As a chronicler, I limit myself to presenting events in an exact way, exactly as they occurred, and it is not my fault if they appear incredible.
The last word of this novel is ‘insanity’ and like insanity, it is the most terrifying and at the same time the most wildly hilarious of Dostoevsky’s novels, and the most satirical. The inhabitants of a small provincial town gradually become aware that a revolutionary cell is operating in their midst. The cell operates by spreading civil disobedience at a fete and a ball organised by the wife of the Governor of the Province, by fomenting disorder among the workers of a factory located in the town, inciting riot, by setting fire to a large portion of the town itself, and then ultimately in murder.
Set against this plot is the story of 20 year friendship between the widow Varvara Stavrogina, the richest landowner in the district; and the former professor and private tutor to her ward, Stepan Verkhovensky. Her son, Nikolai Stavrogin, and his son, Pyotr Verkhovensky, have both grown up apart from their parents and return to the town at around the same time. Stavrogina tries to persuade her old friend to marry her ward, to cover up for the fact that her ward has been seduced by her son. At the same time she is trying to marry off her son to the daughter of her neighbour, a wealthy heiress.
The title and epigraphs from Pushkin and Luke 8.32-36 point to the fact that the novel is to be read as a kind of parable of contemporary concerns. Russian youth has become possessed by the three demons of European rationalism: nihilism, atheism and socialism. The small town stands for the whole of Russia. The key characters exist as a kind of double signification in which the character represents a barely disguised real person, and at the same time stands for some key trend in contemporary thought.
Part 1: Characters
In whicb is revealed who they are and what they represent
First, the elder Stepan Verkhovensky is a caricature of Granovsky, the famous professor of history at Moscow university, one of the key Westernisers of the 1840s, and at the same time represents the whole generation of ‘the men of the Forties’. One of the most lovable and amusing of Dostoevsky’s creations, Stepan Verkhovensky is also strongly influenced by Dickens, a kind of Russian Dorritt.
“Je suis un mere sponger, et rien de plus!” He sprinkles his discourse with French phrases, pours out his heart in daily letters to his friend (even though they live in the same house), is inordinately fond of passionate weeping, and nurtures the fond illusion that he is still an object of observation to the authorities due to his radical youth.
The narrator comments: but after all, gentlemen, even now, do we not at times hear all around us the same “dear”, “intelligent”, “liberal” old Russian nonsense? which can be read as Dostoevsky’s comment on the ‘superfluous’ generation of the 1840s. (Some contemporary literary gossip: Maikov told Dostoevsky in a letter that Stepan Verkhovensky was like a Turgenev hero in his old age, a remark which thoroughly delighted Dostoevsky in its accuracy.)
His son, the creepy revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky, is modelled on the real revolutionary Nachaev, and is at the same time a general symbol of the nihilist.
His relationship with his father – mocking indifference on both sides- is a portrait of the relationship between the ‘fathers’ and the ‘sons’, the generations of the ‘40s and the ‘60s, portrayed also in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.
Nachaev was one of the most radical of the revolutionaries who sprang up in Russia during the late 1860s. Possibly the lover of Bakunin, he was the author of the still enduringly notorious Catechism of a Revolutionary, which had such a huge impact on subsequent revolutionary activity in Russia. Nachaev was the founder of a small revolutionary cell of 5 students at the Petrine Academy of Agriculture. He and three others turned on the fifth, a student named Ivanov, who had threatened to break away from the group, and murdered him, throwing his body into a lake on the grounds of the Academy.
This incident is almost exactly reproduced as the central episode of Demons, when Pyotr Verkhovensky and his companions murder the Slavophile Shatov. The real Nachaev had written: Our business is terrible, complete universal and merciless destruction. In the novel, Pyotr Verkhovensky expresses no ideology of his own except the ultimate strategy of destruction and destabilisation achieved through tactical realpolitik.
Through crafty manipulation, he engineers the social downfall of the Governor and his wife by insinuating himself into the wife’s circle and feeding her social and political ambitions. The splendid debacle of the fete is the result. He tries to enrol Stavrogin in the cell, seeing him as a potentially charismatic figure around whom a revolutionary impulse can crystallize, a false Tsarevitch.
