Dostoyevsky’s “Demons”

My rediscovery of Dostoyevsky continues.

I first read this novel as a teenager, well over thirty years ago now, in David Magarshack’s translation. He had translated the title as The Devils (Ian Katz, whose translation is currently published by Oxford World Classics, also translates the title as The Devils), while the most recent translators, Robert Maguire (whose translation, published by Penguin Classics, I most recently read), and the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokonsky, prefer Demons. I do not know which is the more accurate, but I’d guess either to be closer to the original than The Possessed, the title chosen by the first translator, Constance Garnett: Dostoyevsky’s title refers, I believe, to those who are possessing rather than those who are possessed. And Demons is perhaps a better choice of title than The Devils, as it is more suggestive of supernatural possession.

It is supernatural possession that seems to me to be at the heart of this very strange novel. Of course, to describe this novel as “very strange” isn’t really saying much, as all Dostoyevsky novels can be described as “very strange”: they inhabit a curious world that is not quite this one – a world of grotesque comedy and of hysterical violence, both emotional and physical. One never knows from moment to moment which direction things will take, and I suspect Dostoyevsky was not always too sure himself. He once complained that he had always to write to deadlines, and didn’t have the luxury that Tolstoy or Turgenev had to plan things out beforehand; but even if he did, I don’t think he’d have written differently: he believed people had absolute freedom, and that were he to plan things out, he would be depriving his characters of that freedom. There is no predetermination in Dostoyevsky’s world: right till the very moment that a character does something, there is a possibility that the character may have done something else, or not have done anything at all. So, for instance, Shatov strikes Stavrogin in public, but there is no sense of inevitability about it: even as Shatov is walking up towards Stavrogin, he himself is not sure of what it is he will do. In the event, he delivers a blow; but equally well, he may not have done. And similarly, when Stavrogin receives the blow, there is no inevitability about his reaction: he may have hit back; he may even have killed Shatov on the spot; instead, he accepts the blow, and does nothing. In neither the action nor in the reaction is there any sense of inevitability: everything is inevitable only when it has already happened, and not before – not even a split second before.

To convey this sense of extreme volatility in which human actions can in no way be determined, Dostoyevsky relies, I think, on his improvisatory skills. These skills are remarkable, and often generate a sort of febrile intensity that I don’t think I have experienced from any other author. But it results also in weaknesses: the unpredictable can be tremendously exciting, but it can just as easily appear merely arbitrary, or inconsistent. I wasn’t, for instance, convinced by the sudden appearance of Shatov’s estranged wife some 700 pages into the novel merely to give birth to an illegitimate child. There had been nothing in the novel to lead up to this, and, more importantly, there had been nothing in the novel to make Shatov’s sudden sense of joy and of tenderness appear credible. How can we believe that a character who had, till then, shown not the slightest indication of love or of tenderness for anyone, can suddenly be so overjoyed and so gently solicitous for his estranged wife, and for a newborn baby not his own?

The novel can lose shape as well. Characters introduced in major roles can drop out of the novel, as Dostoyevsky’s attention is captured by other matters; and characters not adequately introduced can suddenly command centre stage. The first of the three parts of the novel, which reads more like a somewhat like a grotesque satirical comedy than anything else, depicts at great length two characters, Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina and Stefan Trofimovich Verkhovensky; but as soon as we enter the second part of the novel, these two virtually disappear from sight, to be replaced centre stage by their respective sons. The two elder characters only re-emerge towards the end, by which time most of the main action of the novel has already taken place. Or consider Varvara Petrovna’s son, Nikolay Vselodovich Stavrogin: when he appears, he is introduced as a principal character – virtually all other characters in the novel are connected to him in some way or other, and he seems to be at the centre of the various tangled webs. And yet, despite the novel developing into a furious hive of all sorts of activity, he appears never to play any kind of active role, remaining curiously aloof from it all. Meanwhile, Verkhovensky’s son, Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, who seems to emerge from out of nowhere some 250 pages into the novel, and with little preparation made for his entrance, assumes for the rest of the novel a major active role. Whatever explanations one may give for such things, such features remain, I think, flaws.

