Written by Fyodor Dostoevsky
(Penguin Classics, 1954, 704 pages)
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
For a great deal of this book I was under the impression that it was a sort of first sketch of what would become the nonpareil masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. But it is not only that. It might not even be that at all. As with all great works, it takes time to process its full significance. But it is a great work, despite some initial quibbles the reader might feel while reading it.
One of my quibbles was that it sometimes has the feel of a play. This is particularly so of the first of the three ‘parts’ which make it up. It is very heavy on dialogue and, save for the final third of the book, very short on ‘action.’ One does periodically wonder how long an author can make a book out of so little. Nevertheless, by the end, one is satisfied that the time was worth it: the long strands have been woven into something very great.
Let us begin with the title itself and move outward from there. Sometimes it is translated, The Demons, and sometimes The Possessed. I do not know which would be the most accurate of the Russian word, but have the feeling that The Possessed is too peremptory, thus leaving the reader with less freedom to investigate the subtle psychological disquisition the author is therein making.
Next, let us refer to Dostoevsky’s biography. The book is set in 1870. Merely fifteen years before that the author had been in prison and in exile in Siberia for anti-Tsarist political activity, having barely escaped execution. Quite understandably, the sentence had inflicted a heavy psychological toll on him, but, rather surprisingly, did not have the effect of hardening him in his political beliefs, which such punishments often do, but in dissuading him of them. He was to become rather ‘conservative’ by contrast. He turned his back on the atheist materialism of his prior socialistic leaning, to adopt Russian Orthodoxy. We see him contrasting these two positions in a variety of ways by means of the many and varied characters of The Devils.
Although I am quite convinced that I have not yet become conscious of all the novel was attempting to accomplish, clearly it is a powerful critique of his former beliefs. Let us bear in mind that although Dostoevsky had moved beyond them, his world had not, which we know from the fact that within two generations these ideas would destroy the Russian Empire altogether. In The Devils, then, we have an insider’s view. And even while I bear in mind the novelist’s greatest modern interpreter’s, Joseph Frank’s, view that Dostoevsky had never been a hard-core believer in ‘the cause,’ The Devils provides a very accurate portrayal of the mindset of its adherents. Once or twice in the span of its 700-hundred pages is clearly stated the plan of the antagonists: to destabilize Russian society so as to make it ready for the new order the ‘devils’ have in mind. In the end, they succeed only in part, at least on the scale of the town in which the novel is set. What they effect more than anything, however, is their own self-destruction. Yes, they do real damage, but the poverty of their ideas is revealed in the fact of their greater self-destruction.
It is at once difficult to determine who the main character of the novel is. I would say that there are at least three main characters: Stepan Trofimovich, a fifty-something year-old retired intellectual; Vavara Petrovna, Stepan’s best friend, a wealthy, strong-willed woman; and her estranged, and, not to mention, strange, son, Nikolai Vsevolodovich. The list of significant lesser characters is too long to mention here, but certainly numbers around a dozen. It is quite difficult for a non-Russian to keep all of these names straight. Russians always use the double name, which includes the patronymic, the father’s name, as the second name. For example, among the significant lesser characters is included Pyotr Stepanovich, that is to say, Stepan Trofimovich’s son.
Some might say that as an essay on ideologies The Devils falls short of the sophistication of The Brothers Karamazov. I would disagree. The fact is, the book says less in a ‘triumphalistic’ manner of Christianity than Brothers Karamazov does. There isn’t in this work anything like the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor or the character, Father Zosima, for example, that might serve as a comforting idealization for Christian readers. Nevertheless, The Devils provides a far more life-like treatment of the motivations and characteristics of the anti-Christian position—nihilism or socialism, whatever you would like to call it—than can be found in Karamazov.
As with all of his mature great novels, Devils is a serious book. This does not mean that it is unremittingly dark. Of course, the point was to show the destructive nature of anti-Christian philosophies. This is a lesson we would do well today to heed. It never ceases to amaze me how historically illiterate we are today. It is too much for us to admit that the best civilization is in some sense Christian. We lack the ability to imagine a version of Christian culture other than Calvin’s Geneva, Philip II’s Spain, or 17th century Salem. This inability in us is precisely the fruit of the nearly two centuries of effort by the devils among us. It is cliché to refer to Dostoevsky as a prophet. It is always possible for any keen observer to see what he saw.