“Our medical men, after the autopsy, completely and emphatically ruled out insanity.”

Part Three, Chapter Eight
by Dennis Abrams

“Conclusion” “All the perpetrated outrages and crimes were discovered extraordinarily quickly, far more quickly than Pyotr Stepanovich had supposed.” Marya Ignatievna wakes up to find Shatov missing. Arina Prokhorovna learns from her husband Virginsky what had happened at Skvoreshniki. She left him in bed, telling him that “if he wanted to blubber, he should do his howling into a pillow so that no one could hear…” and quickly moves to destroy papers, books, and “perhaps” even tracts. Marya, in hysterics, runs into the street in very thin clothing, holding her baby, knocking frantically on door after door to find help. A visit to Filippov’s house “and in two hours Kirillov’s suicide and his death note became known to the whole town.” By noon, Marya had fallen into unconsciousness, and died three days later, “The baby caught cold and died even before her.” A hubbub arose all over town, “A new ‘story,’ another killing!'” Was there a mystery in Stepan’s disappearance? Whisperings about Stavrogin. Pyotr is talked about the least of all. Kirillov’s note worked — the authorities were indeed led astray. Shatov’s body is found, his peaked cap is found and, “the occular and medical inspection of the corpse, along with certain surmises, awakened from the first a suspicion that Kirillov must have had comrades.” “…everyone was tormented by the impossibility of drawing anything general and unifying from the whole tangle that presented himself.” Lyamshin cracks — after a terrified night and a possible suicide attempt “it seems he made an attempt…” he runs to the authorities, “It is said that he crawled on his knees, sobbed and shrieked, kissed the floor…he declared everything, everything, told the innermost secrets, everything he knew…,” including their agenda, and that “there was an endless multitude, that the whole of Russia was covered with a network…” He goes on to say that Yulia “..was innocent and had simply been fooled,” and that Stavrogin was “cleared…completely of any participation in the secret society, of any collusion with Pyotr Stepanovich.” (Two months later, Lyamshin confessed that he had cleared Stavrogin with the hope of gaining his protection and help in going into exile.) Virginsky is arrested, admits his guilt at once, and due to mitigating circumstances, may “count on a certain mitigation of his lot.” Erkel is arrested, “But an alleviation of Erkel’s fate will hardly be possible.” Liputin is arrested in Petersburg, where, despite having a passport in another name, cash, and opportunity, went on a binge and was captured “in a house of ill fame somewhere, and none too sober.” Tolachenko is arrested, and acknowledges his guilt, “Generally, he and Liputin are not very frightened, which is even strange.” “Now, three months later, our society has rested, recovered, acquired its own opinion, so much so that some even regard Pyotr Stepanovich himself almost as a genius, at least as having ‘abilities of genius.'” One more very grim tale: “On her arrival, Varvara Petrovna stayed at her own town house. All the accumulated news poured in on her at once and shook her terribly. She shut herself up alone.” Darya receives a letter from Stavrogin, written in the style “of a young Russian squire who never fully learned Russian grammar, in spite of all his European education.” Stavrogin calls upon Darya to become his nurse — he will be leaving in two days and become a citizen of canton Uri, where he has bought a small house in a dull ravine. He’s not well, and is hoping the local air will get rid of his hallucinations. He confirms his guilt in his wife’s death. “Realize also, that I do not poity you, since I’m calling you, and do not respect you, since I’m waiting for you to come.” Stavrogin has lost all hope, wishes both to do a good dead, and wishes for evil and to feel pleasure. “But both the one and the other, as always are too shallow, and are never very much.” Debauchery didn’t work, and he envied “these negators of ours” for their hopes. “But your fears were empty: I could not be their comrade, because I shared nothing…I have the habits of a decent man and felt disgusted.” He knows he ought to kill himself, “but I’m afraid of suicide, because I’m afraid of showing magnanimity. I know it will be more one more deceit — the last deceit in an endless series of deceits.” Darya says she will go Stavrogin; Varvara says she will go as well. “I, too, will register in Uri and live in the ravine…” The two learn that Stavrogin had arrived that morning at Skvoreshniki, “in such a state that he wouldn’t answer any questions, walked through all the rooms, and locked himself in his half…” Going up into the garret in search of him, they find that “The citizen of canton Uri was hanging just inside the door. On the table lay a scrap of paper with the penciled words: ‘Blame no one; it was I…Our medical men, after the autopsy, completely and emphatically ruled out insanity.”

