When General Yepanchin first meets Prince Myshkin, he is convinced that the prince wants something from him. Myshkin continuously reassures the general that his only intention in coming is to make the acquaintance of the general and Madame Yepanchin, the prince's only relative in St. Petersburg. Myshkin's frankness and friendliness finally convince the General, who becomes more pleasant. The prince then tells Yepanchin and Ganya (who is also in the room at this point) how Mr. Pavlishev and then Dr. Schneider supported him for two years. Myshkin says he was sent to the clinic in Switzerland to cure him of his "idiocy."
The general asks the prince if he is skilled for any sort of administrative post. Although Myshkin says his education was irregular and that he does not really have any skills, he soon reveals a gift for excellent handwriting when he writes a phrase—"Zeal overcomes all"—in beautiful calligraphy. Yepanchin is very impressed with the handwriting and offers Myshkin a moderate position. He also suggests that the prince rent one of the rooms in Ganya's apartment.
Meanwhile, Ganya takes out a photograph of Nastassya Filippovna and shows it to the general. As Myshkin is writing, he witnesses a rather personal conversation between Yepanchin and Ganya. The former says that Nastassya Filippovna has promised finally to announce whether or not she will marry Ganya on the day of her twenty-fifth birthday, at this evening's party. Ganya seems a bit hesitant about the approaching decision, but the general tells him that he should be thrilled if she decides to marry him. Apparently, Ganya's family, particularly his mother and sister, are fervently opposed to the marriage due to the fact that Nastassya Filippovna is a "fallen woman"—she lost her virginity prior to marriage and lived with Totsky.
Myshkin suddenly notices the photograph of Nastassya Filippovna and remarks on her extraordinary beauty. Yepanchin and Ganya are surprised to hear that Myshkin has already heard about her from Rogozhin. Ganya's reaction to the prince's story of Rogozhin and his plans for Nastassya Filippovna appears mixed. Upon seeing the picture of Nastassya Filippovna once again, the prince marvels at her beauty and suggests that she has suffered very much. To Ganya's question of whether Rogozhin will marry her, Myshkin replies that Rogozhin will certainly marry her but may kill her several weeks afterward.
Their conversation is interrupted by an invitation for Myshkin to see the general's wife. The Yepanchins' three daughters have long been ready for marriage, but the General and his wife long ago decided not to push their daughters into marriages that they did not desire themselves. However, as the eldest, Alexandra, has already reached the age of twenty-five, it is certainly time to get her married.
Afanassy Totsky, a friend of the general and a very wealthy aristocrat, announced his desire to marry around the same time. Although the Yepanchins' prettiest daughter is Aglaya, Totsky could not hope to getting her, so there has been talk of him marrying Alexandra.
Something has been preventing Totsky from marrying, however—Nastassya Filippovna. The daughter of a poor nobleman who went crazy after his house burned down along with his wife inside it, Nastassya Filippovna was raised and educated with Totsky's support. Upon noticing her beauty as young girl, he spent several summers in the village of Consolation where she lived, presumably in a sexual relationship with her. After some time, upon his return to St. Petersburg, Totsky decided to get married. Suddenly, however, Nastassya Filippovna came from the village to Totsky's house in St. Petersburg; after a scandal, she caused the marriage never to go through. Unexpectedly for Totsky, Nastassya Filippovna turned from being a shy country girl to a mature, spiteful woman, willing to do anything out of feelings of pure revenge, regardless of the consequences for herself. Totsky attempted to appease her by giving her money and seducing her with the luxury that money could buy in St. Petersburg. Nastassya Filippovna, however, kept to rather modest living. Totsky, meanwhile, lived in constant fear, the only end of which lay in her marriage.
When a young man by the name of Gavril Ardalyonovich appeared to have fallen in love with Nastassya Filippovna, Totsky quickly saw his opportunity. He, along with General Yepanchin—who was interested in Ganya's fate and who had developed a passion for Nastassya Filippovna himself, manifested in his purchase of a string of pearls for her birthday—went to her and suggested the possibility of starting a new life through a marriage to Ganya. Contrary to Totsky's expectations, Nastassya Filippovna agreed to the proposal, but only on the condition that the engagement was not binding for either side. Everything seemed to be looking good for Totsky. However, he was deeply fearful of the fact that Nastassya Filippovna might know that Ganya was marrying her only for money, and that he was planning to take revenge on the "fallen woman" shortly after the wedding.
Chapters 3 and 4 provide further plot exposition and further characterize Myshkin, Ganya, and Nastassya Filippovna. Chapter 3 illustrates the prince's openness and honesty, particularly by contrasting him with what others think of him. For instance, the general, much like the servant in the previous chapter, believes the prince has come to see him because he wants something. This contrast between what Yepanchin thinks of Myshkin and who the latter actually is not only accentuates the prince's honesty, but also reflects on the character of the general. Perhaps Yepanchin's opinion of the Prince is a psychological projection of his own character. After all, the general became successful by visiting important people and gaining favors from them—behavior similar to what he believes Myshkin to be displaying now. The prince, however, is anything but ambitious. As soon as the general realizes this, his behavior changes instantaneously, once again showing him to be a man whose actions spring from selfish motives, rather than pure good nature like Myshkin's. Once Yepanchin realizes he will not need to give the prince anything, he decides to be friendly to him.
We also learn something about Ganya's character through his conversation with the general regarding his possible marriage to Nastassya Filippovna. Ganya seems somewhat fearful of the woman's decision about whether or not to proceed with the marriage. His doubts suggest that he does not want to marry her out of love. After the general exclaims Ganya has no right to complain, as no one is forcing him to marry her, Ganya responds in a resolute, quiet voice that he is aware of this fact. His reaction suggests that he is going through with the marriage—which appears contrary to his desires—out of some other motivation. Yepanchin hints at the fact that Ganya's motivation is money; a large dowry has been promised. However, the general also hints at the fact that Ganya would be glad not to marry Natassya Filippovna because it would spare him from marrying a dishonorable woman. Ganya appears to be struggling with an internal conflict between his vanity and his ambition to obtain a large fortune. At the end of Chapter 4 Dostoevsky suggests that Nastassya Filippovna is well aware of Ganya's motivations for marrying her.
Chapter 4 portrays Nastassya Filippovna as a woman who was forced to lose her honor to a lecherous, old aristocrat—an action that has caused her to be rejected by honorable society. Her response to the events in her life is her tendency not to value anything in her life. Her ability and willingness to do anything—which arises from the fact that she attaches no value to anything—makes her fascinating to those around her. It also makes others—particularly Totsky—fear her, as seemingly no boundaries exist for her actions. Although Nastassya Filippovna has let Totsky know that she will do anything to revenge herself upon him, she agrees to marry Ganya. Her motivations and her character in general appear a mystery, and no one knows what to expect from her.