Demons (Dostoyevsky novel)

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Demons (Fyodor Dostoyevsky).jpg
Author Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Original title Бесы
Translator Constance Garnett (1916)
David Magarshack (1954)
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1995)
Robert A. Maguire (2008)
Michael R. Katz (1992)
Country Russia
Language Russian
Genre Philosophical novel
Political novel
Publication date
Published in English
Preceded by The Idiot

Demons (Russian: Бесы, Bésy) is an 1872 anti-nihilistic novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Although titled The Possessed in the initial English translation, Dostoyevsky scholars and later translations favour the titles The Devils or Demons.

An extremely political book, Demons is a testimonial of life in Imperial Russia in the late 19th century. As the revolutionary democrats began to rise in Russia, different ideologies began to collide. Dostoyevsky casts a critical eye over both the radical idealists, portraying their ideas and ideological foundations as demonic,[1] and the conservative establishment, portraying its ineptitude in dealing with those ideas and their social consequences.

Many of the characters represent different types within this ideological conflict. By exploring their interactions, Dostoyevsky depicts the political chaos seen in 19th-century Russia.

Alternative titles[edit]

The original Russian title is Bésy (Russian: Бесы) (singular bés), which means "demons".

There are three popular English translations of the title: The Possessed, The Devils, and Demons. Constance Garnett's 1916 translation popularized the novel and gained it notoriety as The Possessed. However, this interpretation of "Bésy" has been challenged by some Dostoyevsky scholars. It is argued that The Possessed "points in the wrong direction" and that the Russian title Бесы refers not to those who are "possessed" but rather to those who are doing the possessing - the "possessors". Some insist that this difference is crucial to a full understanding of the novel:

It would be simpler if the title were indeed The Possessed, as it was first translated into English (and into French – a tradition to which Albert Camus contributed in his dramatization of the novel). This misrendering made it possible to speak of Dostoevsky's characters as demoniacs in some unexamined sense, which lends them a certain glamor and even exonerates them to a certain extent. We do see a number of people here behaving as if they were 'possessed.' The implications of the word are almost right, but it points in the wrong direction. And in any case it is not the title Dostoevsky gave his novel. Discovering that the Russian title Bésy refers not to possessed but to possessors, we then apply this new term 'demons' to the same set of characters in the same unexamined way – a surprising turnabout, if one thinks of it.[2]

As a result, newer editions of the novel are rarely, if ever, rendered under Garnett's earliest title "The Possessed".


The novel takes place in a provincial Russian setting, primarily on the estate of Varvara Stavrogina. Living with her on the estate is her son's former tutor, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, with whom she has been in an intimate but essentially platonic relationship for twenty years. 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 Shigalev, suicidal Kirillov, and the former military man Virginsky, and he schemes to solidify their loyalty to him and each other by murdering a former fellow conspirator who now regrets his involvement - Ivan Shatov. Verkhovensky plans to have Kirillov, who has committed to killing himself, take credit for the murder in his suicide note. Verkhovensky murders Shatov and Kirillov complies, but the scheme falls apart. Verkhovensky escapes, but the remainder of his aspiring revolutionary crew is arrested. In the denouement of the novel, Nikolai Stavrogin kills himself, tortured by his own misdeeds.


  • Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin is the central character of the novel, but he is a highly ambiguous figure and often only an observer or secondary participant in key events. Other characters are fascinated by Stavrogin, especially the younger Verkhovensky, who envisions him as the figurehead of the revolution he is attempting to spark. Though in appearance handsome, intelligent, aristocratic and refined, many of Stavrogin's actions mark him as a manipulative personality, possibly a sociopath. At the end of the chapter "Night (Continuation)" he apparently pays a fugitive criminal to kill his wife and brother in law. The extent to which he fully understands what he has done when he hands over the payment is unclear, but he quickly realizes what will happen and does nothing. In an originally censored section (included as the chapter "At Tikhon's" in modern editions), he confesses he has raped and driven to suicide a girl of only 12 years.
Growing up, Stavrogin was tutored by Stepan Trofimovich. After travelling and studying abroad he returns home to live with his mother. Though at first well behaved and decorous, he suddenly shocks the locals with several ridiculous but aggressively antisocial actions. These include dragging a man of high social standing by the nose at a local bar, kissing another man's wife at the couple's wedding party, and biting the ear of the governor. Local society is outraged, but he is partly forgiven owing to a medical diagnosis of an acute episode of mental illness. His mother, Varvara Stavrogina, sends him abroad once again in hopes of curing him and also to try to reestablish her own social standing after her son's uncivil conduct. While abroad, he secretly marries the apparently mentally handicapped Marya as a sort of joke against the norms and expectations of his high society roots, and while he shows signs of caring for her, in the end he is complicit in her murder. He does not repent openly for either his destruction of the young girl 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.
  • Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is the philosopher and intellectual (though far more so in the image he has created for himself in the novel's provincial backwater than in reality) who is partly to blame for the revolutionary ideas that fuel the destruction that occurs in the book. A recurring theme that his character represents was the "Exaggerated Emotion" of the time. 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. Dostoyevsky uses the framework of Stepan's relationships to weave in the other major characters. Stepan follows in the steps of several other key Dostoyevsky 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 1840s inadvertently birthed the destructive, violent, nihilistic following generation of the 1860s. 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 Russia.
  • Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky is the son of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. He is the principal driving force behind the mayhem that ultimately engulfs the town. The father and son are a representation of the aetiological connection Dostoyevsky perceived between the idealistic reformers of the 1840s and the nihilistic revolutionaries of the 1860s.[3]
Pyotr Stepanovich claims to be at the center of a vast, organized conspiracy to overthrow the government and establish socialism. He manages to convince his small group of co-conspirators that they are just one revolutionary cell among many, and that their part in the scheme will help set off a nationwide revolt. In reality, there is probably not much of a conspiracy beyond himself, but he still hopes that fermenting chaos and unrest in this remote province might help spark a widespread uprising. His ambitious scheme requires Stavrogin as the figurehead, and he tries desperately, through a combination of ensnarement and persuasion, to recruit him. The revolution he envisages will ultimately require a despotic leader, and he thinks that Stavrogin's strong will, personal charisma and "unusual aptitude for crime"[4] are the necessary qualities for such a leader.
Pyotr Stepanovich is never at a loss for words and is very adept at flattery and saying what people want to hear. He uses this ability most effectively on the Governor's wife, Yulia Mikhaylovna von Lembke, and manages to gain an extraordinary influence over her and her social circle. He seeks to use this influence, in combination with constant undermining of authority figures like the Governor and his father, to bring about discord and a breakdown of standards in society.
The character was inspired by the revolutionary Sergey Nechayev, and the murder of Shatov in the novel was based on Nechayev's actual murder of a former revolutionary associate.[5]
  • Lizaveta Nikolaevna is a vivacious local beauty who becomes engaged to Mavriky Nikolaevitch, but is fatally attracted to Stavrogin.
  • 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 (Dostoyevsky 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 Dostoyevsky'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 equal to the Russian identity. Shatov believes that his lifestyle and principles are in conflict with his ideas that allows him to have faith. He admits to the existence of God, but that alone can not give him complete faith. Dostoyevsky 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 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 Stepan. 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 probably does not realize 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 fiancé. He is quiet, sensible, and traditional.
  • Maria Timofeevna Lebyadkina is Captain Lebyadkin's sister and is married to Nikolai Stavrogin. She is crippled yet virtuous and pure. Stavrogin hires Fedka to murder her, probably inadvertently initially.
  • Alexei Nilych 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. He 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.
In his study of suicide, The Savage God, Al Alvarez postulates this theory about Kirillov: "Thus Kirillov. . . . kills himself, he says, to show that he is God. But secretly he kills himself because he knows he is not God. Had his ambitions been less, perhaps he would only have attempted the deed or mutilated himself. He conceived of his mortality as a kind of lapse, an error which offended him beyond bearing. So in the end he pulled the trigger in order to shed this mortality like a tatty suit of clothes, but without taking into account that the clothes were, in fact, his own warm body." (1972, pp. 123–24)
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[edit]

Demons is a combination of two separate novels that Dostoyevsky 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[edit]

The government censor, at the time Dostoevsky submitted his book, suppressed the chapter "At Tikhon's", which concerns Stavrogin's confession of having molested a 12 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.[6][7]

Thematic content[edit]


Demons is often noted for the range of clashing ideologies present in the novel. As in most of Dostoyevsky's other works, certain characters are descriptive of specific philosophies.

