Summary and Analysis
Part I: Chapters 8-10
If family matters are not pleasant at the Epanchin household, neither is all well at the Ivolgin household. It is readily evident to Myshkin that Ganya is ashamed of having to take in boarders. And it also seems that Ganya's father is a source of embarrassment to him, for he has put the old man in a small room away from the main part of the apartment. With his mother and sister, Ganya is cold; in fact, the only happy face in the entire house is that of Kolya, Ganya's young brother. He instantly befriends Myshkin, jokes with him, and alone of all the Ivolgins, makes Myshkin feel at ease in the new surroundings.
Myshkin has only a little time to wash up and collect himself before he is set upon by Ferdyshtchenko, a fellow boarder. Ferdyshtchenko is a curious sort; he babbles about money and the inevitable color-fading of the twenty-five ruble note, then he cautions Myshkin not to lend money to him. Myshkin's next visitor is General Ivolgin, Ganya's father. The general is shabby and he smells of vodka, but makes an attempt at a sort of dignity. He, like Ferdyshtchenko, is a talker and Myshkin listened half-believing to the general's story of knowing Myshkin's father, of almost dueling with the man, and of holding Myshkin as a baby. The old man is passionate as he recalls the past and as he anticipates an incident of the future: Ganya's approaching marriage to Nastasya Filippovna.
Ganya's mother, Nina Alexandrovna, calls Myshkin into the drawing room and there Myshkin tells the family about himself and about the circumstances surrounding an accusation leveled at his father (who died before his trial could come to court). General Ivolgin, however, knows the circumstances Myshkin alludes to, and describes the verbal dressing-down that Myshkin's father gave a private in the army, the subsequent death of the private, and then the strange reappearance of the private. The general would continue, but Ganya's sister, Varvara Ardalionovna, calls the old man to dinner. Nina Alexandrova cautions Myshkin to overlook certain faults of her husband and she especially warns Myshkin never to lend money to him. She is interrupted by Varya, who enters with Nastasya's portrait.
Once again, the portrait of Nastasya Filippovna upsets an entire family. Nina is certain that the picture is proof that Nastasya has consented to marry Ganya, and Ganya is sure that Myshkin has displayed the portrait on purpose. He snaps at his mother and is then railed at by Varya, who says that as soon as Nastasya moves into the house, she (Varya) is leaving. Myshkin leaves the quarreling and, in the hallway, notices someone at the Ivolgin door. It is Nastasya Filippovna. She flings off her coat, assuming Myshkin is a servant, and castigates him for his ineptness in receiving her. She demands that he announce her immediately.
The Ivolgin family is shocked into silence when Myshkin announces the visitor. As for Nastasya, her actions are erratic and surprising: She expresses bewilderment at Ganya's thunderstruck expression and she greets his sister and mother with warm smiles, then turns on the family and asks if it isn't true that they take in lodgers and whether or not it is a paying proposition. Ganya attempts to hide his embarrassment by turning Nastasya's attention to Myshkin, and his ruse is fairly successful, for Nastasya asks the prince about himself. Most of all, she is interested in the prince's reaction to her. She wonders at his defenselessness. Why didn't he tell her that he was no servant? And what does he find so obviously fascinating about her? Myshkin tells her what he has heard from Rogozhin and begins to talk of the strange look he discerns in her eyes, but is halted by the reappearance of General Ivolgin.
Again, Ganya is mortified; for two months he has dreaded Nastasya's meeting his father; now it has happened. The general, seeing an audience, begins one of his tales, this time about a lapdog that he dropped outside the window of a fast-moving train. This he did, he explains, because the lady owner of the dog had done exactly the same thing with a cigar he was smoking. Much nervous laughter follows his story but Nastasya is, of them all, the most amused. Then she accuses the general of recounting for them the exact details of a newspaper story she read less than a week ago. Her laughter is hysterical and is simultaneous with the loud ringing of the front doorbell.
The unexpected visitor is Rogozhin and his band of loud and vulgar friends. They push themselves into the Ivolgin house and then Rogozhin turns deathly pale as he discovers Nastasya Filippovna. Her presence does not deter him from his mission, however; he announces that he intends to buy off Ganya. The clerk, he boasts, will do anything for money. What's more, he says, Nastasya herself can be bought and, after a series of bids, offers 100,000 rubles to her. He promises the money will be hers before evening. Nastasya's reaction is unexpected; at first, her eyes flash, then she laughs, reveling in the extreme ridiculousness of the scene.
Varya condemns Nastasya for her actions and Ganya attempts to slap his sister but is stopped by Prince Myshkin. Furious, Ganya turns on Myshkin and slaps him across the face. The company moves in sympathy toward Myshkin, who warns Ganya that he will soon be ashamed of what he has done. The prince's sudden chivalry touches all of them, except for Ganya and, seemingly, Nastasya. She attempts to maintain a sarcastic set to her mouth, but fails when Myshkin declares that she is not as she seems; her composure breaks, and she kneels to kiss Nina Alexandrova's hand, then rushes away. Ganya attempts to follow her but Nastasya forbids him to do so. She begs him, however, to come to her apartment later in the evening. Rogozhin and his band leave, and he taunts Ganya, saying in farewell that young Ivolgin has lost the game.
