Part One, Chapter Two, Sections 1-3
by Dennis Abrams
“Prince Harry. Matchmaking.” “There was only one other person on earth to whom Varvara Petrovna was attached no less than to Stepan Trofimovich — her only son, Nikolai Vsevolodovich Statvogin. it was for him that Stepan Trofimovich had been invited as a tutor.” The close relationship between student and tutor, “They used to throw themselves into each others embrace and weep.” Varvara’s trust in Stepan Trofimovich. In his sixteenth year, Stavrogin goes to the lycee, “One may also suppose that when the friends wept, throwing themselves into their mutual embrace at night, it was not always over some little domestic anecdotes…in any event it was good that the youngling and the mentor, though none too soon, were parted in different directions.” Stavrogin’s visits home observing at his mother’s literary evenings. Stavrogin enters one of the most distinguished regiments of the Horse Guard. Rare visits home, money always sent by Varvara. Varvara’s interest in her son’s successes in Petersburg high society, succeeding, “where she had not.” His wild life, “there was only talk of some savage unbridledness, of some people being run over by horses, of some beastly behavior towards a lady of good society with whom he had had a liaison and whom he afterwards publicly insulted.” Stavrogin as swashbuckler. Stepan reassures her, saying “that it all resembled Shakespeare’s description of the youth of Prince Harry, carousing with Falstaff, Poins, and Mistress Quickly.” News of “Prince Harry” fighting in two duels, “being broken to the ranks, stripped of his rights, and exiled to service in one of the infantry regiments.” His comeback. Awarded a little cross, promoted to officer. Varvara’s please for her son, “She allowed herself to be somewhat humiliated in so extraordinary a case.” After his promotion, Stavrogin returns to Petersburg, where “it was discovered that he was living in some strange company, had become associated with some castoffs of the Petersburg populace, with some down-at-the-heel officials, retired military men who nobly begged for alms, drunkards, that he visited their dirty families, spent days and nights in dark slums and God knows what corners…” Stavrogin gone to seed — his return home. (It is at this point that the narrator first meets him.) “He was a very handsome young man, about twenty-five years old, and I confess I found him striking…this was the most elegant gentleman of any I had ever happened to meet…All our ladies lost their minds over the new visitor. They were sharply divided into two parties — one party adored him, the other handed him to the point of blood vengeance; but both lost their minds…I was also struck by his face: his hair was somehow too black, his light eyes were somehow too calm and white, his color somehow too bright and clean, his teeth like pearls, his lips like coral — the very image of beauty, it would seem, and at the same time repulsive, as it were.” Governor Ivan Osipovich, “our former governor, had something of the woman about him…” “…and then — the best suddenly put out its claws. Our Prince suddenly, for no reason at all, committed two or three impossibly brazen acts upon various persons — that is, the main thing lay in their being so unheard-of, so utterly unlike anything else, so different from what is usually done, so paltry and adolescent, and devil knows why, with no pretext whatsoever. Senior club member Pavel Pavlovich Gaganov, “had acquired the innocent habit of accompanying his every word with a passionately uttered, “No, sir, they won’t lead me by the nose!” So one day in the club, Stavrogin suddenly “came up to Pavel Pavlovich, seized his nose unexpectedly but firmly with two fingers, and managed to pull him two or three steps across the room.” His lack of repentance. The terrible uproar. “…a calculated and deliberate ugliness, as it seemed at first sight, and therefore constituting a deliberate and in the highest degree impudent affront to our entire society.” Stavrogin is expelled from the club. An appeal to the governor for protection. Can the law be brought against him? Varvara confess to Stepan she had “long been foreseeing it all.” At a party at Liputin’s, Stavrogin kisses his wife on the lips, “three times in a row, to the full of his heart’s content.” The next day, Stavrogin tells Liputin’s servant to tell him “that he is the most intelligent in the whole town.” The talk with the governor who planned to suggest that Stavrogin leave the community and go to Italy. Moving in to whisper a secret to the governor, Stavrogin instead bites his ear. Stavrogin is arrested. Brain fever. Two months ill in bed. Forgiveness. On his recovery, Stavrogin makes his apologies. Liputin and “the language of the universally human social republic and harmony…”
I am LOVING this. The whole scene with the pulled nose was, I thought, absolutely masterful…the horror of it all, the incredible insult to society…”…it was decided on behalf of the whole club to appeal to the governor and ask him at once (without waiting for the affair to be taken formally to court) to restrain the pernicious ruffian, the big-city ‘swashbuckler, through the administrative power entrusted to him, and thereby protect the peace of all decent circles in town from pernicious encroachments.'” Great.
What exactly was the narrator hinting at in his description of the relationship between Stepan and Stavrogin?
It was just one little grace note, but it spoke volumes. I’m thinking of the scene in which Stepan, trying to ease Varvara’s worries, compares Stavrogin to Shakespeare’s Prince Hal. (I’m wondering whether this is a comparison that will be continued throughout the book). Varvara wanting to believe in her son, had apparently not read her Shakespeare and “herself took Shakespeare and read the immortal chronicle with extreme attention.” For some reason, I thought that was lovely.
I’ve been thinking about how “familiar” the Russian radicals that Dostoevsky describes are today. It is possible that radicals (or perhaps more broadly) have always been that serious, that self-righteous, that humorless? I’m thinking about Robespierre and the French Revolution, Emma Goldman and her circle, Lenin etc., the Cultural Revolution iin China, etc., etc., etc., all the way through today’s jihadists. This perhaps, is one of the ways in which Demons still speaks so directly to us today. The causes may have changed, the costumes, and the technology, but human nature is, I’m more and more inclined to believe, pretty much unchanging.
Part One, Chapter Two, Parts 4-6