Chapter One, Part Five, Sections 1-5
by Dennis Abrams
“The Wise Serpent” The gathering at Varvara Petrovna’s. Coffee is served. Marya Timofeevna’s rapturous delight that Stepan spoke in French, “Ah! French! French! You can see right off it’s high society!” Waiting for a denouement. “‘Merci,’ Marya Timofeevna took the cup, and suddenly burst out laughing at having said merci to a footman.” Varvara’s brief rage at being called ‘auntie’ by Marya, Darya Pavlovna is summoned. Noises are heard, “…and suddenly, breathless and ‘upset,’ Praskovya Ivanovna appeared on the threshold. Mavriky Nikolaevich was supporting her arm. ‘…Varvara Petrovna, dearest, I’ve come to fetch my daughter.'” Varvara Petrovna’s dark look. The relationship between Praskovya Ivanovna and Varvara Petrovna, “Ever since childhood, Varvara Petrovna had always treated her former boarding-school friend despotically and, under the guise of friendship, with all but contempt.” Praskovya Ivanovna’s haughtiness, Varvara Petrovna’s wounds. Praskovya Ivanovna tells Varvara “I wouldn’t sit in your house, dearest, if it weren’t for my legs!” Always boarding school. Praskovya Ivanovna turns down coffee and reminds Varvara that “you fell in love with the priest who taught us religion in boarding school — take that, since you still have such a good memory,” resulting in a green face and hateful look from Varvara. Praskovya accuses Varvara of getting her daughter “up in your scandal before the eyes of the whole town…” Marya, “This unfortunate woman.” What truth came out this week? “‘But here it is, the whole truth, sitting right here!’ Praskovya Ivavovna suddenly pointed her finger at Marya Timofeevna…” Marya’s joyful laugh. “‘Lord Jesus Christ, have they all lost their minds, or what?’ Varvara exclaimed and, turning pale, threw herself against the back of her chair,” frightening her guests. Praskovya Ivanovna apologizes. Darya Pavlovna makes her appearance. Marya: “Why, Shatushka, your sister doesn’t resemble you at all! How is it my man calls such loveliness the serf wench Dashka!” Varvara’s “terrifying calm.” It was Darya who carried the roubles from Nikolai Vsevolodovich (Stavrogin) to Lebyadkin — “There were three hundred roubles, and I gave him three hundred roubles.” Darya’s calm and lack of embarrassment. Varvara vows to protect Darya from scandal and rumors. Lebyadkin is downstairs waiting to be announced. Anonymous letters received by both Varvara Petrovna and Praskovya Ivanovna, one that warns Varvara of “some lame woman who ‘will play an extraordinary role in my fate’…” Varvara apologizes to Praskovya, “If you, too, my poor Praskovya Ivanovna, have been bothered because of me with the same contemptible letters…I’ll be the first to regret having been the innocent cause.” Lebyadkin will not be “received,” he will be “admitted.” Lebyadkin and his tailcoat of love. Lebyadkin attempts to reimburse Varvara for the money she gave Marya plus cab fare. “..my sister, born Lebyadkin, but for now we will call her Marya the Unknown, for now, madam, only for now, for God himself will not allow it to be forever.” “Have you, madam, ever suffered in your life?” “Can one die solely from the nobility of one’s own soul?” The poem about the flies and the cockroach. ‘Nikifor takes the glass and, in spite of their crying, dumps the whole comedy into the tub, both flies and cockroach, which should have been long ago. But notice, madam, notice, the cockroach does not murmur! This is the answer to your question, ‘why?’…The cock-roach does not mur-mur!” Lebyadkin denies having made an accusation regarding money to a person belonging to Varvara’s household.” Lebyadkin boasts of his cunning. A surprise announcement: Nikolai Vsevolodovich, who is not expected for another month, will be arriving momentarily. A surprise entrance: “and suddenly into the drawing room flew — not Nikolai Vsevolodovich at all, but a young man totally unknown to anyone…a young man of twenty-seven or thereabouts…with thin, rather long blond hair and a wispy, barely evident mustache and beard…No one would call him bad-looking, but no one likes his face.” It is Petrusha, Stepan Trofimovich’s son. Petrusha begs his father not to cry, “But I haven’t seen you for ten years!” “the less reason for any outpourings…” Stavrogin arrives and unlike four years earlier, “it could in no way be said that his face resembled a mask. Was it before he had become a bit paler than before? Or was there perhaps some new thought in his eyes?” Varvara’s question for her son: “Nikolai Vsevolodovich, I ask you to tell me right now, without moving from that spot: is it true that this unfortunate lame woman 00 there she is, over there, look at her! — is it true that she is…your lawful wife?” Stavrogin kisses his mother’s hand, walks to Marya Timofeevna, “there was rapture in her eyes, a sort of insane rapture that distorted her features — a rapture hard for people to bear,” she asks if she may kneel to him, “Consider that you are a girl, and I, though your most faithful friend, am nevertheless a stranger to you, not a husband, not a father, not a fiance. Now give me your hand and let us go…”
Don’t Dostoevsky’s people throw the very best parties? What impresses me (while at the same occasionally irritating me) is the way Dostoevsky refuses to grant us certain information, so that while we know about the tension between, let’s say, Varvara and Praskovya Ivanovna, with hints at rumors and scandals without clarifying and then WHAM, Varvara asks her son if he’s married to Marya Timofeevna (and then shows us his tenderness to both his mother and Marya, while denying that they’re married.) It’s all highly dramatic and on most levels, highly satisfying. At least to me.