One of the inevitable moods in a Dostoevsky novel is chaos, and in The Idiot the chaos is in vivid contrast to the quiet-mannered Prince Myshkin. He has returned to Russia seeking to re-establish himself peacefully in his native land but finds himself in the center of an emotional maelstrom of Rogozhin's revenge, Nastasya Filippovna's pride, and the Epanchins' family feud. Now, in this scene, he finds himself entangled in yet another family feud.
The boardinghouse that General Epanchin has recommended to Myshkin is seething with emotion. Everyone but Kolya is terribly distraught and even Kolya is a nervous child. Ganya, like Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaia, has an immense amount of pride. He detests letting rooms; he feels that it cheapens his social position. Significantly, Ganya's employer (General Epanchin) eagerly rents four-fifths of his house and he is several social notches higher on the bourgeois scale than Ganya. The general, however, is simply renting superfluous space for a little extra income, and the house belongs to him; Ganya is not quite in this position. At present, the young clerk is being used by Epanchin and Totsky; they have selected him to marry the troublesome Nastasya Filippovna. He is a pawn in their arrangements. Ganya will be financially much better off by allowing himself to be manipulated, but he is bright enough to realize that he is compromising his integrity in the bargain. Thus, in one sense, the rooms of his home are being exchanged for money, and in another, Ganya's self-respect is being exchanged for money. He detests what is happening, but he has an enormous craving for money.
General Ivolgin, of whom Ganya is ashamed, is a further trial, yet the general is not wholly dissimilar to his son. Both want respect. Ganya is in the process of bartering his away, and the general is longing for his, which has vanished in inverse proportion to his drinking. But the general is not an obnoxious drunk. He is filled with quirks and memories and regrets, and can spin a tale like a natural born storyteller. All the time he talks we are sure that what he says is pure fabrication, yet we are interested in his story. And, although his long-winded tales bring the plot to a halt, they are not mere digressions. The story he tells here, in the midst of Nastasya's harangue, has significance. He repeats an episode he has read in the newspaper, recalling it as though it happened to himself, but that is really unimportant in the light of the story being one of revenge — an act of petty revenge. When the cigar-smoking man picks up the lady's lapdog and drops it out of the train window, in retaliation for the cigar she snatched and dropped out the window, we are tempted to applaud the rightness of the highly absurd act of revenge. But — we are only tempted for we realize that this is madness; momentary, certainly, but madness.
And this is the tenor of most of the book, especially the first section. It is touched with madness and the story we are hearing from the general is a mild prelude to Nastasya's mad tossing of the packet of 100,000 rubles into the fire and declaring it to be Ganya's if he will thrust his hands into the fire to pull it out. In both instances, in the story and in Nastasya's act, there is pride and vanity at work. The traveling man will not have his cigar snatched from him and, likewise, Nastasya will not be satisfied until she has repaid Ganya for "allowing" himself to be married to her and, most of all, for vowing openly that once the two are married he will gain his revenge. For her revenge, Nastasya tramples on Ganya's dignity. Humbled pride and shattered self-respect are corrosive forces at work here.
The arrival of Nastasya and Rogozhin at the Ivolgin house brings all three major characters together for the first time and, much as a dramatist might, Dostoevsky gives each of them the center of the stage for a characteristic, powerful show of emotion. First, Nastasya sweeps in, vacillating between warmth and a bitter castigation of the Ivolgins; second, Rogozhin storms in, announcing that Nastasya Filippovna will be his because both Ganya and Nastasya can be bought, and finally. Prince Myshkin steps forward, shielding Varya from her brother's slap in the face. Myshkin takes the slap himself (an insult to his honor and, as it were, an invitation to a duel); Myshkin is the peacemaker and the martyr here and is also a kind of visionary, for he declares to them all that Nastasya is not what she seems; there is, he swears, a sincerely different girl behind all the haughtiness she exhibits.
Returning to Myshkin's protecting of Varya, the act is impulsive; it is quixotic (much later in the novel he is teased as the ""poor knight''). Myshkin is the embodiment of goodness interposing itself between Varya's verbal violence and Ganya's physical violence. Myshkin is, instinctively, Christlike, offering himself instead of Varya, to suffer Ganya's fury. And, akin to this likeness, Myshkin is almost clairvoyant as he reveals his insight into Nastasya's character. He seeks the good in each man, but it is in Nastasya Filippovna that he senses especial suffering and humiliation, and his sympathy is immense. With the love he extended to the fallen figure of Marie, Myshkin is now drawn to another distressed woman, but this time a woman of high intelligence and great beauty. She is no village outcast; she is a courtesan — the antithesis of Marie — with much guilt on her soul and no self-respect to aid her readjustment to the new world she must accept in place of her kept status.
It is significant that when Rogozhin calls Myshkin a sheep it is, ironically, not far from the truth. Myshkin is the image of the lamb of Christ, meek and gentle; sheep-like, yes, but these qualities are of value to Myshkin. They are absolutes for him and not at all the flaws of character that Rogozhin means by his slur.
The scene ends with Nastasya pleading with Ganya to come to her party in the evening and now we are even more anxious for the climax of the party. We have been given a taste of many emotions: Totsky's anxiety, General Epanchin's ambiguous feelings, Ganya's fury, Rogozhin's passion, Myshkin's kindhearted simplicity, and Nastasya's unpredictable temperament. When all these elements are brought together the birthday party is certain to be catastrophic.