He engineers the murder of Shatov, not to silence him as he tells his group, but to cement them together, to bind them through bloodshed. Pyotr Verkhovensky is always bustling about arranging things, seems to have his fingers in all sorts of pies and straddles the line between being a comic character, and being monstrously terrifying.
The writer Karmazinov is based on Turgenev, and at the same time stands for the aristocratic, land-owning liberals, who organise literary quadrilles and balls, who remove all their capital and take refuge abroad, and have no awareness of the real crisis facing Russia and their class.
This is another hilarious portrait, but very savage, and one from which it is difficult to rescue poor old Turgenev. Karmazinov, with the bearing of five court chamberlains, reads his farewell to literature (one of many) entitled Merci at the fete, in the same way that Turgenev read his own farewell to literature (one of many) entitled Enough.
Dostoevsky stitches together a marvellous parody of several articles by Turgenev, as well as lampooning mercilessly Turgenev’s limpid style: a tear rolled from your eye as we sat beneath the emerald tree, and you exclaimed joyfully: ‘There is no crime!’ ‘Yes,’ I said through my tears, ‘But if so, there are no righteous men.’ We wept and parted forever….. The reading is interrupted by a lonely but loud voice (that of Dostoevsky’s himself?) from the back row of the audience: “Lord what rubbish!” Karmazinov retires from the heckling that follows looking all red as if he had been boiled.
Through the character of Shigalyov, Dostoevsky lampoons socialism. Shigalyov has studied the question of how to organise the future society and written a document about it. He wants to read his document at the meeting of the revolutionaries, in one of the funniest episodes of the book. “I announce ahead of time that my system is not finished. … I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start.” (academic political scientists and sociologists are surely squirming here) “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism…”
He acknowledges that this has caused him some despair. “I suggest we vote on whether Shigalyov’s despair concerns the common cause or not”, comments one of the members of the meeting.
Another member, who has read the document, explains that Shigalyov has divided humanity into two parts: “One tenth is granted freedom of person and unlimited rights over the remaining nine tenths. These must lose their person and turn into something like a herd…” “Are you really serious?” interjects one of the other members: “This man, not knowing what to do about the people, turns nine tenths of them into slavery? I’ve long suspected him….” One of the other members declares that the best solution for dealing with the rest of the nine tenths is to “blow them up sky high, leaving just a bunch of learned people”.
Dostoevsky parodies Raskolnikov’s arguments in Crime and Punishment here, and unwittingly prophecies the kind of discussions that later took place under the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the Maoists, and are now taking place among religious fundamentalists and other varieties of social engineers.
Part 2: Atheism versus Orthodoxy
In which we describe the philosophical debate in the novel, reveal the existence of a missing chapter! and explain why Dostoevskyists get worked up about it
In the early stages of composing the novel Dostoevsky wrote to Maikov: The fundamental idea that has tormented me, consciously and unconsciously, all my life long …is the question of the existence of God.
In Demons, the dialectic between faith and atheism takes place in conversations between Stavrogin and Kirilov, and between Stavrogin and Shatov.
Kirilov the suicidalist puts forward the argument for atheism with great cogency and force. Shatov, the Slavophile puts forward the argument for faith in Orthodoxy, expressing many of Dostoevsky’s known views. Stavrogin, the mysterious ‘strong personality’ acts as a conduit for both sides in the debate; his own position is highly enigmatic, as we shall see.
Kirilov plans to commit suicide, and thereby aid the revolutionaries by taking on himself all their crimes, admitting to them in a suicide letter. He is only waiting for a signal from Pyotr Verkhovensky.
His reasons for suicide are related to his atheism: “I can't understand how an atheist could know that there is no God and not kill himself on the spot. To recognise that there is no God and not to recognise at the same instant that one is God oneself is an absurdity, else one would certainly kill oneself. If you recognise it you are sovereign, and then you won't kill yourself but will live in the greatest glory. But one, the first, must kill himself, for else who will begin and prove it? So I must certainly kill myself, to begin and prove it.”