And so we come to the end Demons…so what did you all think? For me, it’s the strongest of the three novels we’ve read so far. The way in which Dostoevsky is able to make a novel of ideas (religious, free-will, political) into a work of art that is both comic and tragic, thought-provoking (who IS the moral center of the book? Is there one? Where do Dostoevsky’s sympathies lie?) and a page turner all at once is pretty remarkable.

1. I love the way that Pyotr, who at the very least is the most manipulative of the novel’s characters, just gets on the train and disappears…

2. And for a book that started out so amusingly…there is not a single happy ending to be found, unless you count Stepan’s redemption, if, of course, he was.

3. OK readers — what are your thoughts on Demons? Is it successful as a novel? Who is the book’s “hero” if there is one: Stepan? Stavrogin? Shatov? Kirillov? How did the book surprise you? How did it disappoint you? Tell all…

For me, even on this, my second reading of the book, Stavrogin remains perhaps the most intriguingly enigmatic character in Demons. So, for your weekend reading, I’m giving you this from Elif Bautman’s brilliant book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (most highly recommended). After giving a synopsis of the book’s plot and main characters, she writes,

“You never do find out what the deal was with Stavrogin, or why everyone was so or why everyone was so obsessed with him. The various characters simply announce their obsession, as if in passing. Kirillov, explaining his transformation of men into gods by suicide, adds enigmatically, ‘Remember what you’ve meant in my life, Stavrogin.’ Shatov, in the middle of an agonized rant about Slavophilism and the body of God, shouts, ‘Stavrogin, why am I condemned to believe in you unto ages of ages?’ Even Pyotr, the puppeteer who so deftly manipulates others while remaining unmoved himself, pursues Stavrogin relentlessly, determined to draw him into his circle by either bribery or blackmail.

‘But what the devil do you need me for?’ Stavrogin finally asks Pyotr. ‘Is there some mystery in it, or what? What sort of talisman have you got me for?’ Pyotr’s astonishing reply is that he loves and worships Stavrogin as a worm worships the sun, and that the new era of Russia will begin only when Stavrogin has assumed the identity of the mythical ‘Tsarevich Ivan,’ who will turn out to have been ‘in hiding’ for years, and then Pyotr and Stavrogin-Tsarevich will take over the world together, with specially trained gunmen…

The first time I read Demons, none of this made any sense to me. I was willing to accept the enigma of Stavrogin as a literary convention, but what did this human enigma have to do with the large-scale possession of an entire town by arson, robbery, cholera, and terrorist conspiracies? Furthermore, what was the point of Stepan Trofimovich — why did his life take up a third of the novel? Why was it precisely Stepan Trofimovich’s pupils who were so susceptible to Stavrogin? I decided that this must be what critics meant when they talked about ‘flawed novels.’

As I later learned, many interpretations of Demons do rely on the notion of technical flaws. Joseph Frank, for example, theorizes that Stavrogin is a composite of two inconsistent, irreconcilable characters from earlier drafts. The first character, a young aristocrat of the 1860s, is embroiled in a Fathers and Sons-style ideological clash with the generation of the 1840s, but undergoes a moral regeneration, overcomes his own nihilism, and becomes a ‘new man’; the second is a young aristocrat in the earlier, Byronic style of Eugene Onegin, who has already undergone, or seems to have undergone, a moral regeneration, but who then, to quote Dostoevsky’s notes, ‘suddenly blows his brains out — (Enigmatic personage, said to be mad).’ Because he was working ‘under great pressure,’ Frank suggests, Dostoevsky was obliged to consolidate these two heroes in the person of Stavrogin. Stepan Trofimovich, ‘a Liberal Idealist of the 1840s,’ is thus made into ‘the spiritual progenitor of a Byronic type associated with the 1820s and 1830s’ — a relationship that is doomed never really to make sense.

