This is one of Dostoevsky's most famous and least understood novels. In fact it is famous for being exactly what it ISN'T: a reactionary screed that provides a fictional format for Dostoevsky's autocratic views.
Sadly, this is the reputation this fascinating and absorbing book has. Yet Dostoevsky was far too great an artist (and too good a Christian) to be an ideologue of any kind. True, the anarchists are crazy and the liberals are often vain and posturing. But the Tsarist authorities are portrayed as incompetent buffoons and spiritual values rather than any political affiliation are what matter at the end of the day. Furthermore, the description of Dostoevsky as 'conservative' is itself over-simplistic as he always had great sympathy for the poor and opposed serfdom. In fact the closest thing to a hero the novel has is the character Shatov who is of peasant origin: a failed anarchist, a failed Slavophile and yet on a personal level the most sympathetic, forgiving and generous character.
Whilst I feel annoyed at how little understood this novel is, ironically it feels fitting because this book thrives on strangeness, deception and duplicity. Most novels have a clearly defined protagonist, a clearly defined plot with beginning/middle/end and a clearly defined theme.
It is difficult to discern any of this in Demons. It begins as a social comedy about Stepan Trofimovitch Verkhovensky a kind of provincial wannabe DeTocqueville, who believes himself to be a great thinker but is too bone idle and cowardly to publish anything, his platonic friend Varvara Stavrogin and the eccentric characters who live in their village.
In this part Dostoevsky demonstrates his greatly under-rated wit and gift for dialogue. Yet even here the more gothic and strange aspect of his writing is already developing. Stepan Verkhovensky and Varvara Stavrogin are in some ways the 'other' of their counterpart. Similarly the details of their children interesting opposites. Stepan neglects his son Peter whilst Varvara's son Nicholas is adored and spoilt.
As the novel progresses, the 'children' come back. As Nicholas is announced, Peter appears. The two have both become involved in revolutionary politics. Both insincerely. Once again, it is important to stress what Demons is not: the boys are led to terrorism out of ennui and dissatisfaction with the turgid society their parents live in. Dostoevsky does not do this out of bad didactic writing but because the idea of conflict in generational terms has great dramatic potential.
The character of Peter is especially dramatically fascinating. In many ways he makes me think of Malcolm McDowall in the film A Clockwork Orange. He is charming and articulate but gets excited by violence and chaos. Furthermore, he was brutally neglected by his father and for that reason is not entirely unsympathetic.
Nicholas Stavrogin is both a contrast and a twin to Peter Verkhovensky. The spoilt, rich, irresistibly handsome Nicholas feels ennui from his exhausting the world of its pleasures. Yet Peter desires Nicholas as a figurehead for the movement, whilst Nicholas finds it difficult to sustain his interest.
As strange and violent events occur in the provincial village, we meet Von Lembke, a Volga German administrator of the region. Along with Shatov, VonLembke is the most likable character. He is (like Shatov) a failure in many ways but also generous, kind and loyal. When he lapses into insanity it is truly tragic and along with the scene in which Shatov forgives his wife (who had an affair with a friend, who was also the son of his benefactor) demonstrates Dostoyevsky's gift for writing scenes that are emotionally affecting without being sentimental.
The entire story ends (strangely, and yet characteristically) with a double tragedy. One of which is the counterpart to the other.
In all, this is the ultimate political novel, precisely because it demonstrates that people create political ideals rather than inventing characters to personify political ideals.show more