(Review of Fyodor Dostoevsky novel ‘Demons’ 4*/5*)
Wanna start with a 1984 like quote, here is one from ‘Deomons’:
“‘He suggests a system of spying. Every member of the society spies on the others, and it’s his duty to inform against them. Every one belongs to all and all to every one. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In extreme cases he advocates slander and murder, but the great thing about it is equality. To begin with, the level of education, science, and talents is lowered. A high level of education and science is only possible for great intellects, and they are not wanted. The great intellects have always seized the power and been despots. Great intellects cannot help being despots and they’ve always done more harm than good. They will be banished or put to death. Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned that’s Shigalovism. Slaves are bound to be equal. There has never been either freedom or equality without despotism, but in the herd there is bound to be equality, and that’s Shigalovism!”
‘Demons’ kind of takes Dostoyevskism to a new extreme – you know what I mean; slow beginnings, lots of extremely emotional characters and long scenes. For example, there is this one scene in which we have eleven characters in a single room (I counted) and each one of had a role to play in the scene that was about fifty odd pages long.
You might think after having read like first two hundred pages, that nothing is ever going to happen but that would be wrong; by the end of ‘Demons’ you will have dealt with a gun-duel, murders (in plural), suicides (in plural), natural death, adultery, secret marriage, unrequited loves (plural), arson, child-birth scene (it was beautiful), family reunion, riots, dancing-balls-gone-wrong etc. you name it, Dostoveskien circus has it all.
Narrator and biography
The narrator is a very unimportant character in the story. He is a close friend of Stepan (a widower) – and comes out as a great observer of people, people are easily trusting their secrets in him but do not seem to think of him as a person of consequence.
He begins by telling us that he is writing Stepan’s biography but soon limits himself to later’s last few days; and often talks about things that has no relation with Stephen or things he can’t possibly know. For example, how can he know what do a husband and wife talk about in their bedroom!
Stepan, about whom the novel is supposed to be, is an easily excitable intellectual –who despite being respected by people of his time doesn’t seem to have achieved anything of consequence and has an annoying habit of using French phrases. Although he shows some great insight into politics of his time, he never goes anywhere with it.
He is, in fact, kept by a rich widow Varvara, a woman of strong character, with whom he has a strange sort of relationship. She keeps him in her house maintaining a platonic relationship, refuses angrily his offer to marry her, often throws him out only to go out looking for him later, reads the letters he writes to her everyday -sometimes twice a day and even sets a match between him and a young servant – and yet when he is on his deathbed, reproaches him vaguely for wasting twenty years.
Demons of Socialism and Nihilism
The ‘demons’ in title refer to new ideas that seems to be making Russia sick.
Stepan’s son Pyotr is a Nihilist and anarchist and is a cunning and very annoying person. He kind of reminds you of Cassius in Shakespeare’s ‘Julies Ceaser’. He is that kind of guy who can quickly get on to your nerves. He wants to destroy the existing social order. He pretends to be a socialist but manipulates people of his organization for personal objects.
FD’s view on socialism seems to be same as Stavrogin (Varvara’s son) – ‘It’s a great idea but its exponents are not always great men.’ (think Stalin)
Pyotr is the exponent here and his followers seem to know nothing about it; are so removed from politics that they can’t hold a voting by show of hand. ‘They are fascinated, not by realism, but by the emotional ideal side of socialism, by the religious note in it, so to say, by the poetry of it … second-hand, of course.’
Pyotr’s strategy of binding people to his leadership by making them commit a crime for himself (‘the cause’) seems to be quite widely used one among politicians.
FD also divined another great observation – ‘The convictions and the man are two very different things.’ Have you ever wondered how some of really good people seems to be asking to be punched on their noses whenever they start talking about some particular socio-political subject?
A social system suggested by one character – Shigalevism (see opening quote) wants ninety percent of population to be slave of remaining ten percent. Shigalev is not only suggesting it but he actually argues that is form all systems end up being like and that it is the only system that can survive.
Something to think about.
Stavrogin’s character might remain a mystery to you till the very end – partly because one chapter which contained key to his character was censored. It has been translated by Woolf ever since and is now available online. Google ‘Stavrogin’s confession’.
It is for second time, in my reading, that FD hinted or talked about Lolita-like sexuality in young girls. The other time was in ‘Crime and Punishment’ but that time it was only a dream.
“I’ve killed the God.”
FD have a great distaste of extreme rationalism and it shows in ‘Demons’– whether it is in musings of ‘underground’ man; tragedy of Rashkilonov or that of Ivan Karamazov; this time it shows in character of Kirillov who has got this idea in his head that there is no God and that thus we can all become God, all we have to do is … kill ourselves. I won’t go into details of his reasoning but here are some of things he says:
“If there is no God, then I’m God.”
“God has tormented me all my life.”
“Everyone who wants the supreme freedom must dare to kill himself.”
K is Dostoyevsky’s parody of his contemporary Ivan Turgenev, author of another novel examining the ‘nihilist’ generation, ‘Fathers and Sons’. FD too uses allegorical relationship of fathers and sons in Stepan (liberal idealist) and Pyotr (Nihilist).
Stavgrin tries to take advantage of Matryosha (an eleven year old); Cheats with Marie on her husband and marries Marya (a sort of holy fool, my favorite) – all three different and that’s not including Darya and Lisa, who have a crush on him. Want more? Lisa had a crush on Nikolai (stavgrin) but was instead engaged to Nikolaevich. Marie’s husband Shatov who has a habit of changing his ideas by walking out insultingly on people when he feels used or called for compromise on his dignity; is not same as Shiagalov. Also, although he punches Stavgrin it is not because later had an affair with his wife Marie but rather because he made Marya pregnant. Talk about confusion!
Some more quotes from ‘Demons’:
‘Poetry is nonsense and justifies what would be considered imprudence in prose.’
‘A woman would deceive the all-seeing eye itself. Le bon Dieu knew what He was in for when He was creating woman, but I’m sure that she meddled in it herself and forced Him to create her such as she is.’
‘How can we expect a cultured man not to commit a murder, if he is in need of money.’
(P.S. Thanks for reading. Find my other reviews of other Dostoyevsky books here)