Destroyevsky (The Devil Take It)
Textually entrapped within Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Demons are the tortured souls and tortuous plots, which manifest themselves—via metaphor and allusion—in a Russia bereft of morals and meaning. This complex intertwining of both the spiritual world of the damned and doomed and the cerebral world of 19th-century science and psychology is rife with the bitterness of irony, the hypocrisy of civilized society, and the heresies of hearsay. Dostoyevsky’s cautionary tale of a Russia gone awry with godlessness and astray with the ‘great idea’ is inundated with religious undercurrents, invoking imagery from both Russian Orthodoxy and pagan folk beliefs. The world of The Demons is inhabited by a rogues’ gallery of misanthropes and miscreants who are, more often than not, plagued by failed attempts to attain apotheosized perfection and panged by fits of depression, paranoia, and/or psychoses.
From the opening line of the novel, “As I embark on a description of the very strange events that recently occurred in our town” (7) to its final sentence, “After the autopsy, our medical men rejected insanity completely and resolutely” (748), each page of The Demons is strategically laced with a set list of alienating, anxious words: ‘strange’, ‘insane/insanity’, ‘delirious/delirium’, ‘fury’, ‘frenzy’, etc.. Additionally, Dostoyevsky infuses exclamations that often invoke the visage of Lucifer himself, such as: “the Devil only knows what these devils have up their sleeve” (300); “The Devil take it” (418); “the Devil take you” (429); and “Why, he should be packed off to the Devil” (607). His unrelenting usage of such an infernal language instills an overall, menacing tone of Mephistophelean proportions.
As Varvara Pretovna—matriarch of the Stavrogin clan—exclaims, “Lord Jesus Christ, has everyone gone stark raving mad then!” (183), it becomes apparent to the reader over time that Dostoyevsky’s employment of the terms ‘madness’ and ‘insanity’ in describing almost every character at least once in The Demons is quite telling; considering, both words were often believed to be symptomatic of demonic possession. In his article titled “A Case Illustrating So-Called Demon Possession” from The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Dr. Edward Mayer explains, “Demoniacal possession as a church question was formerly accepted literally, being based upon the passage in John x. 20: ‘He hath a demon and is mad.’ …epidemics of demon possession occurred…which showed phases of mental dissociation” (265). Additionally, the term ‘demonic possession’ is described in The Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology as “a morbid mental condition, in which the patient believes himself…possessed by a demon. The condition may be considered…a type of insanity…On the historic side, demon possession is important as a stage in the development of medical theory of disease” (268). Though, to lend credence to this argument, one really has to look no further than in the “Introduction” of The Demons.
As Robert L. Belknap elucidates, “From its [The Demons] title to its final sentence, this novel deals with insanity…The early Christians, like pagans before them, treated…insanity as possession by unclean spirits. Both epigraphs identify the demons of the title as earlier words for and understandings of madness” (xxvii). Though, perhaps, the character of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky concisely sums up the underlying intentions behind Dostoyevsky’s evocations of demonic possession while discussing the passage from Luke in the Bible, concerning Jesus and the madman possessed by demons: “You see, it’s just like our
Russia. These demons who come out of the sick man and enter the swine—these are all the sores, all the contagions, all the uncleanness, all the demons…who have accumulated in our great and beloved sick man, our Russia, over the course of centuries” (724).
Dostoyevsky doesn’t end there with the satanic symbolism, disturbing the pages of The Demons. Another allusion to deviltry is transmogrified into the insectoid form of the fly. In the book, The Dictionary of Symbols, the entry for ‘fly/flies’ states that the insect symbolizes “evil and pestilence…flies were equated with demons and became Christian symbols of moral and physical corruption” (84). Dostoyevsky makes several references to flies throughout his novel; most notably, within the confines of Captain Lebyadkin’s poem titled “The Cockroach,” which he recites in the great halls of the Stavrogin house at Skvoreshniki: “In this world a roach did dwell, from birth a cockroach, proud and wise, one day into a glass he fell all chockablock with cannibal flies…The cockroach took his rightful place, the flies, they buzzed and clamoured, ‘Our glass is full, there’s no more space’ to Jupiter they yammered” (195-196).
