Part Three, Chapter Seven, Section Three
by Dennis Abrams
“The Last Peregrination of Stepan Trofimovich” “It was Varvara Petrovna herself, arriving in a four-place coach-and-four, with two footmen and Darya Pavlovna.” How had Varvara found Stepan? Word had spread from the talkative Anisim. Varvara enters Stepan’s cottage, dispenses with Sofya, “Out, vile creature! Don’t let a trace of her main in the house! Drive her out, or else, my girl, I’ll tuck you away in jail for good…” Varvara, not seeing yet that Stepan is very ill, goes on the attack, “Had a nice little spree?…Oh, shameless, ignoble man!…It wasn’t enough for you to disgrace me, you had to get mixed up with…Oh, you old, shameless profligate!” Stepan is filled with fear, his eyes bulge, and he says that Sofya is his angel. Varvara, finally realizing how ill he is, tells Darya to send for the doctor. Sofya, who was just about to out the gate with her bag and bundle, is called back. Stepan, sobbing, seizes Varvara by the hand; Varvara calls Stepan her “eternal tormentor!”; Stepan finally confesses…”I loved you…I loved you all my life…twenty years!” At that, Varvara remains silent for “two minutes, three.” Varvara reminds Stepan of the perfume, the new tie, the gazebo…”Do you remember, you empty, empty, inglorious, fainthearted, eternally, eternally empty man!…Enough! Twenty years are gone, there’s no bring them back; I’m a fool too.” Stepan either goes to sleep or pretends to go to sleep. Varvara questions Sofya. Varvara, with tears in her eyes, orders Sofya to stay, telling her she’ll purchase all her books. Dr. Salzfisch arrives, and calls Stepan’s condition, “quite doubtful.” The next morning, Stepan agrees, much to Varvara’s surprise, to see a priest, confess, and take communion. Stepan is sure that the next day he’ll be able to get up and travel. Stepan’s realization: “My friends, God is necessary for me if only because he is the one being who can be loved eternally…” Had Stepan come to believe or had the ceremony of the sacrament “shaken him and aroused the artistic receptivity of his nature?” “My immortality is necessary if only because God will not want to do an injustice and utterly extinguish the fire of love for him once kindled in my heart..” Varvara begs him to stop; Stepan goes on to tell her that he had lied his whole life. Stepan’s desire to “live again,” to “see Petrusha…and all of them…and Shatov!” (Neither Varvara or Darya knew anything yet about Shatov.) The need for “man to know and believe every moment that there is somewhere a perfect and peaceful happiness, for everyone and everything…The whole law of human existence consists in nothing other than a man’s always being able to bow before the immeasurably great…” “Stepan Trofimovich died three days later…He somehow quietly went out, like a burnt-down candle.” Stepan’s funeral service was performed there, he was buried within the churchyard at Skvoreshniki, “and is already covered with a marble slab.” Varvara was absent from town for eight days; she returns with Sofya Matveevna, “who seemed to have settled with her for good.” Varvara refused to take “no” from Sofya, “That’s all nonsense! I myself will go around selling Gospels with you, I have no one in the world now!” “‘You do have a son, however,’ Salzfisch attempted to observe.” “‘I have no son!’ Varvara Petrovna snapped out — as if prophetically.”
I have to say that I found Stepan’s last scenes incredibly moving — his confession of his love for Varvara, his movement towards redemption — it seemed to me, again, not unlike Don Quixote’s final scenes…
1. Something I should have mentioned yesterday. I was struck by Stepan’s dream of the jaws with teeth, which as I vaguely recall (somebody help me here?) could be said to symbolize in a Freudian way, a fear of women’s sexual organs and castration…
2. From Davison on the role of Stepan:
“In the closing pages of the novel, the liberal, the athestic Westernizer, is much moved by the passage from the Bible concerning the angel of the church of the Laodiceans: ‘I know thy works, that thou art neither cold not hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.’ However much these words may move Stepan Trofimovich, it is doubtful that they actually take him into the realm of truly ethical convictions. The implications of the quotation from the Apocalypse is that the value of a conviction is determined by the strength with which it is held or (and this seems to be of equal value) rejected. While it may be unsound categorically to describe ‘heat’ and ‘cold’ as aesthetic criteria used as a rest of the validity of convictions, it is at least clear that by no remotely coherent inference are they ethical criteria.
Later, there is a crucial passage where Dostoevsky, while characteristically keeping the issue undecided, does nevertheless put his finger precisely on the point at which Stepan Trofimovich may have changed. The narrator is speaking:
‘Whether in fact he was converted, or the majestic ceremony of the administration of the sacrament profoundly moved him and awoke the artistic sensibility of his nature, but he firmly and, I am told, with great feeling uttered some words that were in direct contradiction to may of his former conviction.
“My immortality is necessary because God would not wish to commit an injustice by extinguishing completely the flame of love for Him once it had been kindled in my heart. And what is more precious than love? Love is higher than existence, love is the crown of existence and how it is possible that existence should not be subject to it? If I have come to love Him and have rejoyed in my love, is it possible that He would extinguish me and my joy and turn us into nothing? If there is a God, then I, too, am immortal. Voila ma profession de foi.”
