Drawing Out “Demons”: Dostoevsky Considered by His Critics

Part of a manuscript page from Dostoevsky’s novel Demons (ca. 1871-72).

The late nineteenth century marked a time in which revolutionary and radical individuals were gaining attention in Eastern Europe, largely because of their open reliance on direct violence as a means for addressing perceived social inequities. One response to this rising nihilist movement came in the form of a political novel, The Possessed, written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Subsequent translations also established the titles Demons and The Devils as accepted variations on the name. There is no doubt that it bears all the expected features of the typical Dostoevskian novel. According to D.C. Offord, professor of Russian language at the University of Bristol, one of these is “the multiplicity of perspectives” presented within the author’s pages (63). This presence of internal fragmentation is widely discussed among Dostoevsky’s critics. In a similar fashion, the critics of The Possessed themselves—by representing a wide variety of opinions on the novel—show a certain amount of external fragmentation where their respective analyses disagree. Nevertheless, these critics can still be observed to center their writings on similar passages and concepts. Just as The Possessed has what Offord calls a “close, though complex relationship” (64) with the numerous contexts surrounding it, the critics’ own commentaries on the novel are intimately connected with a larger academic and literary community. This is most evident when comparing and contrasting the views advanced toward the novel from various critical disciplines. A survey of seven articles since 1991 reveals a tendency to focus especially on the narrator’s role in the novel, the recurring motif of pretense in characters, and the importance of biblical allusion in Dostoevsky’s establishment of an anti-nihilist moral perspective. Whenever any of these critics disagrees with the analysis of another, he or she explains that it is prompted by something which had previously been overlooked or is worth reconsidering and exploring.

What is the precise role and importance of the first-person narrator in The Possessed for Dostoevsky? David Stromberg’s “The Enigmatic G—v: A Defense of the Narrator-Chronicler in Dostoevsky’s Demons” directly addresses this question. In his view, the narrator of the novel—given the anonymous name “G—v” by the author—is one who displays certain “idiosyncratic” tendencies (463), but who still serves as someone who is intended to assist readers in reconstructing the fragmented, hectic narrative which is relayed throughout. Before advancing his argument, Stromberg briefly refers to the most prevailing views on the matter and then discusses their shortcomings. After introducing three options as to how a critic might view Dostoevsky’s narrator, Stromberg suggests a fourth which is essentially a variation of the third. He endeavors to create a complete picture of the narrator based on various details that are provided by the novel’s own account. First, he shows that the narrator is a faithful reporter of all that transpires; a general confidence can be read into the narrator’s words that “if there is information to be had,” he “can get it” (465). Later on in the piece, Stromberg suggests that even G—v himself is going through a process of discovery and revelation at the same he is writing. The critic sees fit to also stress the setting in which the narrator is known to be communicating. G—v carries out his storytelling against a “background of constantly multiplying rumors” (466). This narrator’s intent, Stromberg argues, is ultimately to synthesize together all that he knows in order to uncover the most precise truth obtainable (471-72). From this criticism alone, we are already able to understand the central role of the narrator in establishing the substance of Dostoevsky’s work. The question of how this occurs, or even to what extent, is still one of contention.

Others have found significance in the narrator’s role as chronicler but still insist that his story is incomplete. An example of this is seen in Harriet Murav, who, even while seeing the narrator as someone who clearly identifies himself in the role of “chronicler” (63), considers him to be carrying out this task in a fragmentary manner rather than a perfectly and chronologically ordered one (65-66). Murav sees such fragmentation as representing a need on the reader’s part to “seek connectedness elsewhere,” specifically in the book’s “marginal characters” (66). For her, the issue of utmost importance in the novel is not the narrator’s identity or his sufficiency as a reporter; rather, it is the other characters who reveal Dostoevsky’s key messages concerning society and the demonic. Ultimately, Murav argues, the significance of Dostoevsky’s narrative in The Possessed is its vision of “political upheaval” (56) that goes back much further than the writer’s contemporary time. She demonstrates parallels with the seventeenth century “Time of Troubles” in Russia and its accompanying figures—many of which bear great similarity to characters within The Possessed—with characteristics like widespread seduction and the use of trickery to obtain power and control (59-62). Murav relies especially on the work of post-structuralist Boris Uspenskij for an understanding of historical Russian precedent in this area.  We know from Uspenskij, for instance, that in seventeenth-century Russian culture, there was a known distinction made between the genuine and the false tsar. One was seen as “a channel of divine grace” and the other a mimic who “receives his power from the devil” (57). Aside from referring to this aspect of history, Murav turns to the author Dostoevsky himself to lend support to her contention that pretense should be associated directly with the demonic (58-59). The allure and attraction that are borne out of such demonic deception are the very things which drive others in the novel to follow characters like Stavrogin and Verkhovensky. Later on, Murav emphasizes the aforementioned aspects of seduction and pretense as being the things which undergird the entire demonic presence at work throughout the novel. And yet, because it is part of the unfolding of God’s sovereign plan, she sees the overwhelming influence of such deceit as the precursor to an eventual driving out of that influence. Just as Christ drove Legion out of a man and into a herd of pigs, she reasons, Dostoevsky hints at the idea that the nihilist element within Russian society will eventually be driven out, thus “result[ing] in Russia’s cure and restoration” (67). By pointing to this understanding of the text, Murav is following the example of others who apply the novel to a wider narrative that is external to itself. Dostoevsky is made to adopt a kind of prophetic voice regarding Russia’s destination in history.

