Peredonov, a teacher in a small town, attempts to garner support for his bid for promotion to school inspector. He does this partly through visits to the more prominent personages of the town, and partly through Varvara, his cousin (and lover), who claims to be able to enlist the assistance of an aged but influential princess. His boorish obsession with the school inspector post, and the corresponding paranoia as he suspects those around him of opposing him (and even wanting to kill him), gradually degenerates into a frantic, panicky madness. This is mirrored by his increasingly frequent sighting of a smiling little imp, or demon (hence the title).
Set in provincial Russia at the end of the last century, Sologub's masterpiece imposes upon its simple plot a gallery of characters as bizarre and fantastic as Gogol's - and even more repulsive. Chief among them has to be Peredonov himself, who moodily thinks of himself as the town's most eligible bachelor, enjoys whipping his students, and secretly sets the hands of the school clock faster so that he can go back earlier (!). He is not alone; one of the characters gets off on caning her son, another willingly persuades his three sisters to court Peredonov, one after another, in a grotesque scene, while Varvara, Peredonov's lover, is portrayed as a lecherous, wanton woman with the face of an old hag and the body of a young, nubile nymph.
In fact, except maybe for the schoolboy Sasha, none of the characters is likeable. Even Lyudmila, among the more sympathetically drawn characters, is 'tainted' by her fantasies of sadism - something she shares with many other characters. One could almost say that Sologub's view of humanity is incomplete without some streak of cruelty. Yet Sologub's creations do not limit themselves to malice and whipping - besides the erotic, 'forbidden' passion between Lyudmila and Sasha, there is also incest, cross-dressing, gerontophilia, and homo-eroticism - all depicted and dramatized in some detail. Like Dostoevsky before him, Sologub could seem to eschew the conventions of realistic character portrayal, solely to delve deeper into the darker, more unpleasant workings of the human mind.
The Little Demon has its faults. The pace is plodding at times, the visits by Peredonov to the town dignitaries can get a tad tedious, and Sologub's prose, while highly readable, is in the main dull and workmanlike (though this could be a fault of the translation). Yet these are minor compared to its towering achievement. It is no accident that the title echoes that of Dostoevsky's 'Demons'. If Dostoevsky predicted how the grim intransigence of much modern ideology would (and did) descend into massive campaigns of terror to snuff out undesired opposition, then Sologub foresaw, in Peredonov's increasing distrust of those around him, the vicious cycle of paranoia that made such horrors necessary to the perpetrators.
In his main character Sologub also shows another source of pure evil: stupidity. For Peredonov is undoubtedly stupid. He would indeed have become a ridiculously comic character, another Gobbo or Malaprop, except that he becomes frightening as well. As such Peredonov is an original in world literature, the first demonic idiot.
This alone would have stamped this novel as a distinctive work of art, yet Sologub goes beyond that. For it is not Peredonov alone, but almost every other character major and minor, who exhibit some degree of stupidity as well. And since everything in the novel takes place in the town, then there is no other setting for comparison in the novel - in short, the town, and all the petty, depraved and cruel fools in it, becomes a representation of Sologub's dismal vision of humanity. Such an unsparing portrayal may have prevented the novel from achieving the greater acclaim that it richly deserves.