And finally, this from Joseph Frank:
“Demons as we know, was initially begun as a ‘pamphlet-novel’ in which Dostoevsky would unleash all his satirical fury against the Nihilists. It is thus not surprising that, of all his major works, it contains the greatest proportion of satirical caricature and ideological parody. This becomes immediately apparent in the rhetoric of the narrator’s account of Stepan Trofimovich’s career, which both exalts and deflates him at the same time. Since the narrator feels a genuine sympathy for Stepan Trofimovich, he begins by delineating the exalted and ennobling image that the eminent worthy has of himself. But he immediately undermines it by revealing the completely exaggerated, even illusory nature of many of the poses that his subject strikes (as a supposed ‘political exile,’ for instance, who was not an exile at all, or as a noted scholar whose ‘notoriety’ was mainly fictitious). “Yet Stepan Trofimovich was a most intelligent and gifted man,’ the narrator affirms, “even, so to say, a man of science…well in fact he had not done such great things in science. I believe indeed that he had done nothing at all. But that’s very often the case, of course, with men of science among us in Russia.”
In fact, recalls the narrator, a famous article written by Stepan Trofimovich contained ‘the beginning of a very profound investigation into the causes, I believe, of the extraordinary moral nobility of certain knights at a certain epoch or something of that nature.” this choice of subject defines the sublime elevation of Stepan Trofimovich’s own ideals, which are also illustrated by the chronicler’s account of Stepan Trofimovich’s prose poem, written sometime in the 1830s. Described as ‘some sort of allegory in lyrical-dramatic form’, the poem parodies Vladimir Pecherin’s The Triumph of Death and is the first announcement of the book’s dominating symbolism:
‘Then a youth of indescribable beauty rides in on a black steed, and an immense multitude of nations follow him. The youth represents death for whom all the peoples are yearning. And finally, in the last scene we are suddenly shown the Tower of Babel, and certain athletes at last finish building it with a song of new hope, and when at length they complete the topmost pinnacle, the lord (of Olympus, let us say) takes flight in a comic fashion, and man, grasping the situation and seizing his place, at once begins a new life with a new insight into things.’
This parody contains the major theme of the book and foreshadows the appearance of Stavrogin. He too is of an ‘indescribable beauty’; he too is death and not life; he too is followed, if not by multitudes of all nations, then by the multitude of all those who look to him for inspiration. He too believes that man can bake the place not of the lord of Olympus, who has nothing to do with the Tower of Babel, but of the God of the Old Testament and his Son of the New. Stavrogin is the pretender and the impostor aspiring to the throne of God, just as in the poem the youth representing death aspires to be the source of live. Everything that stems from Stavrogin is thus marked with the seal of supreme falsity and deception and leads to death. He is a counterfeit and fraudulent facsimile of truth; and this symbolism of the usurper, the pretender, the impostor, runs through every aspect of the book, underlying and linking all its actions.”
I suspect Colin Wilson is going to have a completely different take on Stavrogin.
Part One, Chapter Five, Section 6