Summary and Analysis
The four young visitors to Lebedyev's villa are after money. One of them, Burdovsky (the "son of Pavlishtchev"), claims that he is the illegitimate son of the late Nikolay Andreyevitch, a wealthy landowner, who was Myshkin's guardian after the prince's father died. Pavlishtchev. Burdovsky claims, spent vast sums on Myshkin while Burdovsky received nothing, not even his father's recognition. Now that Myshkin has come into a fortune, Burdovsky contends that Myshkin has a moral obligation to share the money; after all, he reasons, Myshkin received the affection and education Pavlishtchev denied his real son.
The entire business has already been written up, very satirically, in a weekly comic paper, which is produced. Lizaveta Prokofyevna demands that it be read, against Myshkin's protests, and hands it to Kolya. The headlines above the article cry out for reform, justice, and progress, and as Kolya continues to read, such details as Myshkin's arrival from Switzerland in cloak and gaiters are mockingly brought out, plus slurs at Pavlishtchev's character, Myshkin's congenital idiocy, and the attention lavished on Myshkin since his inheritance. Myshkin pleads with Kolya to stop, but his protestations are drowned by the guests' exclamations and by Lizaveta Prokofyevna's loud insistence that Kolya finish the article.
Kolya does finish, then hands the paper to Myshkin and rushes away, weeping. The rest of the guests, except for two of the young men, are as embarrassed and as angry as Kolya. Mme. Epanchin sputters, General Epanchin rails, and Myshkin insists that the entire article is untrue. Kolyas friend, Ippolit, announces that he knew nothing of the article and that he disapproves of it. Even Lebedyev's nephew admits that perhaps it should not have been published, but Burdovsky insists that he has the right: the right to ask for money and the right to publish the facts concerning his case. Lebedyev cries that Burdovsky has no right, especially after the kindness and patience the prince has already shown him.
Lebedyev's nephew then appeals to Myshkin's conscience, demanding that Myshkin recognize Burdovsky's natural, if not legal, claim to Myshkin's fortune. Burdovsky does not beg, he says; indeed, he demands the right to be heard, and he demands the money! Myshkin still cannot agree; there is not a word in the article, he says, that is not slanderous. Ippolit then reveals that it was the boxer who wrote the article and that it, like the boxer, is stupid, but that Myshkin must recognize their right to demand that Burdovsky be satisfied.
Myshkin silences them by saying that he will explain the entire matter. He has already been informed of Burdovsky's claim; Burdovsky's agent, Tchebarov, visited him, and Myshkin confesses that he took an instant dislike to the man; he seemed a scoundrel, as though he were taking advantage of Burdovsky's simplicity. Burdovsky, Lebedyev's nephew, and Ippolit cry out, but Myshkin continues; the truth must be told.
Myshkin suspected swindle, he says, for he fully realizes how he has been used since coming into his fortune. He then charges that Mr. Pavlishtchev's memory has been slandered: He was one of the most virtuous men in the world. Second, Myshkin confesses his amazement that anyone could so publicly give away the secret of an illegitimate birth and thereby disgrace his mother's name; one who would do this must be helplessly simple, Myshkin says, and likens Burdovsky to himself. As for a financial settlement, Myshkin has decided to give "the son of Pavlishtchev" 10,000 rubles, a generous estimate of the amount Pavlishtchev spent on the prince's education and medical bills. This amount is not conscience money, however, Myshkin emphasizes, for Burdovsky is not a son of Pavlishtchev. Myshkin has had Ganya busy searching out the facts in this case and has proof that Burdovsky has been the tool of unscrupulous and greedy individuals.
Myshkin has talked so long and so heatedly that when he finishes, he immediately regrets what he has said; what right does he have to reveal his great pity for Burdovsky, his sympathy for the simpleton? What right does he have to assume that the two men suffer from the same illness?
The brash young intruders are not nihilists, as Lebedyev has already told Lizaveta Prokofyevna. Nihilists were usually intelligent and well-read, a group of young nineteenth-century rebels who protested against religion, classical philosophy, and most established authority. They believed in scientific rationalism, and that man's worst enemy was his ignorance. Earlier, Lebedyev has spoken of just such a type; the railroads of Europe, he said, were symbolic of such minds. He said, in one of his very rare moments of seeming sincerity, that these young rationalists were the scourge of mankind. In contrast, these intruders into the villa are men of business for they are after one thing: money. They shout for progress, reform, and justice, but their real goal is Myshkin's inheritance.
Myshkin's illness, his goodness, and the goodness of his guardian, Mr. Pavlishtchev, are mocked in one of the oldest of claims — the claim of an illegitimate son for his birthright. A savage parody has been published and Myshkin has been made to look ridiculous; the young rebels have attempted to humiliate the prince, attacking his character and suggesting that his fortune is not rightfully his. The scene is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, for all values are being turned upside down amid self-righteous threats.
Myshkin's point-by-point rebuttal to the intruders is a fresh side of the prince's character. It is a relief to know that he cannot always be duped. It should be noted, however, that the prince is not repudiating the claims in self-defense. He is defending Burdovsky, the "son of Paylishtchev." Out of ignorance, the boy, Myshkin fears, is being manipulated by a clever lawyer to fatten his own purse. Myshkin feels that Burdovsky's simplicity is akin to his own; thus his offer of 10,000 rubles. Finally, one should note Myshkin's remorse. He does not enjoy suspecting fraud and playing detective; unlike Burdovsky, he feels that he has no right to make judgments on other men. His innate fairness and goodness rebel.