Consider Nina Pelikan Straus, another example of a critic who extends Dostoevsky’s novel and its applications far outside of the author’s own contemporaneous frame of reference. Straus’ connections, in fact, are made with the utilization of present-day analyses of terrorism. Her approach is similar to that of the New Historicists because of its incorporation of multiple disciplines including sociology, international politics, psychology, feminist studies, and religion. Straus’ examination of The Possessed is also Girardian in nature because of her focus on mimesis as a literary methodology. She observes that, just as the disciples of the modern Osama bin Laden can be dubbed “little Mujahedeen,” so too might the followers of The Possessed’s Nikolai Stavriogin be called “little Stravrogins” in their roles as part of a “terrorist hierarchy” (203). This is mentioned by Straus to demonstrate the importance in both instances of a “circulation of violence around a charismatic leader” (198). There are numerous other ways in which Dostoevsky’s novel mirrors more recent approaches to the understanding of terrorist acts and their perpetrators. Women, for instance, play an important part in helping to propel the radical movements in both the novel and modern-day political life. But there are key differences. In The Possessed, women are central as individuals who are at first romantically drawn to the radical leadership by their seduction. However, the women eventually come to an awareness of the evils that are in fact occurring. Dostoevsky’s female characters, then, are largely capable of escaping from the trappings of the movement they were formerly involved in, trading their admiration for revulsion (199). This can be contrasted with the present situation in radical Islamist circles, where a concerted effort is made to silence dissenting women through “containment and control” (199). The novel is, for Straus, a light by which we can illuminate modern terrorism and its motivations. From this we realize that the critic can very much be concerned with matters of practical application even outside of purely literary concerns.

Like Straus, the approaches of Russell S. Valentino, Richard G. Avramenko, and Val Vinokurov all belong to an area of critique that is uniquely informed by external philosophies and conceptions. Valentino, for instance, focuses on the literary distinction between allegory and sacramentalism. The very assumption that allegory is something central to the novel, Vinokurov tells us, is predicated upon the fact that it “is one of several genres … referred to by name” (37). Vinokurov’s definitions for allegory and sacramentalism are built upon a framework formerly provided by C.S. Lewis, who viewed allegory as an image that stands in for another reality. Allegory for Lewis is simply imitative of reality; sacramentalism, on the other hand, is what is present when one is able to see “the reflection of an ideal” (39, emphasis mine). The fact that the actual radicals of Dostoevksy’s day are known to have read much of the existing radical literature in a sacramental, idealistic manner (40) is central to Valentino’s thesis. With this in mind, he argues that the text of The Possessed can largely be seen as a matter of “turning word into flesh” (41), a process by which an imagined ideal is embodied through the logos of an author’s prose and then incarnated as a living reality. It is significant that Valentino is able to approach the motif of pretense in the novel from a different angle than other critics because of his allegorical lens. He sees Mar’ia Timofeevna as an important character because of her role as one who exposes the “Pretender” aspect of Stavrogin. In doing this, she symbolically connects Stavrogin with the notion of a “false tsar” or a “false Christ” (45-46). That Stavrogin’s characteristics throughout the novel are emblematic of an Antichrist character is further elaborated upon by Valentino’s mention of possible biblical allusions, those various elements within the story that share important parallels with major motifs and characters in the Book of Revelation. Stavrogin, he explains, is synonymous with the Beast, Petr Stepanovich with the False Prophet, and Lizaveta Nikolaevna with the Whore of Babylon. Aside from applying a biblical paradigm to The Possessed, the critic also demonstrates that the novel is able to be read in a Faustian sense (46).