My favorite part of Frank’s interpretation is that, in the attempt ‘to compensate for the anachronism inherent in his plot structure,’ Dostoevsky must represent Stavrogin as ‘a contemporary development’ of the Onegin type. There is something convincing in the picture of Stavrogin as an Onegin taken one step further, an Onegin beyond Pushkin, a machine for provoking duels, incapable of returning anyone’s love. It’s as if Stavrogin has himself read Eugene Onegin and no longer has any illusions of what awaits him.

On the other hand, to say the relationship between Stavrogin and Stepan Trofimovich is anachronistic doesn’t really resolve its mystery. How is Stepan Trofimovich, and not Stavrogin, supposed to be at the head of the procession of swine who are running into the sea? Frank again finds the answer in a technical flaw: namely, the removal of Stavrogin’s seduction of a twelve-year-old girl, which Frank characterizes as ‘a great moral-philosophical experiment’ in the style of Raskolnikov’s murder of the pawnbroker. Dostoevsky was frantically finishing book 3 when the editors told him that the scene of Stavrogin’s confession was unpublishable; he was thus ‘forced to mutilate the original symmetry of his plan’ and to shift part of Stavrogin’s moral responsibility onto Stepan Trofimovich. In other words, the real explanation for Stepan Trofimovich’s enigmatic claim to being the leader of the demons is that those words were never supposed to come from Stepan Trofimovich to begin with; they originally belonged to Stavrogin, but had to be reassigned once the confession was removed.

So is Demons really just a botched novel, an aggregation of mutilated drafts, lacking any unified meaning? It isn’t. Graduate school taught me this. It taught me through both theory and practice.

The theoretical part of the revelation came from Rene Girard, an emeritus in the Stanford French department. In the 1960s, Girard introduced his widely influential theory of mimetic desire, formulated in opposition to the Nietzchean notion of autonomy as the key to human self-fulfillment. According to Girard, there is in fact no such thing as human autonomy or authenticity. All of the desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other, to whom we mistakenly ascribe the autonomy lacking in ourselves. (‘Mistakenly,’ because the Other is also a human being, and thus doesn’t actually have any more autonomy than we do.) The perceived desire of the Other confers prestige on the object, rendering it desirable. For this reason, desire is usually less about its purported object than about the Other; it is always ‘metaphysical,’ in that it is less about having, than being. The point isn’t to possess the object, but to be the Other. (That’s why so many advertisements place less emphasis on the product’s virtues than on its use by some beautiful and autonomous-looking person; the consumer craves not the particular brand of vodka, but the being of the person who chose it.) Because mimetic desire is contagious, a single person is often the mediator for a number of different desiring subjects, who then enter into the ultimately violent bonds of mimetic rivalry.

In the next decades, Girard developed mimetic contagion into an anthropological theory, using it to explain historically and geographically diverse manifestations of social violence from Chukchi blood feuds to the cult of Dionysus. But he first presented mimetic theory in a book about literature. In this first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard posits mimetic desire as the fundamental content of ‘the Western novel.’ Don Quixote, it turns out, doesn’t really want any of his ostensible object (Dulcinea, Mambrino’s golden helmet, etc.); what he wants is to become one with his mediator: Amadis of Gaul. it’s only because his imitation of Amadis of Gaul demands a beautiful lady that he invents Dulcinea. According to an analogous delusional mechanism, Raskolnikov only thinks he wants the pawnbroker’s money — in fact, he wants to be Nietzche’s Superman. Emma Bovary only thinks she wants Leon — she actually wants to be the heroine of a romance. Julien Sorel only thinks that his ambitions are directed towards beautiful women and brilliant promotions — what he really wants is to achieve some Napoleonic ideal of authentic being.

