Just as Shakespeare wrote what came to be termed "problem plays" (Measure for Measure, The Winter's Tale, etc.) Dostoevsky also presents us with a novel that really doesn't fit in with the rest of the cannon. The Possessed (or The Devils or The Demons, depending on translation) is generally regarded as fourth on the list of his major works (The Brothers Karamozov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, in descending order).
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 Natalia'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).