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The Possessed ( ) is an 1872 novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Though titled The Possessed in the initial English translation, Dostoevsky scholars and later translations favour the titles The Devils or Demons.

An extremely political book, Demons is a testimonial of life in Imperial Russiamarker in the late 19th century.

As the revolutionary democrats begin to rise in Russia, different ideologies begin to collide. Dostoevsky casts a critical eye on both the left-wing idealists, exposing their ideas and ideological foundation as demonic, and the conservative establishment's ineptitude in dealing with those ideas and their social consequences.

This form of intellectual conservativism tied to the Slavophile movement of Dostoevsky's day, is seen to have continued on into its modern manifestation in individuals like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Dostoevsky's novels focusing on the idea that utopias and positivist ideas, in being utilitarian, were unrealistic and unobtainable.

The book has five primary ideological characters: Verkhovensky, Shatov, Stavrogin, Stepan Trofimovich, and Kirilov. Through their philosophies, Dostoevsky describes the political chaos seen in 19th-Century Russia.

Alternate titles

The title has been an ongoing source of confusion among readers unfamiliar with the work. There are at least three popular translations: The Possessed, The Devils, and Demons. This is largely a result of Constance Garnett's earlier translation which popularized the novel and gained it notoriety as The Possessed among English-speakers; however, later Dostoevsky scholars said the original translation was inaccurate. These scholars argued that The Possessed "points in the wrong direction," and interpreted the original Russian title Бесы (Besy; the plural of bies, "an evil spirit") as referring not to those who are "possessed" but rather to those who are doing the possessing as "The Possessors". Some insist that the difference is crucial to a full understanding of the novel:

As a result, newer editions of the novel are rarely if ever rendered under Garnett's earliest title "The Possessed". As a more precise rendering of the Demons (Бесы) as an event and turning point in Russian history would be "The Possessing" of Russia by the demonic ideas or "evil spirits" reflected in the novel's characters.

Plot introduction

The novel takes place in a provincial Russian setting, primarily on the estates of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky and Varvara Stavrogina. Stepan Trofimovich's son, Pyotr Verkhovensky, is an aspiring revolutionary conspirator who attempts to organize a knot of revolutionaries in the area. He considers Varvara Stavrogina's son, Nikolai, central to his plot because he thinks Nikolai Stavrogin has no sympathy for mankind whatsoever.

Verkhovensky gathers conspirators like the philosophizing Shigalyov, suicidal Kirillov, and the former military man Virginsky, and he schemes to solidify their loyalty to him and each other by murdering Ivan Shatov, a fellow conspirator. Verkhovensky plans to have Kirillov, who was committed to killing himself, take credit for the murder in his suicide note. Kirillov complies and Verkhovensky murders Shatov, but his scheme falls apart when Nikolai Stavrogin, tortured by his own misdeeds, kills himself. Verkhovensky escapes, but the remainder of his aspiring revolutionary crew is arrested.


  • Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin is the central character of the novel but a highly ambiguous figure and often an observer or secondary participant in the novel's key events compared to the younger Verkhovensky, who drives much of the action and repeatedly attempts to involve Stavrogin in his schemes with limited success. A complex figure, he has many anti-social traits that mark him as a manipulative personality, but he is not ultimately the sociopath he sometimes seems to be in light of the overriding guilt he ultimately succumbs to. In a scene in the first part of the novel this is suggested when he seems ready to be gunned down at a duel without defending himself. His acceptance of his guilt for his multiple sins is also notable in his allowing Shatov, whose wife Stavrogin has had an affair with, to punch him in the face without responding, a seemingly shameful reaction for a nobleman to a former serf (this takes place in perhaps the best scene of a type seen often in Dostoevsky's work—most of the major characters are gathered together and then all hell breaks loose in a way that is puzzling until the novel later fills in the back story). Most every character in the novel is attracted to and fascinated by the charismatic Stavrogin, especially the younger Verkhovensky, who envisions him as the figurehead of the revolution he attempts to spark, though Stavrogin shows little interest in these schemes. In an originally censored section (included as the chapter "At Tikhon's" in modern editions), he confesses he has seduced and driven to suicide a girl of only 12 years. In addition, he pays a fugitive criminal to kill his wife and brother in law. The extent to which he fully understands what he has done at the time when he hands over the payment for the murders is unclear, but he quickly realizes what will happen and does nothing. He refuses to repent openly for either his destruction of the young girl he raped and drove to suicide or the murder of his mentally and physically disabled wife, but the guilt ultimately overwhelms him. At the very end of the novel, he commits suicide, collapsing in the face of the guilt he had seemed so successfully to bury previously. Growing up, Stavrogin was tutored by Stepan Trofimovich. After traveling and studying abroad he returned home and lived with his mother before breaking bad and for a time puzzling locals about whether his aggressively antisocial behavior reflected insanity or thuggishness. He eventually claims (almost certainly lying) that illness caused his bizarre behavior. His ridiculous actions after returning to the town include dragging a man of high social standing by the nose at a local bar, kissing another man's wife at the couple's party, and biting the ear of the governor. His wild antics cause him to be diagnosed with insanity. Therefore, Varvara sends Stavrogin abroad once again in hopes of curing him and also to reestablish her social standing after her son's uncivil conduct. While abroad, he secretly marries the apparently retarded Marya as a sort of joke against his high society roots, and while he shows signs of caring for her, in the end he is complicit in her murder.

  • Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is the philosopher and intellectual (though far more so in the image he has created for himself in the provincial backwater than in reality) who is partly to blame for the revolutionary ideas that fuel the destruction that occurs in the book. His one famous work was based on the idea of Apocatastasis. He served as a father figure to Nikolai Vsevolodovich when Stavrogin was a child. His character may be based on the intellectual Timofey Granovsky.Stepan Trofimovich has been married twice, but is a widower during the events of the novel. During his first marriage he and his wife conceived one child, Pyotor Stepanovich, who was given to his aunts to be raised. Stepan takes very little interest in raising his son and instead uses the money set aside for his son in order to repay his own debts. Stepan has constant financial problems. He squanders his money and lacks any entrepreneurial skills. He is able to manage a meager outside income through tutoring younger students and lecturing at local universities, but effectively he has been taken on as the ward of Stavrogin's mother. His writings and occasional speeches argue on the Western side of the Westernerizer/Slavophile debate that dominated intellectual discussion at that time in Russia. He claims, or at least suggests, that this has made government officials concerned that he is a potentially dangerous thinker, forcing him out of academia and into exile in the provinces. In reality, his academic career was a failure after a promising start, and no one of note in the government knows who he is, much less has any concern about his spreading dangerous ideas. Teaching is a profession that he greatly enjoys and values, allowing him to display his intelligence, but it has given him little deference within his community, and he relies on Stavrogin's mother Varvara to support him. Her exasperation with him is constant through most of the novel, but ultimately the reality is that they have enjoyed a long, though completely chaste, love affair. Dostoevsky uses the framework of Stepan's relationships to weave in the other major characters. Stepan follows in the steps of several other key Dostoevsky characters (probably the most notable other example being Versilov in The Adolescent) and illuminates one of his key later themes — that the liberal reformers of the 1840's inadvertently birthed the destructive, violent, nihilistic following generation of the 1860's. At the end of the story after the chaos created by his son, he leaves the town, finally deciding to be his own man. He soon falls ill and dies, but Varvara is able to reach him on his deathbed and confirm her love for him as he rejects his Western ideas and embraces God and Mother Russia.

  • Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky is the son of Stepan and the driver of the mayhem that ultimately engulfs the town. He is the effectively abandoned son of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky and a representation of the deterioration from idealistic reformer of his father's generation to the nihilistic ruffians that that generation ultimately spawned. He is at the center of a what he describes to his naive and small group of followers as a vast planned conspiracy to overthrow the government and establish socialism of an especially violent sort if Shigalyov's ideas are actually to be carried out. He manages to convince his small group of followers that their part in this scheme will set off a nationwide revolt and claims that he is just one cell leader of a vast conspiracy. In reality, of course, he knows that there is no conspiracy beyond him, but he still hopes that somehow by sparking chaos and murder in his remote province he can set off a national revolt. This far fetched scheme depends on bringing Stavrogin on board as the figurehead. He recognizes Stavrogin's enormous personal charisma and hopes that if he can make him the figurehead of the chaos he sows locally that he can be the behind-the-scenes force that ultimately drives Stavrogin to head a national revolution. His character is inspired by the revolutionary Sergey Nechayev, whose trial for murdering a former follower inspired the depiction of Shatov's murder and Dostoevsky's broader theme of young radicals turning violently on each other. His arrogance and deceiving ways are largely overlooked by the community, the elders of which are eager to ingratiate themselves with the young radicals, who seem harmlessly fashionable to them but are ultimately actually base criminals. He is never at a loss of words and is very effective in speaking clearly and saying what people want to hear. This aspect of his personality is seen in his ability to downplay the events that have occurred in Part I. All of his actions have significant meaning to his cause, but very few people are aware of his motives at this point. He is able to quickly and effectively establish himself as a regular part of the social setting, winning the devotion of the governor's wife by playing the fool.

  • Lizaveta Nikolaevna is a vivacious local beauty who becomes engaged to Mavriky Nikolaevitch, but is fatally attracted to Stavrogin.

  • Alexei Nilych Kirilov (or Kirillov) is an engineer. He is a thorough nihilist, and has decided his own will is the ultimate reality. He means to commit suicide, and Pyotr Stepanovich means to use his suicide to further his revolutionary purposes.

  • Shigalyov is a self-confessed anarchistic social theorist. He is a member of Pyotr Stepanovich's revolutionary "group of five". He has complicated plans for the future of society that the rest of the small radical cell aren't much interested in, but in a grim foreshadowing of the development of Russian history, he notes casually that millions will need to be murdered to realize the future society that he believes the essence of which he as deduced logically.

  • Ivan Shatov is a son of former serf, as well as a former university student and another intellectual who has turned his back on his leftist ideas. He represents the Russian and religiously Russian Orthodox ideas in the Westernizer/Slavophile debate that dominated intellectual discussion in this period in Russian history (Dostoevsky when he wrote his major works was a devoted Slavophile in this fight, but always gave the other side vigorous representation in his work, often it seemed more so than his own side of the debate, e.g. Ivan versus Alyosha Karamazov). This change of heart is what attracts Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky to plot Shatov's murder. Shatov is based on I.I. Ivanov, a student who was murdered by Sergey Nechayev for speaking out against Nechayev's radical propaganda, an actual event which served as the initial impetus for Dostoevsky's novel. He was tutored by Stepan and from his childhood was greatly indebted to Varvara. A one time radical socialist, Shatov converts to a Russian idealist. He is married to the governess of his former merchant, but separated. Shatov was a member of Pyotr's revolutionary cell, but tries to leave. Shatov wants to believe in God, but feels he has no faith. He values the idea of God and feels that religion is essential to the Russian identity. Shatov believes that his lifestyle and principles are in conflict with allowing him to have faith. He admits to the existence of God, but that alone can not give him complete faith. Dostoevsky places Shatov in a tragic role. As soon as he begins to understand himself and develops a religious conviction, he is murdered. Shatov's murder is made especially devastating since it occurs right after he seems for perhaps the first time in his life to be happy. His murder occurs shortly after his estranged wife suddenly reappears in the town pregnant with Stavrogin's child, and the two start to plan a future again together, with Shatov overjoyed to reunite with his wife and be the father to the illegitimate child.

  • Varvara Stavrogina is Nikolai's mother and is a rich lady who plays at being leftist. Varvara Petrovna is a wealthy widow with one son, Nikolai. She is regarded as an active participant in local politics and is recognized as a woman with high social standing. She begins to assist Stepan financially and tries to mold him into her own creation. She selects his wardrobe, gives him an allowance, and most importantly allows him to hold weekly meetings with personal friends, which she financially sponsors. Varvara's ability to form this dependent relationship also creates a loyal friend. Stepan respects Varvara's generosity and assistance and is willing to maintain their friendship at any cost. This is done mostly for the sake of Stepan who truly enjoys the conversation and exposure to the social life of the town. During the weekly meetings they discuss issues relating to local current affairs or sometimes simply humankind in general. Varvara is a caustic character often and frequently treats Stepan poorly, though not undeservedly usually as the relationship is portrayed with Varvara supporting Stepan's lazy lifestyle. At the end of the novel, the deep, though platonic, love between Varvara and Stepan is made clear.