Because the mimetic desire of the novelistic hero is never directed at its true object, which is in any case unattainable, it is fundamentally masochistic, violent, and self-destructive. ‘Great’ novels, for Girard, are those that end by exposing the illusory and pernicious quality of mimetic desire. This exposure takes place in a fever or a penal colony, through suicide or by the guillotine, in the form of a ‘deathbed conversion;: the hero transcends his egoism and renounces the values that have driven the novel up to that point. Don Quixote falls into a fever, realizes he isn’t really a knight, and dies a Christian death; Madame Bovary swallows arsenic; Raskolnikov turns himself in; Julien renounces Mathilde and submits to the guillotine. ‘Great novels always spring from an obsession that has been transcended,’ Girard writes. ‘The hero sees himself in the rival he loathes; he renounces the ‘differences’ suggested by hatred.’

As suggested by the emphasis on conversion narrative, mimetic desire is fundamentally Christian theory. Just as ‘the false prophets proclaim that in tomorrow’s world men will be gods for each other,’ so does mimetic desire entail worshiping another human being as a god, with inevitably disastrous results. There is one and only one human who is a god, and that’s Jesus Christ. Accordingly, it is only by taking Christ as a model for our actions that we can redeem mimetic desire as a positive force.

Although I am unconvinced that mimetic desire is the fundamental content of the novelistic form, or that humans’ mimetic desires can be channeled productively only by imitating Christ, Girard’s theory unquestionably explains a great deal in the work of certain novelists, particularly those such as Stendhal and Dostoevsky, who were deeply engaged in Christian thought and the practice of a Christian life. The solution is particularly convincing in the case of Demons. Girard characterizes Stavrogin — whose name combines the Greek stavros (cross) and the Russian rog (horn, suggesting the Antichrist — as a test case of the ultimate mediator of desire; one who has no desires himself. ‘It is not clear whether he no longer desires because Others desire him or whether Others desire him because he no longer desires’; in any case, Stavrogin is trapped in a deadly cycle:

‘No longer having a mediator himself, he becomes a magnetic pole of desire and hatred…all the characters in The Possessed become his slaves…Kirillov, Shatov, Pyotr, and all the women in The Possessed succumb to Stavrogin’s strange power and reveal to him in almost identical terms the part he plays in their existence. Stavrogin is their ‘light,’ they wait for him as for the ‘sun’; before him they feel they are ‘before the Almighty’; they speak to him as ‘to God himself.’

Stavrogin, Girard continues, is ‘young, good-looking, rich, strong, intelligent, and noble,’ not because Dostoevsky ‘feels a secret sympathy for him,’ but because the test subject must ‘unite in his own person all the conditions for metaphysical success’ — it has to be without any effort on his part that men and women alike ‘fall at his feet and surrender to him.’ Stavrogin is ‘rapidly reduced to the most horrible caprices,’ ending with suicide; this is how Dostoevsky illustrates the price of the ‘success’ of the metaphysical undertaking.’ Because the purest culmination of mimetic desire is self-annihilation, Stavrogin’s demise is accompanies by ‘a quasi-suicide of the collectivity” Kirillov shoots himself; Shatov, Liza, and Marya indirectly bring about their own murders; and Stepan Trofimovich self-destructs in a fit of madness.

Girard’s interpretation accounts for Stavrogin’s psychic emptiness, for the desperate mania of others to be near him and to co-opt him into their philosophies. It answers Stavrogin’s question ‘What the devil do you need me for?’ It explains the metaphor of demonic possession and, through the idea of mimetic contagion, the mass effect on the whole town. It also accounts finally for the role of Stepan Trofimovich in the novel: it is Stepan Trofimovich’s ‘Russian liberalism,’ the valorization of self-fulfillment, the deism, freethinking, and Francophilia, that creates the vacuum embodied by Stavrogin. ‘Stepan Trofimovich is the father of all the possessed. He is Pyotr Verkhovensky’s father; he is the spiritual father of Shatov, of [Darya], of [Liza], and especially of Stavrogin, since he taught them all,’ Girard writes. ‘Everything in The Possessed starts with Stepan Trofimovich and ends with Stavrogin.'”


No reading for the weekend. I’ll see you all back here on Sunday night/Monday with an introduction to the world of The Brothers Karamazov and our first reading. Hope you’ll be with us.

Enjoy your weekend.

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15 Responses to “Our medical men, after the autopsy, completely and emphatically ruled out insanity.”

  1. artmama says:

    Bravo! Well done! Thank you again, Dennis, for your guidance and encouragement. Onward to the Bros K!

