“To this day it is as if I can still hear the back of her head hit the carpet.”

Part One, Chapter Five, Sections 7 and 8.
by Dennis Abrams

“The Wise Serpent” — conclusion. Nikolai Vsevolodovich enters the room, “cheerful and calm.” Varvara begs for his forgiveness. “‘Pyotr Stepanovich told us an old Petersburg story from the life of one whimsical fellow,’ Varvara Petrovna rapturously joined in, ‘one mad and capricious fellow, though always lofty in his feelings, always chivalrously noble…” Stavrogin: “‘Pyotor is a universal peace-maker; that is his role, his disease, his hobby horse…Anything, everything is said and done, and so we can finish with it’, he added, and some dry, hard little note sounded in his voice.” Liza’s hysterical laughter, her patter with Mavriky Nikolaevich, “…how inadmissibly tall you are!” Legs had nearly been broken on Pyotr Stepanovich’s train — Liza’s ‘jokes” about being led by Mavriky if she only had one leg. Hysterics. Stavrogin approaches Darya, “I gather you are to be congratulated…or not yet?” Pyotr Stepanovich jumps in, “What are you to be congratulated for, Darya Pavlovna?…The blush on your face tells me I’ve guessed right. Indeed, what else can our beautiful and well-behaved young ladies be congratulated for…?” Pyotr turns to his father Stepan, “…I almost forgot: tell me…when are you going to Switzerland? Pyotr (Petrusha) reveals the contents of his father’s letters to him: Stepan had written numerous letters, telling his son he needed to be “saved,” that the whole town knows he’s getting married, to avoid congratulations he only goes out at night, “Tell me just one thing, Stepan Trofimovich, are you to be congratulated or ‘saved?,” that he’s getting married on account of sins, or because of someone else’s sins..” Varvara approaches Petrusha, “all yellow, her face distorted, her lips quivering, ‘Did Stepan Trofimovich really write to you that he was marrying ‘someone else’s sins committed in Switzerland,’ and that you should fly to ‘save him’ in those very expressions?'” What role is Pyotr Stepanovich playing? Stavrogin received similar letters. Varvara, explaining that her eyes have finally been opened, turns on Stepan, “I expect a great favor from you…please be so good as to leave us right now, and henceforth never step across the threshold of my house.” Stepan’s dignity under fire, his grief, his awareness that he had “acted basely, his bow to Varvara, his low low bow to Darya. Pyotr understands. A new emotion sweeping over Lizaveta. Shatov, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, approached Nikolai Vsevoldovich and “suddenly Shatov swung his long, heavy arm and hit him in the face with all his might. Nikolai Vsevolodovich swayed badly on his feet.” The peculiarity of the blow. Nikolai Vsevolodovich, although “one of those natures that knows no fear…immediately seized Shatov by the shoulders with both hands; but immediately, at almost the same moment, he jerked both hands back and clasped them behind him. He said nothing, looked at Shatov, and turned pale as a shirt. But strangely, his eyes seemed to be dying out.” Shatov is the first to lower his eyes and walks out of the room. Lizaveta goes into a swoon, “To this day it is as if I can still hear the back of her head hit the carpet.”

A couple of thoughts and questions for the group…

1. Once again, Stavrogin is compared to a knight, “chivalrously noble,” this time by his mother.

2. What is Pyotr’s game?

3. What’s up with Lizaveta?

4. This chapter was called “The Wise Serpent.” Unlike the other chapters, I’m not certain what this is referring to. Any thoughts?

5. I’d like to share with you the introduction to the chapter on Demons from Konstantin Mochulsky’s classic biography, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work

“Dostoevsky was the creator of a new narrative form, the novel-tragedy. In Crime and Punishment and The Idiot it was elaborated and developed, in [Demons] it attained its perfection. [Demons] is one of the greatest artistic works in world literature. In notebook No. 3 the writer himself defines the genre he had created. ‘I don’t describe the city,’ states the chronicler,

‘the setting, mores, people, functions, the relationships and the curious vacillations in these relationships of our provincial capital’s strictly private life…I also have no time to be expressly occupied with a picture of our little corner. I consider myself a chronicler of one curious, private event, that took place among us suddenly, unexpectedly, in recent times, and plunged us all into bewilderment. It goes without saying, since the affair took place not in heaven, but rather among us, that is just impossible for me not to concern myself sometimes in a purely pictorial fashion with the mores aspect of life in our province; but I caution that I will do this only insofar as it will be required by the most urgent necessity. I will not begin to occupy myself especially with the descriptive part of our contemporary manners.’

Dostoevsky’s novel is not the description of a city, not a portrayal of manners: the ‘descriptive part,’ the conditions of life, do not engage him. He is a chronicler of events that are unexpected, sudden, amazing. His art is contrary to the poetics of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Goncharov: against the statics of descriptions and history had advances, the dynamics of events — movement, action, struggle. He had ‘no time’ to paint with words or to narrate customs in epic style; he was himself seized by a whirlwind and carried along with the rushing current of happenings. In one of his letters to Maikov we find the remarkable sentence: ‘Being more a poet than an artist. I have perpetually adopted themes beyond my powers.’ The writer was sincerely convinced that his novels lacked sufficient artistry, justified himself by his oppressive working conditions, and humbly acknowledged himself inferior to such artists as Turgenev and Lev Tolstoy. This low opinion of his works is explained by the limitations of his poetics. For Dostoevsky, artistry was identical with descriptiveness, the ‘ability to paint,’ and he understood that he did not compare in this area with the masters of ‘the tableau.’ But he did not guess that his artistry was completely different, not comparable with the former and perhaps superior to it. To the principle of descriptiveness he opposed the principle of expressiveness (that which he called poetry) to the epic — the drama, to contemplation, inspiration. Descriptive art reproduces a natural given: it is directed to the sense of measure and harmony, to the Apollonian principle in men; its summit lies in impassionate, aesthetic contemplation; expressive tears itsself away from nature and creates a myth about man; it calls upon our will and questions our liberty; it is Dionysian and its summit is tragic inspiration. The first is passive and natural, the second active and personal; we admire one, participate in the other. One glorified necessity, the other affirms freedom; one is static, the other dynamic.

6. And finally, for those of you who might be concerned that the book is going nowhere…hold tight. Now that we’ve been given all the main characters, the book takes off in Part Two, where we’re given terror cells, chaos, despair, cholera, and worker demonstrations. You’re going to love it.

Wednesday’s Reading:

Part Two, Chapter One, Sections 1-3


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4 Responses to “To this day it is as if I can still hear the back of her head hit the carpet.”

  1. Minnikin says:

    I too was wondering about the title of the chapter. A Biblical reference perhaps?

    Matthew 10:16 (King James Version) – ‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves’.

    This may be a long shot but for some reason, I think it may refer to Stepan…?
    We know that he was a tutor to both Ivan Shatov (page 29) and Nikolai Stavrogin (page 40) as well as (not very good) father to Pyotr. This three characters I suspect will each have their own positive and negative influences in the story and Stepan is the common link/influence.

    As for the swooning of Lizaveta, we also know she was ‘friends’ with Nikolai when he travelled for three years after his ‘illness’ (page 54)…what exactly was their relationship?

    • The biblical quote sounds exactly right — great catch. And you might be on to something as regards to Stepan — I think we’re being set up for major conflict between the radicalism of his generation (the kind that supposedly sent him to live in exile), and that of the next generation, led by his son and by Stavrogin.

  2. Now that you you’ve read ahead. Do you think the chapter is called “The Wise Serpent”as foreshadowing of what is to come?

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