This is instructive in a number of ways. First, Dostoevsky begins with a careful ambiguity: ‘Whether in fact he was converted…’ Then we once again have, even at this stage, the suggestion that Stepan Trofimovich is motivated by aesthetic considerations. Third, having tantalized us with the old aesthete, Dostoevsky spells out for us, entirely without ambiguity, that the new Stepan Trofimovich is, in some measure, in direct contradiction to the old: The profession de foi asserts that love is the highest value and thereby stands in refutation of the aesthetic credo delivered at the fete. If Stepan Trofimovich does move from the aesthetic to the ethical, if he is converted, then this is the point at which it happens and at which we leave the aesthetic behind us.
We still do not know for certain what has happened. Stepan Trofimovich may, with his usual flair for the Gallic and the melodramatic, be pleased to call his declaration a profession de foi but it can equally well be read as a cry of hope against hope, against despair. Peace writes that ‘the last pilgrimage of Stepan Trofimovich and the arrival of Marie Shatov…represent a desperate attempt to save a great idea,’ and in the passage under discussion we see Stepan Trofimovich still attempting to get somewhere rather than arriving there. The idea that Stepan Trofimovich might be saved by his pilgrimage, just as Shatov might be saved by the arrival of his wife and the birth of her child, suggests an affinity between these two characters that is illuminating. Stavrogin i s notoriously unable to elicit from Shatov a plain statement of belief in God: ‘I…I will believe in God’ may be compared with Stepan Trofimovich’s questions which are perhaps not altogether rhetorical, and with his hopeful proposition ‘If there is a God…’ Mrs. Stavrogin, who apparently knows about such things, promptly tells him that there is indeed a God and then instructs Stepan Trofimovich to renounce his previous follies and beliefs. Since he has ostensibly done just precisely this, the narrator is moved to declare that Mrs. Stavrogin had, it would seem, not altogether understood the profession de foi. It is, however, arguable that precisely the opposite is the case: Mrs. Stavrogin is a remarkably silly woman, but on this occasion has caught the note of indecision which has escaped the narrator, the note of aspiration, of desperation even, rather than of achievement; and what trust, it might be asked, can be placed in a man who, at the last moment, pulls the rug from under his own feet: A statement of faith is one thing; a profession de foi, at least for Dostoevsky, who regarded all Frenchmen as unsatisfactory variations on a theme of Voltaire, is another.
There is a further sense in which Stepan Trofimovich is not redeemed: On his final journey, he does not reach his destination. When he sets out, he is quite determined not to have a destination and does not hire horses because he does not know where he is going (and because he does not want Mrs. Stavrogin to catch him). But as his journey progresses, it transpires that he is destined to go to Spasov (Salvation) on the other side of the lake, which is provided for the drowning of the Gadarene swine. It can scarcely be an accident that the wanderer stays to die on this side of the water. In his handling of the point, Dostoevsky demonstrates convincingly that he is a novelist and not a philosopher or theologian. If Stepan Trofimovich does not reach his destination, if he is not redeemed, it is not because his ontology was unsound or because of the filioque heresy; nor it is because he was a bad man who sent his son from Berlin by parcel post when he was a baby; it is not because, being an unbeliever, he kept an icon lamp for the sake of appearances; or because of any of the other innumerable wickednesses of his surpassingly silly life. In novelistic terms, in terms of the story, of the narrative of the novel, his failure to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is attributable to an unfortunate conjunction of gastric catarrh and the timetables of the public transport system: He was too ill to get on the boat that would have taken him to Spasov (Salvation).
If we dismiss Sonia Marmeladovs, Myshkin, and Zosima…as inherently improbable creatures, Stepan Trofimovich joins the more credible company of Shatov and Alesha Karamazov as one who gets as close to Christianity as Dostoevsky could ever manage to get himself…”
What do you all think? Did Stepan find redemption? Or, like Raskolnikov’s is it doubtful not only for us but for Dostoevsky himself?
3. Joseph Frank’s take:
“From the very first pages, Stepan Trofimovich has been presented not as an atheist, to be sure, but as a species of Hegelian deist. ‘I believe in God,’ he declares importantly, ‘mais distinguons, I believe in him as a Being who is conscious of himself in me only.’ Nothing that Stepan Trofimovich says in these last pages contradicts his aversion to the naive anthropomorphism of the popular faith, and the narrator maintains a well-justified skepticism over ‘whether he was really converted, or whether the stately ceremony of the administration of the sacraments impressed him and stirred the artistic responsiveness of his temperament.’ Nor does he lose his taste for risque jests about religion even on his deathbed. It is after an imperious outburst of Mme Stavrogin, who has finally arrived to take charge, that he smiles faintly and says, ‘God is necessary to me if only because He is the only being whom I can love eternally.’
Stepan Trofimovich, then, does not die a Christian in any strict meaning of the word, but a reading of the Sermon on the Mount stirs him to acknowledge ‘My friend, all my life I’ve been lying.’ And after listening to the passage from Luke about ‘the devils’ who had entered the herd of swine, he declares: ‘They are we, we and those, and Petrusha and les autres avec lui…and I perhaps at the head of them.” Such words, though consistent with the plot structure, scarcely accord sufficient importance to Stavrogin. More convincingly, and entirely in character, is Stepan Trofimovich’s final statement of his credo: ‘The whole law of human existence is merely this, that man should always bow down before the infinitely great. If people are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not continue to live and will die in despair. The infinite and immeasurable are as necessary to man as the little planet on which he dwells. My friends, all, all: Long live the Great Idea!’ This is not Christian in any literal sense and could hardly have been meant to be taken as such; but it contains enough of a feeling for the transcendent to constitute an answer to the hubris of the purely human.”
Part Three, Chapter Eight (Conclusion)