The Devils: (The Possessed) (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 27 Sep 1973
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From the Back Cover
'Devils' ('Besy'), also known in English as 'The Possessed' and 'The Demons' is the third of Dostoevsky's five major novels. It is at once a powerful political tract and a profound study of atheism, depicting the disarray which follows the appearance of a band of modish radicals in a small provincial town. Dostoevsky compares the radicals to the devils that drove the Gadarene swine over the precipice in his vision of a society possessed by demonic creatures that produce devastating delusions of rationality. The novel is full of buffoonery and grotesque comedy. The plot is loosely based on the details of a notorious case of political murder, but Dostoevsky weaves suicide, rape, and a multiplicity of scandals into a compelling story of political evil.
About the Author
FyodorDostoyevsky (1821 1881), one of nineteenth-century Russia s greatest novelists, spent four years in a convict prison in Siberia, after which he was obliged to enlist in the army. In later years his penchant for gambling sent him deeply into debt. Most of his important works were written after 1864, including Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov, all available from Penguin Classics.David Magarshack was known for his many translations from his native Russian, including works by Dostoyevsky.David Magarshack was known for his many translations from his native Russian, including works by Dostoyevsky."
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Top Customer Reviews
The Possessed is perhaps unique among Dostoyevsky's novels in that it explores and explodes a very particular moment in time, a specific social movement that basically came down to the clash of extremes in the ideas of one generation and the next. The author's passionate, vitriolic distaste for the nihilism of the younger generation is demonstrated by the character of Verkhovensky, a petty, parasitic revolutionary with no purpose or sense of social resolve beyond a mischievous and amoral taste for tumult and destruction.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The novel concerns a small band of Russian intellectuals, atheists, socialists, anarchists, and various other rabble who are distributing subversive leaflets in an attempt to incite the proletariat to revolt against the government. They are a motley group, destined to fail because they lack general competence, organizational skills, a clear agenda, definite plans, and even uniform ideas. The only thing they have in common is that they don't like the way things currently are in Russia and intend to change them, violently if necessary.
Among this group we meet Nicholas Stavrogin, an obnoxious, insensitive young man who is only looking out for himself and is not above having affairs with his friends' wives. The group's prime mover and instigator is Peter Verkhovensky, whose father Stepan had been Nicholas's tutor and is still living platonically with Nicholas's widowed mother, one of the wealthier citizens of the town in which the novel takes place. The group's rank-and-file who figure most prominently into the plot include the suicidal Kirilov, a former member (and potential informer) named Shatov who just wants to put it all behind him, a useless drunkard named Lebyatkin who acts as the group's stooge, and an escaped convict named Fedka who becomes the group's henchman.
That many of these people are dead by the end of the novel is not as surprising as how they get that way. The plot is built around intrigues, disloyalties, and the type of drawing-room confessions and revelations that characterize the best mysteries. It's not difficult to guess that there is a juicy secret about Lebyatkin's crippled, mentally disturbed sister Mary, or that the elegant fete arranged by Julia Lembke, the Governor's wife, will culminate in a spectacular, outrageous, and perhaps deadly climax; Dostoevsky likes sensationalism and never misses a chance to use human frailty and folly as hosts upon which the morally hollow feed like parasites.
Dostoevsky's description of these men as "devils" is a biblical allusion to the book of Luke, translating Christ's power to drive the devils out of a possessed man into a herd of swine to the cleansing of Russia of its nefarious political elements. It would appear that "The Devils" is Dostoevsky's effort to demonize the soulless, devilish radicals who have no moral underpinnings and who would replace everything he considers good about Russia (namely, the Eastern Orthodox Church) with Western ideas. There is an obvious parallel to the Bolshevik Revolution of nearly half a century later, which shows that such Socialist sentiment had been bubbling under the Russian mainstream for many years prior to its twentieth century emergence. In that sense, this is a prescient novel of historical and political interest.
There is much to commend in this novel, including Dostoevsky's usual superb mastery of characterization. In this instance too, this Russian master makes each character come alive on the page.
One of Dostoevsky's unique qualities is his ability to create diverse, volatile, personalities who are fated to meet at the most inopportune times and in the most combustible circumstances. He builds suspense by characterization, rather than plot, then throws his combatants together in the most marvellous group scenes in literature. In The Brother's Karamazov, such a scene occurs at Zosima's Monastery, in Crime and Punishment, at the wake, in The Idiot, at Mishkin's birthday party, and in The Possessed, this attribute is displayed better than ever, but particularly in the scene where Nicholas Stavrogin and Pyotr Verkhovensky make their first appearances (yes, it is almost half-way through the novel that the main characers are introduced!). Dostoevsky constructs tension as well as any novelist who ever lived.