Our esteemed author continues to use the fly as a metaphor for deviltry throughout The Demons. After Stepan Trofimovich has given his speech at the gala thrown by Yuliya Mikhaylovna von Lembke, he extols, “here in
Russia there’s a whole mass of people who are concerned with nothing more than attacking other people’s impracticality…with the annoying persistence of flies in summer” (543). Dostoyevsky also compares the group of five to Beelzebub’s bug of choice, “They [the group of five] felt that they had suddenly fallen like flies into a huge spider’s web” (610). Later, Arina Prokhorovna Virginskaya—the wife of group-of-five member, Virginsky, and professional midwife—brushes off the birth of Marya Ignatyevna Shatova’s child, “It’s simply the further development of the organism, and nothing more, no mystery…Otherwise, any old fly is a mystery” (656). Lastly, during a confrontational scene between Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky and Aleksey Nilych Kirillov, Pyotr warns Kirillov that if he plans to run off and not fulfill his promise to kill himself at the proposed time, “ I’ll find you, even at the other end of the world…I’ll hang you…like a fly…I’ll squash you…you understand?” (622).
Speaking of Kirillov’s plans to kill himself, Linda Ivanits discusses the subject of suicide in her book, Russian Folk Belief. And its close link to the Devil. Ivanits states, “His [the Devil’s] connection with suicides was especially strong. The person’s distraught state of mind preceding a suicide was taken as a sign of struggle with the devil, and of course, the suicide itself was an indication that the devil had won” (48). With this in mind, it seems very likely that Dostoyevsky intentionally chose to use Kirillov’s plans to kill himself in order to attain deification as both a parallel to Lucifer’s revolt against and attempt to dethrone God and as emblematic of the Russian folk belief that the Devil is “always nearby awaiting his chance to inflict illness, steal children, and prompt arson, murder, or, especially, suicide” (50). Furthermore, the fact that Nikolay Vsevolodovich Stavrogin—the anti-heroic protagonist of The Demons—also commits suicide further solidifies the idea of Satan holding sway not only over Russia’s younger generation but also over the thematic structure of the novel.
Dostoyevsky’s impetus for appropriating hellish imagery with a sense of biblical imprimatur is further emboldened by revelations of end times and the Apocalypse. While discussing the afterlife with Kirillov, Nikolay Stavrogin utters, “In the Apocalypse the angel swears that time will no longer exist” (262). The continuation of such foredooming discussion is unintentionally touched upon while Stavrogin visits with Ivan Pavlovich Shatov. Mixed amongst his highly subjective views concerning ‘the Russian spirit,’ atheism, and socialism, Shatov declares, “People are formed and moved by another force that rules and dominates them…this force is the…unquenchable desire to go on to the end…It is the spirit of life, as the Scriptures say, “of living water”, the drying up of which is threatened in the Apocalypse” (277).
The apocalyptic visions persist in The Demons during a conversation between Pyotr and Kirillov while discussing the latter’s housing Fedka the Convict: “At night I’ve [Kirillov] been reading him [Fedka] the Apocalypse and giving him tea” (418). Fedka then mentions these very same discussions later in the novel, while confronting Pyotr Stepanovich, “Aleksey Nilych [Kirillov], bein’ a philosopher, has explained the real God…the maker and creator, and the creation of the world, along with what’s fated in the future and the transformation of every creature and every beast from the book of the Apocalypse” (620). While on the subject of both apocalyptic beasts and the character most likely to carry the mark of the Beast, Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, let’s turn our attention to Stepan Trofimovich’s prodigal son.
Pyotr is introduced in The Demons in Part 1, Chapter 5, which is noticeably titled “The Wise Serpent”. Although it might be debatable whether Dostoyevsky was directing Chapter 5’s title to either Pyotr Stepanovich or Nikolay Vsevolodovich, I’m inclined to believe it was the former and not the latter. The novel’s narrator and chronicler, Anton Lavrentyevich, makes the following observation concerning Pyotr: “He articulated his word in a surprisingly clear manner…At first you would find this very much to your liking, but then it would become repellent…You somehow began to imagine that his tongue must be of some special shape, usually long and thin somehow, terribly red and extraordinarily sharp, its tip in constant and spontaneous movement” (199). Anton’s study of Pyotr’s charm suggests not simply that of an articulate gentleman but also that of a forked-tongued snake, or rather, a ‘wise serpent’. According to the Dictionary of Symbols, the entry for ‘snake’ mentions that “the Judeo-Christian symbolism of the serpent as the enemy of humankind and…Satan himself” (187).