  • Liputin is a known liberal and has a reputation of an atheist. He thrives on the subject of gossip in the meetings held by Stepan, which was the major reason for his attendance. Liputin is also heavily involved within Peter's organization.

  • Captain Lebyadkin is the drunken former officer whose sister is secretly married to Nikolai. He is practically a stranger to the town, but won the heart of Virginsky's wife and quickly moved into their house. His intelligence is questionable and his convictions even more so. He is a drunkard who beats his sister and has a poor reputation within the community. Stavrogin has him killed by Fedka along with his sister.

  • Fedka the Convict is a roaming criminal suspected of several thefts and murders in the novel. He was once a serf belonging to Piotr. He is willing to murder for money and the group uses his services. Stavrogin pays him to murder his mentally disabled wife and her brother. At the time of this transaction, Stavrogin is quite worked up, and it doesn't seem that he realizes that he has just hired a hit man. Yet he soon clearly recognizes what he has done but allows Fedka to follow through with the killings anyway.

  • Mavriky Nikolaevich Drozdov is a visiting gentleman and guest of Ms. Stavrogin, and is Lizaveta Nikolaevna's fiancée. He is quiet, sensible, and traditional.

  • Maria Timofeevna Lebyadkin is Captain Lebyadkin's sister and is married to Nikolai Stavrogin. She is crippled and weak-minded. Stavrogin hires Fedka to murder her, probably inadvertently initially.

  • Bishop Tikhon is a bishop who, in Dostoevsky's drafts, was visited by Stavrogin for guidance, and revealed some of the disturbing events of his past. Their interview has little effect on Stavrogin, but provides the reader a better understanding of his background. However, this chapter was not accepted by the censors and Dostoevsky excised it from the original version, in which Bishop Tikhon is briefly mentioned by Shatov, but does not appear. Most modern editions of Demons include this chapter, called "Stavrogin's Confession" or "At Tikhon's" in an appendix.


Alexei Nilych Kirillov is a "thoroughgoing madman", driven to such a state by his obsession with the belief that man can only stop living in fear of death when he rejects such fear to such an extent that he is willing to kill himself without any care. A man who can do this becomes the true God in Kirillov's view. Stavrogin, who seems to find most people boring, takes an unusual interest in Kirillov and spends a lot of time talking to him alone in his apartment, more so probably than any other character, to try to understand his ideas.

Kirillov appears to spend almost all day in his apartment alone thinking, such that whenever a character needs to talk to him, they can show up at his home and find him there, as in this humorous passage:"Pyotr Stepanovitch went first to Kirillov's. He found him, as usual, alone, and at the moment practicing gymnastics, that is, standing with his legs apart, brandishing his arms above his head in a peculiar way. On the floor lay a ball. The tea stood cold on the table, not cleared since breakfast."

Later he states, "I want to put an end to my life, because that's my idea, because I don't want to be afraid of death."

Kirillov infers that if one commits suicide, he directly rejects God's existence.

Kirillov - as a truly absurd character, is a major subject of deliberation in Camus' philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus.

Historical origins

Demons is a combination of two separate novels that Dostoevsky was working on. One was a commentary on the real-life murder in 1869 by the socialist revolutionary group ("People's Vengeance") of one of its own members (Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov). The character Pyotr Verkhovensky is based upon the leader of this revolutionary group, Sergey Nechayev, who was found guilty of this murder. Sergey Nechayev was a close confidant of Mikhail Bakunin, who had direct influence over both Nechayev and the "People's Vengeance". The character Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is based upon Timofey Granovsky. The other novel eventually melded into Demons was originally a religious work. The most immoral character Stavrogin was to be the hero of this novel, and is now commonly viewed as the most important character in Demons.