Avramenko relies more upon a sociological understanding of the text. In “Bedeviled by Boredom,” he introduces existentialist Eric Voegelin into the discussion, advancing the view that Dostoevsky demonstrates a connection—like Voegelin—between an abandonment of theism and a resulting state of “boredom and perplexity” (111). Throughout The Possessed, he observes, it is precisely this abandonment of a belief in God that leaves a void in the world; that is, “an existence characterized by a long and meaningless duration of time—a boring existence where they must struggle to free themselves from this boredom” (122). This results in the exacerbation of mischief. Boredom is also able to be dealt with directly through the construction of new gods. Such a construction, however, is only possible by relying upon “human artifice” (123). This marks another instance in which the critics agree on a central motif in the novel, that of pretense and all its accompanying features of deceit and intentional trickery. In the novel, Dostoevsky uses the character Stavrogin to call out the pretense of Verkhovensky. Stavrogin’s remark that the man is “really not a socialists at all but just a man thirsting for political power” (qtd. in 132) is one of the clearest examples of such an unmasking. Pretense is central to the lead characters’ rise in power throughout The Possessed. Avramenko proceeds, like Murav and Straus, to bring up the vital issue of charismatic leadership and its influence in the novel. He points to the dictators Hitler and Stalin as examples of such a dangerous “cult of personality” (133), thus drawing a parallel between Dostoevsky’s characters and the century than followed them instead of remaining rigidly contemporaneous with the use of real world applications. It is somewhat significant that Avramenko frames the purpose of his criticism in one manner different from these others, excepting maybe Straus. Instead of merely seeking to enlighten our understanding of the texts, his aim is to enlighten our understanding of recent world history in general.  He emphasizes the idea that his insights are meant to addresses what he views as a deficiency in our understanding about human behaviors over the last century.

An employment of external applications to the text, as has been shown, is certainly characteristic among these scholars. The argument presented by Vinokurov in his article “The End of Consciousness and the Ends of Consciousness” is shaped according to the views of Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher of Jewish and French background. Levinas, he explains, emphasized a concept in which encountering the human face is seen as paramount in the establishment of ethics. The face-to-face relationship is something which suggests the obligation of one to another (23). Vinokurov applies this understanding to the narratives in both Dosteovsky’s The Idiot and The Possessed, yet the examples he cites from the latter show a main character who reacts in a profoundly different way than Myshkin in the former. While Myshkin in the other novel is unable to deal with his own pain and eventually “suffers a breakdown” (27), Shatov in The Possessed is notable for his wholly opposite reaction of seeking to change his ways. Out of regret and shame over his previous actions, he purposes to reunite himself to his wife who he feels he had terribly wronged (31). The main thrust of such an episode for the critic Vinokurov, then, is its demonstration of the Levinasian idea of self-sacrifice that is always and inevitably borne out of one’s face-to-face encounter with goodness. Indeed, he writes, it would have been better had some of the other radicals in his group—Kirillov and Verhovensky—been willing “to sacrifice [themselves] for goodness and not for ‘Truth!’ [the cause for which they were fighting]” (31-32).

One is able to see that the critics of Dostoevsky are very much dependent upon considerations both internal and external to the text. Just as each respective work of criticism is generated out a desire to respond to some academic or social exigency, it is also true that every single critic makes a point of bringing up an entirely new exigency of his or her own. Consider just a few examples. For Murav, a new concern can be said to be centered upon applying her proposed analysis to Diary of a Writer, Dosteosvky’s work which followed The Possessed five years later. Stromberg, along similar lines, sees his insight into the chronicler of the novel as “a first step” (481) for readers which must be followed up with deeper insight if one is to fully reconstruct the narrative. Valentino suggests that a potential response could come in the form of deeper reading, as well as further development of the novel’s “relation to other texts” (49) that is apparent if one is to recognize his evidences of its persistent allegory. What these tendencies ultimately reveal is the role of a critical community in establishing and maintaining a conversation regarding any work in question. As long as a multiplicity of voices continue to bring up areas of Dostoevskian study that have been lacking in their treatment, this conversation will undoubtedly continue to draw out fresh insights from the text.

Works Cited

Avramenko, Richard G. “Bedeviled By Boredom: A Voegelinian Reading of Dostoevsky’s Possessed.” Humanitas (10667210) 17.1/2 (2004): 108-138. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

Murav, Harriet. “Representations of the Demonic: Seventeenth Century Pretenders and The Devils.” The Slavic and East European Journal 35.1 (1991): 56-70. JSTOR. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

Offord, D.C. “The Devils in the Context of Contemporary Russian Life and Politics.” Dostoevsky’s The Devils: A Critical Companion. Ed. William J. Leatherbarrow. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. 63-99. Print.

Straus, Nina Pelikan. “From Dostoevsky to Al-Qaeda: What Fiction Says to Social Science.” Common Knowledge 12.2 (2006): 197-213. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

Stromberg, David. “The Enigmatic G—v: A Defense of the Narrator-Chronicler in Dostoevsky’s Demons” Russian Review 71.3 (2012): 460-81. JSTOR. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

Valentino, Russell S. “The Word Made Flesh in Dostoevskii’s Possessed.” Slavic Review 56.1 (1997): 37-49. JSTOR. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

Vinokurov, Val. “The End of Consciousness and the Ends of Consciousness: A Reading of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Demons after Levinas.” Russian Review 59.1 (2000): 21-37. JSTOR. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

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