He then gives the strongest argument for atheism perhaps Dostoevsky had so far penned: “Listen to a great idea: there was a day on earth, and in the midst of the earth there stood three crosses. One on the Cross had such faith that he said to another, 'To-day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.' The day ended; both died and passed away and found neither Paradise nor resurrection. His words did not come true. Listen: that Man was the loftiest of all on earth, He was that which gave meaning to life. The whole planet, with everything on it, is mere madness without that Man. There has never been any like Him before or since, never, up to a miracle. For that is the miracle, that there never was or never will be another like Him. And if that is so, if the laws of nature did not spare even Him, have not spared even their miracle and made even Him live in a lie and die for a lie, then all the planet is a lie and rests on a lie and on mockery. So then, the very laws of the planet are a lie and the vaudeville of devils. What is there to live for?”
For Kirilov, suicide is the only freedom one has left: “I am killing myself to prove my independence and my new terrible freedom”.
Kirilov develops the same ideas expressed in Ippolit Ivolgin’s ‘Necessary Explanation’ in The Idiot, and like Ippolit, he seeks death as the price for his atheism.
Shatov asserts a belief in the Russian Christ, making explicit the link between Christianity and nationalism for the first time in Dostoevsky’s published works. “He who is not Orthodox, cannot be Russian.”
Stavrogin accuses him of reducing God to a mere “attribute of nationality”. “On the contrary”, exclaims Shatov, “I raise the nation up to God. … the nation is the body of God….If a great nation does not believe that it alone is able and called to resurrect and save everyone with its truth, then it at once ceases to be a great nation and becomes just ethnographic material.”
It is Russia’s mission to save the world: “The only god-bearing nation is the Russian nation.”
Shatov attacks Roman Catholicism in much the same terms that Prince Myshkin had in The Idiot: “Atheism is after all healthier than Catholicism”. According to Shatov, the Roman Christ succumbed to the third temptation of the devil, and was granted an earthly kingdom, “proclaimed the antichrist, and ruined the whole Western world.”
Shatov expresses his belief that a new generation will spring forth from Russia, one that renounces Western rationalism, and that embraces the Russian God through peasant labour- anticipating the ‘movement to the people’ of the summer of 1874, at the height of the Popularist movement, when young intellectuals did precisely that.
Now, we enter the realm of controversy when we try to disentangle Shatov’s ‘literary’ arguments as the novel’s representative Slavophile from the actual ‘philosophical’ arguments that Dostoevsky himself held. This is very problematic; and Dostoevskyists have thrown caution (and theoretical rigour) to the wind in their attempts to claim the character’s religious views for those of the author’s.
The text indeed warns against this, when Shatov says: Do you really regard me as such a fool who cannot even tell, whether his words now are old, decrepit rubbish, ground up in all the Slavophile mills of Moscow, or a completely new word, the last word, the word of renewal and resurrection. Many of Shatov’s ideas are standard Slavophile stuff.
Moreover, the situation is further complicated by the fact that in this conversation, Shatov is reporting a letter that he had written much earlier to Stavrogin, which Stavrogin had not bothered to read. In this letter, Shatov had attempted to remind Stavrogin of conversations they had had many years previously in Europe, and which Shatov had never forgotten. In other words, Shatov is actually quoting back at him views expressed originally by Stavrogin himself, which the latter man has come to repudiate, but which Shatov himself has come to believe in.
It is never adequately clarified in the conversation which views are actually Stavrogin’s and which are Shatov’s; it is never very clear which views either man now holds, and which views he now rejects: like real conversations, things are never tidied up, but left hanging while the dialogue digresses and circulates, while emotional storms come and go, and while each character tries to achieve a different outcome from the interview.
Shatov reminds Stavrogin of his previous view: “But wasn’t it you who told me that if someone proved to you mathematically that the truth is outside Christ, you would better agree to stay with Christ than with the truth. Did you say that?” Stavrogin neither confirms nor denies this, but raises a different point.
This view is one that Dostoevsky himself held – in fact Shatov quotes verbatim from Dostoevsky’s famous letter of 1854 to Fonvizina here. However, Stavrogin says in this conversation, that he now no longer believes in any of the things he did formerly: “If I had belief, I would no doubt repeat it now as well, I wasn’t lying, speaking as a believer.”
Stavrogin has lost his faith, while Shatov remains uncertain about his: “I believe in Russia, I believe in Orthodoxy, I believe in the body of Christ…” Shatov babbled frenziedly. Stavrogin persists in this line of questioning: “But in God? In God?” “I… I will believe in God,” Shatov equivocates. Not a muscle moved in Shatov’s face. Shatov looked at him defiantly, as if he wanted to burn him with his eyes. “But I didn’t tell you I don’t believe at all,” he hedges.