What is often overlooked in Dostoevsky discussions, however, is the fact that he is a great comic writer, in the tradition of Gogol. If one goes by Auerbach's definition of comedy, for instance, (that a happy ending determines whether a work is tragic or comic) then Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov would indeed fall under this rubric. The Possessed presents a more difficult assessment however, particularly the Penguin/Magarshak version which ends with "Stavrogin's Confession." But there is no denying that there is a great deal of humor, of the most sarcastic, driest, Dostoevkian variety, on display in The Possessed.
The Possessed was written in part as a response to Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. Turgenev's "superfluous man" is represented in D's novel by Stepan Verkhovensky, a middle-aged idler who converses in half-French, half-Russian and whose allegiance is divided between the old school and the new. He goes out of his way to sympathize with the nihilist youths he sees gaining the horizon, yet holds onto his "European" cultural ties. In other words he represents what to Dostoevsky at this stage in his career is most reprehensible. By the 1860s D had become a near-reactionary Slavophile, who felt that European influence was an insidious plague that was besieging Russian thought and culture, and that the Fourier-inspired nihilists were sending Russia on a mad troika ride to her doom. He had little use for figures such as Turgenev, who attempted to synthesize European and Russian culture.
In The Possessed, Turgenev is mercilessly lampooned, in the figure of Karamozinov, a character totally obsessed with the figure he presents to society. What most reviewers overlook, however, is the possibility that Turgenev is represented equally by Stepan Verkhovensy and Karamozinov. And actually if one considers Verkhovensky part of the portrait, Turgenev comes across as a more sympathetice figure, divided between his European "free-thinking" and his Russian "faith."
The biggest problem of The Possessed, however, in terms of it being D's "problem novel" is the matter of narration. There is an abrupt shift in the narrative from Part One to Part Two. It is not until page 136 of the Penguin edition that we learn that the person telling the story is a Mr. Anton Lavrentyevich, a civil servant in the provincial town where the action occurs. For Part One of the novel, everything that the narrator reveals could have been gleaned second-hand, as he was privy to all the conversations that related to the events recorded. Suddenly, in Part Two, the narrator becomes omniscient, and relates events and thoughts to which he couldn't possibly have had access . This may indeed be the result of the fact that this novel was serialized, as was the case with most of Dicken's novels, for instance. Perhaps D just lost track of the narrative, or perhaps there was some unexplained purpose behind it, but this is the primary criterion I have for placing this as D's least successful major novel. Despite this flaw, I would still rank this as a "great" work, for it perfectly captures the Russian dilemma of the era depicted, much better, in fact, than D's nemesis, Tugenev, achieved in Fathers and Sons (though his was no minor accomplishment either).
During this long 'Not an Introduction', we are introduced, also, to the many and varied inhabitants of the small Russian town. Most of the characters - and even many of the very minor ones - are fully fleshed out, with families, backgrounds, desires, thoughts, hopes, dreams, motives. A few in particular stand out. There is Krillov, the man who is determined to end his life not through depression or melancholy, but through a choice, allowing himself to be the first man to have free-will, and thus to become God. But he is burdened with this responsibility, endlessly philosophising with himself through sleepless nights. Shatov, the bitter student, a man who wants to fight God but cannot, who tried his luck in America and failed. Karmazinov, the once-great author, losing his talent and perhaps his mind, inflated by an unjustifiable sense of self-worth. Lebyadkin, the drunken captain with the lame sister, a secret shame he never reveals. Through these characters and more we are able to ascertain the political, philosophical and economical feelings of the times, and every one becomes a fully realised, three dimensional character.
Nikolai Vsevolodovich and Pyotr Stepanovich, a son each to the two characters mentioned above, return to the town after years of being away. Stavrogin (Nikolai) is respected and feared, he carries a dark secret. Verkhovensky (Pyotor) is a mystery, and seems able to worm his way into upper society with ease. As the book develops, the two are involved in ever more intricate schemes, always hinted at and never revealed, while all about the Russians are living their lives. Tracts are written, political meetings are held, Verkhovensky and Stavrogin seemingly the masters of this game, however, in their meetings, it is uncertain which one really knows what is going on, and who is the true power.
In typical Dostoevsky fashion, all emotions are felt perhaps too well, with people moaning and crying and fainting and falling to death from shock. This romantic touch adds greatly to the drama of the story, more so as the plots thicken, intertwine, and begin to be revealed, and as the body count increases, so too does the tension. One of the last chapters, involving Verkhovensky and Krillov, is perhaps the greatest, containing such a breadth and depth of ideas about reality and God as to make one step back and reflect on what he has read. The ideas presented, all throughout the book, are lucid, coherent, and undeniably powerful. Add to this the completely realised characters, and what is left is a brilliant book that looks at the social forces of an ideological revolt under false pretenses, and just what man is prepared to do to gain power. The only negative is that the second to last chapter is a - necessary - disappointment, flatly written and seemingly tacked on, but apart from this, it is one of the greatest books I have read.