On a foggy morning in late November, a train from Warsaw arrives into St. Petersburg. Two men in third class strike up a conversation. One is Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a fair-haired man with a white beard and blue eyes. The other is Parfyon Rogozhin, a short, dark-haired man with small gray eyes. Not long after, a third man, who is short, stocky, and has a red nose, joins in the conversation. A low-ranking civil servant named Lebedev, he seems to know everything about everyone in St. Petersburg. Rogozhin treats Lebedev somewhat contemptuously.
Prince Myshkin, whose clothing seems a bit strange for a Russian and whose entire belongings fit into a small bundle, is returning to Russia from Switzerland after an absence of four years. He left Russia due to an illness, "idiocy" combined with a type of epilepsy. A Mr. Nikolai Andreeyevich Pavlishev supported Myshkin's treatment until he died two years ago. After Pavlishev's death, the Prince's doctor, Dr. Schneider, funded his patient's stay in the clinic in Switzerland. In St. Petersburg Myshkin is hoping to meet his distant relative, Madame Yepanchin, to whom he wrote a letter but received no reply. She is the wife of General Yepanchin and the last princess in the Myshkin line, just as Myshkin is the last prince.
Rogozhin, wearing a large sheepskin-lined coat, is returning from the Russian city of Pskov to claim his inheritance of two and half million rubles after his father's recent death. Rogozhin left St. Petersburg five weeks ago after angering his father with an incident involving a certain Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov, who had been the mistress of a rich, fifty-five-year-old nobleman named Afanassy Ivanovich Totsky. After hearing about Nastassya Filippovna and seeing her once at the ballet, Rogozhin began to harbor a deep passion for her. When his father gave him several bonds to pay off some family debts, Rogozhin sold the bonds and bought Nastassya Filipovna diamond earrings worth ten thousand rubles. After his father found out, Rogozhin ran away to an aunt in Pskov, where he suddenly fell with a fever.
As the train pulls into the station, Rogozhin extends an invitation to the Prince and promises to have new clothes made for him, after which both of them can go to Nastassya Filippovna's. Myshkin thanks Rogozhin and accepts the invitation. When Rogozhin asks Myshkin a question about women, the prince replies that he has not known many women on account of his illness.
From the train station, the Prince heads straight to the house of General Yepanchin. Although the son of a soldier, General Yepanchin rose through the ranks by knowing how to act around the right people. Yepanchin is now a rich and powerful fifty-six-year-old with a wife and three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya, who are twenty-five, twenty-three, and twenty years old, respectively. All three daughters are very educated, pursue the arts, and are very pretty—particularly the youngest, Aglaya.
Upon arrival, Myshkin is met by a servant and then an administrative assistant to the General, both of whom regard the prince with suspicion, thinking him a dubious individual who has come to ask the Yepanchin for money or for some favor. Myshkin reassures the assistant that his only intention is to introduce himself to the general.
While waiting, the prince tells a story of a time when he witnessed a public execution in France. He also shares his belief in the immense cruelty of capital punishment, in which he believes the condemned suffers far more than he would if he were murdered by some thieves, for instance, because in an execution there is no hope.
Suddenly a young man appears and introduces himself as Gavril Ardalyonovitch, or Ganya. A man of light hair, medium height, and a polished smile, he soon invites Myshkin to see the general.
The first two chapters of the novel introduce most of the major characters, particularly Prince Myshkin. Right away, he appears as an outsider. Although he has been outside of Russia for only four years, he dresses as a foreigner and appears to know very little about the way things work in St. Petersburg society. As he tells Rogozhin and Lebedev in the train, he does not know anyone in the city, nor does he have any means of survival in mind. Myshkin's only goal is to meet a distant relative, whose future support seems all the more dubious as we learn that she has not responded to his letter. Myshkin's naiveté is evident in the fact that he does not seem to worry or even think about practical matters of survival in a strange city.
From the outset, the prince is also characterized as a very open and honest person. Although he has just met Rogozhin and Lebedev, he proceeds to share with them virtually everything about his background, even such personal facts as his epilepsy and the fact that he has not studied or known many women as a result of his condition. Then, when Myshkin goes to General Yepanchin's house, he proceeds to speak openly with the servants. Such honesty with members of the lower classes make the prince seem suspicious to other characters in the novel. His innocence and utterly good-natured bearing with everyone he meets make him appear as a sort of Christ figure. We particularly see this idea in his discourse on public executions. Myshkin believes that the worst thing about executions is that they make the condemned lose all hope. Furthermore, the prince imagines what it would be like to pardon a man who has been sentenced to death. Psychologically, this reveals his role of a redeemer: he wishes to give hope to people who are on the brink of destruction.
In both appearance and character, Rogozhin is a sharp contrast to Myshkin. Unlike the prince, Rogozhin is hot-tempered and impetuous. Prompted by Lebedev, he reveals his passion for Nastassya Filippovna, which appears to have turned into an obsession. Rogozhin has recently had a fever; although he says that he is no longer ill, his behavior suggests that he is always somewhat "feverish." He, too, seems an outsider to St. Petersburg society, but in a different manner from Prince Myshkin.
Chapter 2 begins with an introduction of General Yepanchin and his family. He seems a self-made man who has risen from a rather humble background to becoming a rich and powerful general, circulating in high society of St. Petersburg. His success is largely due to his practicality and his knowledge of how to act in various circumstances and times in his career. As a young man, he married a girl by the name of Princess Myshkin, seemingly for her title and for the small fortune that came as the dowry. With time, however, the husband and wife have grown to live together well and have even developed a sort of love.
Finally, Dostoevsky introduces the character of Ganya. He seems a man of pleasing appearance, yet Myshkin notices that somehow he seems fake. The prince thinks to himself that Ganya, in private, probably does not act the way he does in front of other people.