However, one must accept these things in Dostoyevsky: if his improvisatory style of writing is the source of such weaknesses, it is the source also of his considerable strengths. And amongst his many strengths is his ability to evoke terror.

There is certainly no shortage of terror in Demons.  Insofar as one can summarise a novel of such complexity in a few words, it is “about” the havoc wreaked upon a town by a group of revolutionaries, but that hardly tells us anything about the novel that is worth knowing. The political aspect of this novel is certainly worthy of serious study, but what struck me most forcibly was not so much the political polemic, but the sense of the demonic: the characters here really are possessed – and as the novel progresses, the demons of the title seem more than merely metaphorical. There are times when one says to oneself “but surely people don’t do things like that!” But Dostoyevsky, who had spent years in Siberian labour camps with some of the most depraved of criminals, knew better: people can do things like that, and they do.

One cannot quite write about the “centre of the novel”, as there appears to be no centre to it at all. We have an unnamed narrator, who is himself a wonderful piece of characterisation. But the narrative voice is not constant. There are times when we get only what the narrator knows, and, frequently, this is a case of “maybe…” and “perhaps…”, and “it seems as if…” Nothing is ever entirely clear, or entirely certain. But then suddenly, without warning, the narrative will lurch into scenes that the narrator could not have witnessed, or take us into the tortuous recesses of the minds of various characters, showing us things that the narrator could not possibly have known about. And every now and then, without warning, the narrators’s uncertain eye-witness account re-emerges. There is, quite deliberately, no consistency to the narrative: by the end of the novel, the whole world seems to explode, but there hasn’t been a centre to hold in the first place.

The strand about the revolutionaries, and their murder of a former member, is based on a real-life case, in which a group of revolutionaries, headed by a Sergei Nechaev, had similarly murdered one of their former members. The murder scene in the novel is as horrific as anything I think I have ever read – not merely because of what happens, but also because of the very different reactions of the murderers, ranging from cold unthinking obedience, to deep unease, right down to hysterical terror. Verkhovensky has convinced this little cell of five that the murder must be done to prevent the former member from informing on them: the real reason – insofar as any “real reason” can be disentangled from the mass of various contradictory aspects – is that he wanted to knit the group together by involving them in communal guilt. And perhaps the “real reason” goes even further than that: perhaps it is because Verkhovensky really craves evil for its own sake. Perhaps he really is possessed by demons. Not metaphorical demons, but real demons.

Stavrogin too seems haunted by demons. In a notorious chapter that the publisher refused to print (the book was written for serialisation, and Dostoyevsky was writing it even as it was being serialised), Stavrogin relates in a confession how he had raped a little girl, and had then stood by as the girl had hanged herself in despair. It is hard to imagine anything more evil than this, and many have regretted the omission of this powerful and disturbing chapter; but I personally feel that the novel is better without it. This chapter makes explicit too much that should merely be hinted at, and Dostoyevsky, knowing that this chapter would not be part of the novel, was compelled to characterise Stavrogin in a somewhat different and, I think, more subtle manner. (Robert Maguire gives us this chapter as an appendix rather than restore it into the main body of the text, and this seems a sensible thing to do. David Magarshack, and Pevear & Volokonsky, also present this chapter as an appendix.) And a picture emerges of a man who is not cheerfully amoral, as Verkhovensky is: indeed, he is capable even of noble emotions and actions. But he is addicted to evil simply because it is evil, and because he knows it to be evil: he has to see how far he can push himself in this direction: the ability to commit acts of unpardonable evil, of his own free will, seems to provide him simultaneously with a reason for living, and, eventually, a reason for not continuing to live. Faced with a character so monstrous, one is tempted once again to say “But people don’t do such things!” But Dostoyevsky, one suspects, knew better about such matters.