This is likely to be the position closest to Dostoevsky’s own at this time.
In 1922 a missing chapter to the novel was (re)discovered: the original Chapter 9 of Part Two, entitled At Tikhon’s.
In this chapter, Stavrogin, on the advice of Shatov, goes to see a holy man – Tikhon- in the local monastery. While there, he reads to the monk a document he has composed. This document, Stavrogin’s Confession, describes Stavrogin’s loss of faith, his youthful addiction to masturbation, his monstrous seduction of a 14- (or 10- the text is not clear on this) year-old girl, her subsequent suicide, his marriage to an unfortunate lame and mad woman of a greatly inferior social class as a kind of experimental self-inflicted punishment, his terminal boredom, and fear of insanity.
He intends to publish this document, in order to endure universal hatred from all who read it as a form of penance.
Tikhon suggests that the universal hatred might be easy for Stavrogin to endure but not the universal laughter that will resound when people read it. “Even the form of this truly great repentance has something ridiculous in it”.
Stavrogin looks for absolution, and the ability to forgive himself. Tikhon assures him that Christ will forgive him: “He will forgive you for your intention and for your great suffering.”
In spite of Dostoevsky’s ardent pleadings and frenzied reworkings of the material, the editor of the Russian Messenger, the journal in which the novel appeared, categorically refused (understandably, given the mores of the time and place) to publish this chapter; and Dostoevsky, in later years and in later editions, never took the opportunity to reinstall it.
The relationship of this chapter to the final completed work remains controversial because it significantly alters the thrust of the dialectic between atheism and faith. With it, the book seems to assert faith; without it, it doesn’t.
Part 3: The Pleasure of the Text
In which we celebrate the many marvels of the work, and meditate on the role of the narrative voice
In spite of what sounds like a dry philosophical debate, only really enjoyable with prior knowledge of contemporary issues and the development of Dostoevsky’s own views on faith and atheism, the novel is utterly compelling to read.
The characters are splendidly drawn, the dialogue blazes, there are some unforgettable, iconic images that lodge firmly in the memory, the pace never lags, the tension is masterfully handled, and the comedy is rich, subtle and cuttingly sardonic.
The description of the fete in the centre of the work is one of the most brilliant set-pieces in the whole of Russian literature.
Indeed, it is the most technically accomplished of Dostoevsky’s novels. The reason for this is mainly due to the narrative voice, which is where most of the huge pleasure of reading the book resides.
The story is narrated by one of the townsfolk, a friend and intimate of Verkhovensky pere, and a member of the town club, but formally unnamed – we are only given his name and patronymic in passing.
In the whole of the first part the narrator describes the backstory of the main characters, and this is handled in such a way that the reader can sense that things might not be what they seem, even if the narrator doesn’t. Moreover, the reader can tell that the narrator himself is not seeing things clearly at that point in his chronicle.
This is not to say that the narrator is dense. On the contrary, the narrator is perceptive, and has a great deal of insight into the characteristics of the people he knows well, and the motivations behind their complex relationships and describes this all to us with gripping relish. It’s just that the narrator is focussing on something different from what’s really going on.
This is, of course, part and parcel of the parable nature of the book: no-one in Russia understands what is really happening because they are all focussing on something else.
Through this gossipy, loquacious narrator we become completely involved in the lives of the characters of this small provincial town, so that when terrorist activity erupts amongst them, we react to it with the same indrawn breath of shock that they do.
This double vision is especially well handled in the depiction of the revolutionary organiser Pyotr Verkhovensky.
The reader understands that the image of this character as bustling, harmless, foolish, has been deliberately created by the character himself as a mask for his real revolutionary intentions; and at the same time we understand that the narrator and his friends have not seen this until much too late.
Of course, the narrator ultimately knows the truth of everything, but he withholds it, releasing it to us only slowly, recreating the gradual change in perception that he and his circle experienced at the time. Now, when everything is past, and I am writing my chronicle, we know what it was all about; but then we still knew nothing, and naturally, various things seemed strange to us.
I cannot believe in God without a God to believe in.