  • Nihilism, embodied by Pyotr Verkhovensky, is an anarchist 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 his predicted death toll.
  • Shigalevism (or "shigalevshchina") is a philosophy specific to the book and particularly to the character Shigalev. Shigalevism demands that ninety percent of society be enslaved to the remaining ten percent. Equality of the herd is to be enforced by police state tactics, state terrorism, and destruction of intellectual, artistic, and cultural life. Like Verkhovensky, Shigalev agrees that for "reason" to spread, one hundred million heads will have to roll. In Marxist interpretations, Shigalev and his fellow conspirators are seen as caricatures, and as "a slander on socialism."[8] Others, including Soviet dissidents Boris Pasternak, Igor Shafarevich, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, have called Dostoyevsky's description of Shigalev prophetic about the tactics used following the October Revolution. Pasternak, in particular, is known to have often used the term "Shigalevism" to refer to Joseph Stalin's Great Purge.[9][10]
  • Tsarism is embodied by the provincial Governor Andrei Antonovich von Lembke, who is a German aristocrat and convert from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox Church. Like the government he serves, Count von Lembke is shown to be incapable of dealing with radical extremism. Indeed, the local Russian nobility find the radicals trendy and charming, arranging at their request the literary banquet from which the fiasco of the planned revolution begins.


Dostoyevsky as a "spiritual realist" based his novels on the premise of the "life of ideas".[11] In Demons, Dostoyevsky applies this theory not so much to the human condition and human suffering but rather to human political reality in general. 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. Dostoyevsky 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. Dostoyevsky 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.[12]

"It isn't you who has consumed the idea, but the idea which has consumed you."
Pyotr Verkhovensky

Camus also wrote a stage adaptation of the novel.

References in other works[edit]

  • 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."[13]
  • The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Camus discusses the novel along with others by Dostoyevsky in relation to absurdism, particularly Kirillov and his choice to kill himself.
  • In 2012 UK feature film Life Just Is, lead character 'Pete' has a breakdown and reaches for the novel in a frantic attempt to find answers to his existential dilemmas.



  1. ^ The introduction of Demons Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1995
  2. ^ Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Demons. Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1995. Page xiii.
  3. ^ Wasiolek, Edward (1964). Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusets: M.I.T. Press. p. 112. 
  4. ^ Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Demons trans. Robert A. Maguire. Penguin Books, 2008. p281
  5. ^ Wasiolek, Edward (1964). Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusets: M.I.T. Press. p. 135. 
  6. ^ Stavrogin's Confession including Dostoevsky and Parricide, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Author), Sigmund Freud (Afterword) including a psychoanalytic study of the author, Virginia Woolf (Translator), S.S. Koteliansky (Translator) Publisher: Lear Publishers (1947) ASIN: B000LDS1TI ASIN: B000MXVG94
  7. ^ The Possessed By Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Elizabeth Dalton, Constance Garnett Translated by Constance Garnett Contributor Elizabeth Dalton Published by Spark Educational Publishing, 2004 ISBN 1-59308-250-9, ISBN 978-1-59308-250-5 pg 679 [1]
  8. ^ Alexander Solzhenitsyne et al (1981), From Under the Rubble, Gateway Editions. Page 54.
  9. ^ Alexander Gladkov (1977), Meetings with Pasternak, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Pages 34.
  10. ^ Boris Pasternak (1959), I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, Pantheon, pg. 90.
  11. ^ Dostoevsky: His Life and Work By Konstantin Mochulsky Translated by Michael A. Minihan Edition: illustrated Published by Princeton University Press, 1971 ISBN 0-691-01299-7, ISBN 978-0-691-01299-5 pg 210 [2]
  12. ^ The introduction to Demons by Dostoyevsky as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky [3]
  13. ^ Shostakovich, Dimitri. Letter to Isaak Glickman, 23 August 1974

External links[edit]