But what about the revolutionaries themselves? When I first read this novel as a teenager, I felt that Dostoyevsky had weakened his own case by constantly satirising them. No doubt the movement did attract psychopaths and fools and people who were genuinely evil, but given the monstrous social injustices of Tsarist Russia, is it inconceivable that it might also have attracted also genuinely well-meaning people, people who really were driven by a desire for much-needed change? We don’t see such people. At no point do the revolutionaries show any concern or compassion for the impoverished masses. Dostoyevsky’s picture of the revolutionaries seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a caricature of the revolutionary movement, but, knowing a bit more now about the history of Soviet Russia than I did then, and, more particularly, having read so recently of the sheer insanity of Soviet rule in the works of Vasily Grossman, Dostoyevsky’s critique of the revolutionaries, caricature though it may be, seems now more difficult to dismiss. Here, for instance, is Shigalyov expounding his ideas:

“I have become entangled in my own data, and my conclusion stands in direct contradiction to the initial idea from which I started. Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution to the social formula except mine.”

And later:

“What I’m proposing is not something unconscionable but paradise, and there can be no other kind on earth,” Shigalyov concluded imperiously.

[From the translation by Robert Maguire]

This may seem insane, but it is precisely this insanity that prevailed on the largest scale imaginable. I doubt Dostoyevsky would have been particularly surprised by what eventually did turn out to be the case: the writings of Vasily Grossman seem but to record the fulfilment of Dostoyevsky’s prophecy.

And yet, what exactly was Dostoyevsky proposing instead? He was, we know, a devout believer, and a Slavophile, and yet when Shatov, who shares similar ideas, tries to give them expression, he comes out with pure gibberish: Dostoyevsky was too fine an artist to create merely a mouthpiece for his own ideology, but that does mean that Dostoyevsky’s own ideology becomes hard to discern from his work.

He certainly had no time for radicalism (which he characterises here in terms of demonic possession, no less), but he went further: he had no time either for liberalism, which he saw as essentially dilettantism, and a foolish accommodation of those who really are possessed. Is this entirely fair, I wonder? No doubt there were then, as now, foolish chatterers amongst the liberals, but there are always foolish chatterers everywhere, subscribing to all shades of political opinion: to pick on the foolish seems an unconvincing way to undermine the beliefs they profess, for what ideology is there that does not have foolish adherents?

In the notes to the Penguin edition, Ronald Meyer (who edited the volume and compiled the notes after the death of the translator Robert Maguire) quotes from a letter Dostoyevsky sent his niece:

“My dear, look after your education and don’t neglect even a profession … but you should know that the woman question, and especially that of the Russian woman, will definitely make several great and wonderful strides even within your own lifetime. I’m not speaking of our precocious ladies – you know how I view them”

So, quite clearly, Dostoyevsky, for all his strictures on the empty chatterers – “our precocious women” – approved of the “wonderful strides” being made in terms of sexual equality, and thought this a good thing. But how did he think these advances were being made? Would such “wonderful strides” be made at all if it weren’t for the liberals that he so despised?

But unfair though Dostoyevsky’s caricatures may be, it must be admitted that they are hilariously funny. Even when they are deeply sinister, as they frequently are, they do not stop being funny. The caricature of Turgenev – presented here as the “great novelist” Karmazinov – is deeply unfair and spiteful, but I must admit it had me laughing: Dostoyevsky was, amongst other things, a great comic writer.

But the comedy all too often slips into very dark, murky regions. As ever, he approaches the most profound questions concerning human existence without the slightest hint of embarrassment. He gets away with it because he had the extraordinary ability – an ability I have not come across in any other writer – of making ideas in themselves dramatic and exciting. His characters can become possessed not merely by demons, but also by ideas: indeed, sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between the two. Kirillov, for instance, is determined to shoot himself – not out of despair, but because, given what he believes, it is the only rational thing for him to do. In any other novel, this would seem merely absurd, but here, it is dramatic, and frightening, and very believable: Kirillov’s ideas have taken on dramatic shape, and, by the time he comes to do the deed, the tension generated is terrifying. No doubt, as with much else in this novel, the suicide scene too is improvised, but once read, it haunts the mind with a febrile intensity that’s hard to account for, and impossible to convey in any summary.