With this in mind, the narrator also makes the following remark about Pyotr in The Demons, “A rather strange thing it was…a gentleman who had dropped so suddenly from the sky to tell other people’s stories” (205), which parallels Lucifer’s banishment and subsequent fall from Heaven. Yet another parallel between Pyotr and Satan can be found in their power of persuasion. As Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger—authors of the book, Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486—wrote, “It must be said that…he [Satan] instigates man to sin. And this he does…by persuasion…He presents something to the understanding as being a good thing…therefore the Devil can impress some form upon the intellect [of man], by which the act of understanding is called forth” (49).
As Dostoyevsky reveals throughout the novel, Pyotr spreads his subtle, persuasive gossip throughout the local landed gentry and genteel elite; however, his power of persuasion was most evident over the governor’s wife: “he acquired a strangely powerful influence over Yuliya Mikhaylovna” (359) who “looked on him as an oracle” (545). Moreover, Kirillov refers to Pyotr Stepanovich as “a political trickster and intriguer” (681) who wants to lead him “off into philosophy and ecstasy” (681), so that he can compel Kirillov to do his bidding; in this case, Pyotr persuades him to write a suicide note stating he’s murdered Shatov. In the Dictionary of Symbols, the entry for ‘trickster’ (with a cross-reference for ‘devils’) states, “In mythology and folklore…tricksters symbolize the important role in the selfish, subversive, irreverent, and shrewd” (210);
Additionally, Linda Ivanits notes in Russian Folk Belief that “the devil existed for the sole purpose of inflicting harm and prompting evil deeds” (38) and that “the devil incites man to drink so that he can take advantage of him, prompting him to evil deeds and crimes…Russian peasants attributed sudden and violent crimes such as murder and arson committed…to the direct work of the devil” (42-43); it should be noted that both words ‘inciting’ and ‘prompting’ are synonymous with ‘persuading’. The Demons echoes these sentiments when Pyotr divulges to Nikolay Stavrogin his master-plan for Russia: “We will kill desire; we will foster drunkenness, gossip, denunciation; we will foster unheard-of depravity” (463) and later states, “We shall proclaim destruction…We’ll get fires going…There’ll be a shakeup the likes of which the world has never yet seen. Rus will plunge into darkness, the earth will begin to weep for its old gods” (467). Much of the ideas that the devil was trickster of the Russian peasant and a corruptor of their souls are mirrored in the aforementioned passages espoused by Pyotr Stepanovich, concerning his disturbing and disconcerting plans for the future of Russia and its people.
Altogether, Dostoyevsky deftly summons forth a host of demonic allusions, which taunt and harp the inhabitants of his novel; in so doing, he purposely suffocates his readers with a tempestuous miasma of 19th-century, Russian societal ills. This intentional overuse of certain lexicon, expressions, and visions in The Demons, not only condemns its characters to directionless devilry and utter disillusionment, but also sends its readers spiraling downward into the abyssal depths of humanity’s darker side. Dostoyevsky’s fractured documentation of a country and its people teetering between turmoil and godlessness searches for some sort of reconciliation …when there is none. At times, The Demons can be an emotionally-draining novel. Still, Dostoyevsky’s use of frightful apparitions steeped in the religiosity of the Russian Orthodox faith and the inflections of Russian folk myths, leaves the mind wondering and the soul wandering; all of which, he irrefutably executes with razor-tipped pen dipped in mire of Stygian ink.
“Demonic Possession.” Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. 1901.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Demonsf. New York: Penguin Books. 2008.
Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief. New York: M.E. Sharpe. 1992.
Kramer, Heinrich and Sprenger, James. Malleus Maleficarum. New York: Dover Publishing. 1971.
Mayer, Edward E. "A Case Illustrating So-Called Demon Possession." The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 6.1 (1911-1912): pp. 265-278.
Tresidder, Jack. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 1998.