This is the ninth of Dostoyevsky's novels/novelettes I have read, out of
sixteen, plus a number of his short stories. I am aiming for his complete works, although I am not sure all are available in English yet. By this
statement, you might surmise that I am a huge fan of this powerful and enigmatic genius from Russia. You would be correct. It would be difficult to
choose a favorite out of all his wonderful works, but this one is certainly a candidate. Wow. It left me breathless and exhausted, perhaps even stunned and a
bit numb. Powerful, indeed.
Dostoyevsky was Russian to the core and lived during a terrible period in that country (1821-1881). Along with the political upheavals and terror, he had his own personal demons to deal with, including drinking, gambling, which left him in poverty for a great part of his life, and he was a victim of epilepsy. In 1949, he was arrested for being part of "a literary group that discussed banned books critical of Tsarist Russia," according to Wikipedia. He was sentenced to death, but ended up spending four years in a Siberian prison, then serving six years military service in exile. After his release, he wrote four novels considered his masterworks, from 1866 to 1880. They are Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, (1871-2), and The Brothers Karamazov. As of this writing, I have read all but the first, which is probably his best known work. I read the last before I had this website, so I will read it again to review it. It needs a second reading anyways. For a complete list of all the works by Dostoyevsky I have reviewed so far, please visit the Fyodor Dostoyevsky Index Page.
I honestly don't know where this book came from. I could have bought it from one of the many used book stores I used to raid when I was in college, especially in Cincinnati. Or, it could have been given to me, or somehow ended up in my house. When I finally picked it out to read, I was delighted that it was an historic hardback edition by Modern Library originally published in 1936, and renewed in 1963. I am familiar with Modern Library because they publish the lists of "best" books of the century in different categories, but I didn't realize I actually owned one of their books. This edition contains a previously unpublished chapter. The original translation is by Constance Garnett, probably the best known translator of Russian to English, and the missing chapter is by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, a later translator, with an explanation. Wikipedia also points out that more modern translations reject the title "The Possessed," preferring "Demons" or "The Devils." No matter how look at it, the characters are all loathsome. Dostoyevsky is not known for his likeable characters. They all mostly suffer from psychological, mental, or moral derangement, but there are usually a few that have some redeeming qualities. From this batch it would be difficult to find one, except perhaps for the narrator, whose full name we do not know, and who seems to know all that is going on. He is alternately in the background and foreground of the action, which Wikipedia refers to by the music term, contrapuntal.
This same Wikipedia article also quotes Joyce Carol Oates in her comments about the book. She says it is "Dostoevsky's most confused and violent novel, and his most satisfactorily 'tragic' work." It is classified as a satire, which usually implies humor, but from my perspective, I would be hard-pressed to find anything humorous in this one, no matter how dark. And I usually do find humor in Dostoyevsky's novels, mostly in the extreme ridiculousness of the situations and behavior of the characters, but here, well, it is all just ghastly.
As mentioned above, Dostoyevsky used this story as a vehicle to portray the political and social unrest occurring in Russia at the time, particularly the Nihilism movement. Nihilism, from the Latin nihil, or nothing, was a movement or philosophy that stated life had no purpose, or that there is no inherent morality, for instance. It is, of course, more complicated than can be explained in this review, but the two links above ( the first on the Russian Movement, and the second on Moral Nihilism), provide further information. Also, the Russian author Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons, portrays this movement, but in a different perspective. Along with Nihilism came Atheism, and the very idea of separating the Orthodox Church from Russia seemed inconceivable to Dostoyevsky.
In Russian history, the Nihilism Movement had two distinct periods. The first was more of an annoyance, or "foundational period," (1860-69), where those suspected of being involved in this counter-culture were immediately sent to Siberia, (as happened to Dostoyevsky himself long before this particular movement began). The second phase was a true revolution, (!870-81), which ended with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March, 1881, and the crushing of the movement, shortly after Dostoyevsky's death. Thus, Dostoyevsky wrote his novel as the revolutionary period was beginning, and the story is based on a true event. One wonders if he could have foreseen the culmination of the Nihilists at the time. It appears not, because throughout the story, he treats the Nihilists as more of an annoyance, with dubious and amateur organization. However, one character stands out as probably one of his most heinous and unlikable creations, and that is one of the two based on history. The novel ends with his escape. History did not end that way, however.
Historically, it was Sergei Nechayev upon whom Dostoyevsky built the villain of his novel. Of him, Wikipedia says:
Nechayev argued that just as the European monarchies used the ideas of Machiavelli, and the Catholic Jesuits practiced absolute immorality to achieve their ends, there was no action that could not be also used for the sake of the people's revolution. A scholar noted that "His apparent immorality [more an amorality] derived from the cold realization that both Church and State are ruthlessly immoral in their pursuit of total control. The struggle against such powers must therefore be carried out by any means necessary."
The particular scandal which was portrayed in the book was Nechayev's
cold-blooded murder of another member of the organization, Ivan Ivanovitch Ivanov, who questioned the existence of the Secret Revolutionary Committee that
Nechayev supposedly represented. In the book, it is Pyotr Stepanovitch Verhovensky who murders Ivan Pavlovich Shatov, with the other members
of his "Quintet" present. Pyotr Stepanovitch believes Shatov is a traitor, but also has personal
reasons for murdering him. Pyotr Stepanovitch claims that there is a whole network of revolutionary "Quintets" being formed throughout Russia, but
the others seem to question that.