The impression the novel leaves in me – and which I remember even from my first reading some thirty-five years ago now – is one of sheer terror. There really is a demonic presence in these pages. In the later novel The Brothers Karamazov, the Devil makes a personal appearance, and we may, if we choose, interpret this appearance as merely the hallucination of a sick man; but a more literal interpretation is possible also. Here, there is no explicit appearance of supernatural phenomena, but it is easy to believe that the possession to which the title refers is real. For all its untidiness, for all its many flaws, this is a book that sears itself into the reader’s mind. And, despite thinking about little else since I finished reading this book a few weeks ago, I still am not quite sure why this should be so. Dostoyevsky remains for me a maddening author worth being maddened by.


16 responses to this post.

  1. I read The Demons a few years ago after reading about the Nechaev case. I found The Demons to be deeply disturbing. It starts off with some humourous stuff (the pet tutor would-be intellectual) but then grows increasingly darker. After the novel’s conclusion, I needed time to recover. Since then, I’ve been slowly working my way through the lesser (smaller) novels.


    • Yes, I can understand that. There really is an almost palpable sense of terror in this novel. And the more one looks at events both around teh world and closer home, the more one realises how profound Dostoyevsky’s understanding was of some of the darker recesses of the human heart.


  2. Great review. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m a huge admirer of Dostoyevsky’s work and I think this one deserves more acclaim or notice than it receives.


    • For some reason, “Crime and Punishment” seems to overshadow his other novels, but admirers obviously rate this one, “The Idiot”, and, of course, “The Brothers Karamazov” equally highly. the one i think I need to read is “The Adolescent”, which was written between this and “The Brothers Karamazov”. It isn’t considered one of his major works, but it’s hard to believe that a great novelist at the peak of his powers should write a novel not worth reading.


  3. Posted by Michael Henderson on August 18, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    It’s been a couple of years since I read this remarkable book, but I do remember that Stavrogin’s behaviour towards his fellow would-be revolutionaries is very much like the events that occurred a few decades later, the betrayals and callous actions towarads anyone else. Similarly, Shigalyov’s acceptance of the deaths of many millions of people in order to create what he considers his type of society does seem to foreshadow what Stalin was quite ready to accept. There is a great deal in this book about the breaking down of the established way of life, such as the visit to the holy man, where the visitors do not care about anyone.
    I should revisit it.


    • Hello Michael, I agree with you that this is a remarkable novel that pays revisiting; and also that Dostoyevsky had foreseen very clearly the nightmare that was to come in the 20th century. (Not that the Russia of Dostoyevsky’s own times was free from nightmares, of course!) But to be entirely honest with you, I did not understand Dostoyevsky. Take Stavrogn, for example: for all the importance given him in the novel, he seems curiously detached from everything, and plays very little part in the actual events. I did not really understand this character.

      I keep writing about Dostoyevsky in this blog in the hope that writing about his works will help me understand them better. I have no doubt whatever that he was a visionary novelist: the power of his novels is like nothing else I have come across. But there is so much about his novels that I just don’t understand. In the end, he is an infuriating writer whom it is worth getting infuriated by!

      For all my fascination with Dostoyevsky, I remain firmly, I think, in the Tolstoyan camp.

      If you do re-read “Demons”, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on it.

      All the best, Himadri


  4. I actually liked the inclusion of “At Tikhon’s,” although I can see why you might prefer it otherwise. I think that it makes Stavrogin’s actions toward the end of the novel make a lot more sense.

    This is my favorite Dostoevsky novel of all time. Each character represents currents of ideas and philosophies present in 19th century Russia, and so the novel creates a dialogue of ideas with no clear winner. I think that a good deal of the convoluted nature of the novel is Dostoevsky’s own personal struggle with his own beliefs after the whole mock execution incident…


  5. Hello Grace, and thank you for that.

    Dostoyevsky certainly is pretty unique: there’s no mistaking his writing for anyone else’s, and I’d guess he’s pretty inimitable. I can’t think of another author who saw the world in such strange terms, and yet, one gets drawn into that strangeness. Whatever reservations one may have, he makes most other novelists seem a bit insipid.

    About this time last year, I re-read The Brothers Karamazov (there’s a series of posts about it on this blog). Absolutely extraordinary. There are times when it seems like a hammering inside one’s head.