  2. Minnikin says:

    I agree with you Dennis that Demons was the strongest of the three novels read so far.

    As usual, Dostoevsky states his characters without ‘explaining’ them. For someone who has had a reputation as a ‘deep’ and ‘philosophical’ writer; a man who was able to tap into serious intellectual and emotional issues, his books make for strangely compelling reading – he seems to employ all the techniques of suspense, tension and drama that you’d expect from a thriller…but of course there’s so much more: his books can be read on numerous different levels (for example, in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii’, Faith Wigzell has an essay on the influence of Russian Floklore on his works – including Demons – and cites examples which I’d have missed completely had I not read it but adds a deeper understanding and makes total sense in the context of the provincial setting of the book).

    The narrator for me was very important: his narrative is peppered with words like ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ – obscuring even further so called ‘certainties’ and ‘facts’ that (from the start) remain far from clear. While that may frustrate some readers, for me it is very (that word again!) ‘modern’.

    • I agree with you on the use of the shall we say…perhaps unreliable narrator. That’s part of what makes Dostoevsky, at least for me, such an odd, intriguing and rewarding writer — the very conservative, reactionary, Orthodox visionary while at the same filled with ambiguities, uncertainties, and a sense that he doesn’t always quite believe what he wants us to believe.

  3. Eddie Chism says:

    This was also my personal favorite of the three we’ve read so far, which makes me very interested to read The Brothers Karamazov and see how Dostoevsky takes it to the next level, so to speak. Thanks once again, Dennis, for the great job you do with this blog.

  4. Catherine says:

    I would not have made it to the end of this book with nearly as much understanding of the plot, characters and intentions of the author had it not been for this blog. Thanks, Dennis! I’m ready for the next part of Project D – on to the Brothers Karamazov.

    • Catherine:

      You made my day — glad I was able to help. Now..tell me (if you’d like) what you thought of the book? Did you enjoy it? What was Dostoevsky up to?


      • Catherine says:

        No, I didn’t “enjoy” Demons, but I’m glad I read it. I had a hard time with all the characters beings so obsessed — an obsession that I couldn’t really understand. Why make such a big deal out of being an atheist or non-religious? Why feel the need to start a revolution or be a part of one? But that’s my modern perspective on an era/place that I obviously am not that familiar with. My favorite of the three Dostoevsky we’ve read so far is Crime and Punishment. I continue to see examples in real life and in literature of people that think they are above the law or that the laws don’t apply to them. The most recent example in a fictional biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, The Women by T.C. Boyle.

      • Catherine: I’ll grant you that the issue of being an atheist or non-religious is not quite the issue that it was in 19th century (or for Dostoevsky for that matter), although the struggle to find meaning is, of course always with us. But on the political side of the question, and while I’m not a big fan of trying to show a book’s “relevance” through the use of modern day examples (it should and does, I think stand on its own), I’d be willing to wager that the “types’ that Dostoevsky presented (or brought to life or…) were there in Mao’s revolution, they were there in the Weather Underground during the 60s here, and, well, I’ll just say that I’d take a guess that Dostoevsky would have understood the members of an Al Qaeda terror cell quite well.

      • Catherine says:

        Excellent points, Dennis! That’s why I so appreciate reading Dostoevsky (and Proust) with you. You bring up so many points and add so much extra to the reading that I would never get on my own. So far Bros. K is a struggle to get through the daily readings but I’m only a few pages behind. Will hope to catch up by the weekend and I am enjoying the description of the brothers.

      • I apologize for that…I’m thinking the “assignments” (I hate that word, but I can’t figure out a better one) have been a bit long…I’m still playing with what works for everybody on a daily basis…so thanks for your input.

  5. Lara says:


    I stumbled on this blog a few weeks ago while doing an online search for some commentaries on Demons to help me make sense of it all. I have enjoyed reading your remarks, and though I have already read the other three novels you explore here, I look forward to reading your commentaries on those works as well. Have you ever read any of D’s short stories? I think you would find them interesting, if you have not read them yet. “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is one of my favorites and the most thought-provoking.

    Thanks again for all you have done!

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