Well, that is a lot about the background of this story. I will give some particulars, but it is a very long and complex novel, so I will present just a brief summary. It is in three main sections, the first being mostly to set the stage for the main events and to introduce us to the characters. The second unveils and develops the important plots, which range from mischief to criminal atrocities. The third wraps it all up and deals consequences to the characters for their behavior, and none of them behave particularly well.
And though there are many, many characters, the story centers mostly around two families, and the beginning of the book places them in the spotlight. The first is Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky, a scholar and gentleman who has been through two short dysfunctional marriages, ending in estrangement and death, and yielding one son, the above mentioned Pyotr Stepanovitch. He had been sent off to be raised elsewhere, so there was little communication between father and son. Stepan Trofimovitch has lived at home and abroad, and speaks half Russian, half French, which about drove me nuts because there were no translations provided. (I really need to brush up on my French.) In the present he is settled on the estate of the wealthy widowed landowner, Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin. After years of coaxing, she had finally persuaded him to be the tutor to her son, Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, and also to the daughter of a friend, Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushin, (Liza). Years have passed, twenty, in fact, and, the children grown and gone, Stepan Trofimovitch still lives in his own house on the estate, completely supported by Varvara Petrovna.
They have a strange relationship, but perhaps it is the only authentic one of all the characters. Varvara Petrovna is bold, aggressive, and domineering, without an ounce of feminine charm or passion. Stepan Trofimovitch is the opposite—overly sentimental, weak-willed, and almost effeminate. and yet, in their own way, they love each other, truly, and are bound for life, whether they like it or not. Dostoyevsky writes:
There are strange friendships. The two friends are always ready to fly at one another, and go on like that all their lives, and yet they cannot separate. Parting, in fact, is utterly impossible. The one who has begun the quarrel and separated will be the first to fall ill and die, perhaps, if the separation comes off.
And, in fact, that does happen in the end.
But when both of their sons arrive home, the attention shifts to them. They are both scoundrels with a trail of repellent behavior in their relatively short lives. The big difference is that Nikolai Vsevolodovich has a conscience, albeit one he struggles with, but Pyotr Stepanovitch is evil personified, although even Dostoyevsky doesn't completely portray him as such. But it is he that is the trouble-maker and rabble-rouser. He looks up to Nikolai Vsevolodovich, and tries to elevate him as one of the leaders of his revolution, assuming all the time that Nikolai Vsevolodovich is in agreement, which he is not.
It is when the new Governor and his wife take over the province, that Pyotr Stepanovitch is able to create total chaos, ranging from mischief to downright criminal activity. And although we do not know for certain exactly which deeds have been directly dealt by his hand, we, or at least I, perceived that he was behind most of them, including the death of Stavrogin's secret wife, a mentally and physically disabled woman he had married on a whim, though he was supporting her, (only to find that her abusive and drunken brother with whom she lived, had stolen all the money meant for her and nearly starved her to death).
The Governor, Andrey Antonovich von Lembke, is a good man, but totally unable to govern because of his aggressive and domineering wife, Yulia Mihailovna, who believes she is loved and respected by the townspeople, but is in fact despised and ridiculed. To make it even worse, she has become completely enmeshed with the plots of the young "revolutionists," (without even realizing the seriousness of their activities), particularly Pyotr Stepanovitch, who begins to rule through her. It is during her grand "Fête" that all comes to a head, and the entire, and very expensive event becomes an embarrassment at best, and at worst, the means to collect the town's people in one place as their homes are burned down.
Throughout the story, there is a great deal of spiritual commentary, from Atheism to the belief that Russia's God is the "One True God." Characters such as Nikolai Vsevolodovich struggle with the whole "God" idea, and in fact the missing chapter which was first published in English in this edition is called "At Tihon's," where Nikolai Vsevolodovich goes to the Bishop in a sort of confession. In the end, when Stepan Trofimovitch is dying, and only partly coherent, he gives a long speech (common with him), which expresses life as exactly the contradiction of the Nihilists.
To close, I want to include two quotes which express, at least from Dostoyevsky's viewpoint, the purpose of the revolution. The first is from the confession of Lyamshin, who goes to the authorities after the murder of Shatov and Pyotr Stepanovitch's escape:
When asked what was the object of so many murders and scandals and dastardly outrages, he answered with feverish haste that "it was with the idea of systematically undermining the foundations, systematically destroying society and all principles; with the idea of nonplussing every one and making hay of everything, and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and skeptical though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in their hands, raising the standard of revolt and relying on a complete network of quintets, which were actively, meanwhile, gathering recruits and seeking out he weak spots which could be attacked."
Hmm. Kind of like what is happening now in the U.S. and globally, except now we
have EMFs, chemtrails, the internet and technology to strengthen the effort.
But this one is even scarier, and also true of today's insanity. Here Pyotr Stepanovitch is explaining the type of people whom he welcomes to support their cause:
I've reckoned them all up: a teacher who laughs with children at their God and at their cradle is on our side. The lawyer who defends an educated murderer because he is more cultured than his victims and could not help murdering them to get money is one of us. The schoolboys who murder a peasant for the sake of sensation are ours. The juries who acquit every criminal are ours. The prosecutor who trembles at trial for fear he should not seem advanced enough is ours, ours. Among officials and literary men we have lots, lots, and they don't know it themselves.
Scary stuff, but Russia was in scary times, as they, and we are now, too. This book is highly recommended even though it is long. I have discovered that the best way to cope with reading lengthy books as this is to open them and read the first page. Then keep turning and reading and eventually you will reach the end. It's not that difficult.
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