    • I still need to finish The Brothers Karamazov. I keep starting it when I have breaks in schoolwork each year, but I tend to get swamped with work again before I finish it. One day…

      Also, Pevear and Volokonsky are my favorite translators of Russian lit in general. Garnett has some minor inaccuracies, and I find the translations to have a very dated feel. P&V tend to stay very close to the original Russian while at the same time choosing to phrase things in a way that’s more accessible to modern readers than the Garnett versions would be. Earlier this evening I compared a version of each of “Notes from the Underground” while at the bookstore, and the difference was striking.


      • Hello Grace, I read the P & V translations of Anna Karenina and of Gogol’s short stories, and enjoyed them both. But for some curious reason, one often becomes attached to the versions one read first: I first encountered Tolstoy’s novels in the translations by Rosemary Edmonds, and the Dostoyevsky novels in translations by David Magarshack, and, although my most recent readings of Dostoyevsky were in the versions by David McDuff (and by Robert Maguire for “Demons”) it’s still the Magarshack versions of Dostoyevsky I enjoy the most. Of course, I am in no position to comment on how close any of these translations are, either in letter or in spirit, to the originals.

        As for Constance Garnett, we owe her a huge debt of gratitude for having introduced this extraordinary body of literature to the English-speaking world, but yes, from what I gather, there are many inaccuracies. But I was at a lecture once given by the distinguished translator Robert Chandler (translator of Grossman & Platonov), and he said that, despite the inaccuracies, Constance Garnett, at her best, often captured the tone and the spirit f the originals better than many of her rivals. I have a volume of Chekov short stories translated by Garnett, but with the translation “revised” (i.e. errors, I assume, corrected) and they read very well indeed. But generally, I like the translations by Ronald Wilks (Penguin) and by Ronald Hingley (Oxford) for these stories, and, more recently, the translations by Rosamund Bartlett, which have been very highly praised. (I understand Ms Bartlett is now working on a new version of “Anna Karenina”.)

        With works I particularly love, I like reading them in different translations, as no single translation, even the finest, can hope to capture everything.

  6. I also particularly love reading Russian poetry with various translations paired next to the original. I’ve got a volume of Pushkin that’s like that that I picked up in St. Petersburg, and it’s incredible. Sometimes I wish that I could mash together the parts that I like most from each…


  7. I read Garnett’s Edwardian translation and I think the old-fashioned style put me off; I keep meaning to buy a more recent translation.


    • Hello Miguel, there are some excellent modern translations of this novel. The one I read this time round is by Rovert Maguire, and the one by Pevear & Volokonsky is also supposed to be very good.


  8. Posted by Paul Sutton on July 8, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    Excellent review. For me, this is FD’s greatest novel – and the most readable. I don’t agree about the randomness – since mental and character instability are central to his fiction. You’re right about his uncanny ability to evoke terror – especially through the tiny details (greasing the death rope is a famous example). This is also his most prophetic text – even more than The Grand Inquisitor part of Karamzov. Above all, the tragic and comic mix is perfect – much of the novel is hilariously satirical (especially the absurd pretentions of small-town intellectuals.) When one looks at the hideous violence worship of Corbynistas, the novel is all too relevant now.


    • I think I wrote this post when I was still rediscovering Dostoyevsky. Reading again what I had written, I think I’d have written it a bit differently now. I try not to get too political on the blog, but the point you make in your last sentence is well taken: I still regard myself as largely on the Left, but certain undesirable elements that had been on the fringes now appear to be entering the mainstream, and it genuinely is concerning. Anyway, enough of that.
      It’s always hard to name a single favourite novel of Dostoyevsky’s. If pressed, I’d nominate The Idiot. But all four if his major novels are magnificent.


      • Posted by Paul Sutton on July 9, 2017 at 7:34 am

        Yes, he’s the greatest novelist I think – not always my favourite, but unmatchable at his peak. Must admit I think Karamazov is the least readable and powerful of the big four – I think so much of the context (especially the religious) is now too distant – though of course the Inquisitor is eternal. What FD shares with the greatest writers is his sheer exuberance and energy – his life-creating abilities. Of English writers a quality say with Shakespeare, Dickens and Kipling. But his psychological profundity is shared only by the first!

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