An Introduction to Dostoevsky’s Demons
by Dennis Abrams
Welcome (or welcome back) to Project D — today we begin our reading of Dostoevsky’s Demons. This is perhaps the novel out of the four that we’re going to be reading that I’m the most excited about. Crime and Punishment. while undeniably a masterpiece is perhaps too well known, Brothers Karamazov carries its “masterpiece” description with it all too obviously, The Idiot while unmistakably a great book can seem, perhaps, outside of our normal range of concerns. Demons on the other hand, while perhaps the least known to the general public of Dostoevsky’s four major novels is, based on my reading of it years ago, the one that speaks the most directly to us in the 21st century. Ruthless radical revolutionaries willing to die for their beliefs, nihilism — it is a tremendous experience. As Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky’s greatest biographer wrote,
“…the scope of his canvas, the brilliant ferocity of his wit, the prophetic power and insight of his satire, his unrivaled capacity to bring to life and embody in characters the most profound and complex moral-philosophical issues and social ideas — all combine to make this ‘pamphlet-poem’ [more on this later] perhaps Dostoevsky’s most dazzling creation. It is an unprecedented historical-symbolic drama, intended to encompass all the forces of nineteenth-century Russian culture up to its time, and unlike any other work in the period in Russian or European literature. Even with the flood of such novels in the twentieth century, Demons remains unsurpassed as an astonishingly prescient portrayal of the moral quagmires, and the possibilities of self-betrayal of the highest principles, that have continued to dog the revolutionary ideal from Dostoevsky’s day down (even more spectacularly) to our own.”
It was not, however, the book that he originally out to write. He had been contemplating and beginning to work on what he considered to be “eternal” themes — atheism, sin, and sainthood — in the story of a “great sinner” who is sent off to a monastery as a means of discipline (he had desecrated an icon among other acts) where he meets a saintly monk named Tikhon. The book, which he saw as working on as vast a scale as Tolstoy’s War and Peace would be titled The Life of a Great Sinner. But after only a month, his plans had changed.
“I have tackled a rich idea,” he wrote a friend, as quoted by Frank, “I am not speaking of the execution, but the idea. One of the ideas that has an undoubted resonance among the public. Like Crime and Punishment but even closer to reality, more vital, and having direct relevance for the most contemporary issue. I will finish by fall; I am not hurrying and not rushing.” According to Frank, “These words are the first reference to Demons, which was indeed conceived in relation to the recent discovery of a murder committed by a group of revolutionary conspirators. Dostoevsky thus sets aside his ‘eternal’ theme, that of atheism, for one that was burningly topical because he was persuaded that such a book would solve all his problems. He would pillory the radicals once and for all, satisfy The Russian Messenger with a novel, reap a rich financial reward, and do all this in record time. “I hope to make at least as much money as for Crime and Punishment, and therefore, by the end of the year there is hope of putting all my affairs in order…Never have I worked with such enjoyment and such ease.”
Dostoevsky immediately began work on the new novel, putting The Life of a Great Sinner to the side, but not altogether completely. As Frank points out, “Dostoevsky intended to keep his ‘contemporary’ theme separate from his more ‘exalted’ one of atheism, postponing the second for more propitious working conditions while quickly (and profitably) dispatching the first. In doing so, however, he was allowing his contest with Tolstoy, whose elevation of subject matter he envied and wished to emulate, to tempt him into running counter to the distinctive idiosyncrasy of his talent. Dostoevsky always found his inspiration in the most immediate and sensational events of the day — events that were often commonplace and even sordid — and then raised such material in his best work to the level of the genuinely tragic. This union of the contemporary and the tragic was the true secret of his genius, and he finally found it impossible to maintain the forced and artificial disjunction of one from the other that he thought he could impose. The great work that he called his ‘poem’ could not be kept distinct from the social-political ‘pamphlet’ into which he had thrown himself, and the two eventually blended together into his unprecedented novel-tragedy, Demons.”
I hope I’ve piqued your interest…
And I’ve been wanting to share this for awhile now — it’s from James Wood’s How Fiction Works, discussing how it was that writers such as Dostoevsky were the link between the Victorian novels of people like Dickens, and the modernist novels of the 20s, 30s, and 40s.
“The Russians and the French essentially set the terms of the modernist novel as it flourished in Britain and America between 1920 and 1945. You can trace the excitement of encounter in Virginia Woolf’s essays, especially those written in the teens and the twenties of the century, as she discovered the new translations of the Russians into English by Constance Garnett. She put it like this in ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1923):
‘After reading Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, how could any young novelist believe in ‘characters’ as the Victorians had painted them? For the undeniable vividness of so many of them is the result of their crudity. The character is rubbed into us indelibly because its features are so few and so prominent. We are given the keyword [e.g., ‘I never will desert Mr. Micawber’] and then, since the keyword is astonishingly apt, our imaginations swiftly supply the rest. But what keyword could be applied to Raskolnikov, Mishkin, Stavrogin, or Alyosha? These are characters without any features at all. We go into them as we descend into some enormous cavern.'”
1. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for British and American authors of the time to experience the works of Dostoevsky, of Tolstoy, of Chekhov, as new works, free of the stigma of being deemed “worthy” of being “masterpieces,” of being taught rather than just read.
2. And as we descend into the cavern of Demons and its characters, please post your questions, your comments, your thoughts as we go — my goal is for this to be a dialogue, not a monologue.
Monday’s Reading: Part One, Chapters One-Five