Censored chapter

The government censor, at the time Dostovesky submitted his book, suppressed the chapter "At Tikhon's", which concerns Stavrogin's confession of having molested a 14 year old girl, causing the girl to commit suicide. The chapter gives insight into the reason that Stavrogin later hangs himself, as his guilt for this transgression and others, including the murder of his wife and brother in law, ultimately catch up with him. Stavrogin is depicted as the embodiment of nihilism, being apathetic, lacking empathy, devoid of emotion, but his ultimate suicide makes clear that in the end he had a conscience and was overwhelmed by his guilt. The chapter is generally included in modern editions of the novel and also published separately, translated from Russian to English by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf and edited by Sigmund Freud.

Thematic content


Demons is often noted for the range of clashing ideologies present in the novel. As in most Dostoevsky works, certain characters are descriptive of specific philosophies.
  • Nihilism, embodied by Pyotr Verkhovensky, is an extreme ideology that demands the destruction of the current social order. A description of Verkhovensky's philosophy of political change is posited as "the method of a hundred million heads," referring to the predicted death toll.
  • Shigalyovism is a philosophy specific to the book and particularly of the character Shigalyov. Very similar to barracks communism, Shigalyovism demands that ninety percent of society be reduced to a condition of inhuman slavery so the other actually useful ten percent of society is free to make progress. Dostoyevsky advances this bizarre doctrine, not with the intention of proposing a viable philosophy, but rather an inane one, that lends weight to his portrayal of Shigalyov and his fellow conspirators as radical "demons", themselves more caricatures than accurate reflections of revolutionaries.
  • Conservatism is embodied by the provincial governor Andrei Antonovich Von Lembke, and is shown to be incapable of dealing with subversive extremism. Indeed, the elites of the provincial community initially find the radicals fashionable and charming, arranging at their request the literary banquet from which the fiasco of the planned revolution begins.


Dostoevsky as a "spiritual realist" based his novels on the premise of the "life of ideas". In Demons, Dostoevsky applies this theory not so much to the human condition and human suffering but rather to human political reality in general. Here Dostovesky's analysis is not to deal or honestly reflect the human condition (as in his other "existentialist" novels) but rather to portray the reality of power, mankind's desire to manifest its will and obtain power. Dostoevsky defines evil here as the passion for power and control, showing that reason and logic are a ruse to justify rebellion against existence. The heart of nihilism is the belief that existence is meaningless and should be destroyed and that this idea is even more "irrational" in its reasoning and justification than the ideas it opposes. Nihilism, in its claims to overthrow the old order, which it calls irrational and unjust, is hypocritical, because the new order shows itself to be even more irrational and unjust in its ideas and the implementation of those ideas. Dostoevsky takes a Russian Orthodox stance on ideas as demons: that it is the "isms" of mankind that, as demonic possessors of man, lead him away from God. The demons are ideas, such as: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism and ultimately atheism. Getting man to relinquish these ideas is to have mankind embrace the asceticism of Russian Orthodoxy. This is in direct opposition to the Nietzschean perspective that treated religion as tyrannical and as the basis for mankind's suffering.

:"It was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you."
::Pyotr Verkhovensky

Dostoevsky can be seen as close a relative of Nietzsche, however, given that both he and Dostoevsky wrestle with faith and doubt in their works without ever being able to separate the two.

:"I believe only by doubting whether I believe."
::Friedrich Nietzsche

Similarly, Dostoevsky's skepticism and outright admiration of doubt or unbelief within "Demons" reverse our concepts of sin and virtue in spite of the tenderness with which he surrounds his saints in the novel. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky fail in varying degrees to give a concrete goal to man.

Camus also wrote a stage adaptation of the novel.

References in other works

  • Dmitri Shostakovich, Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin for bass and piano, Opus 146 (1974). Shostakovich draws his text from Lebyadkin's puerile and pretentious poetry, which is scattered through the novel. He stated: "There is much of the buffoon in Lebyadkin, but much more of the sinister. I have turned out a very sinister composition."


See also


External links

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