his feelings. And so Nastasya must be judged as calculating — madly calculating. This will be a night unlike any other for her; it is to be her last evening in Petersburg and she snatches at any absurdity, any madness that presents itself.