Today, we are going to be giving an introduction to Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Demons or the Possessed. In order to do so, we will approach the issue from three perspectives, the context of the novel, the key themes and the key characters.
I discuss these issues deeply in my respective YouTube video so you can watch that for more information, however, here is a quick summary of that video.
“[Demons] is somewhat in the kind of “Raskolnikov” [that is Crime and Punishment], but is still closer to actuality, and deals with the most weighty questions of our time.”Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Letter to Apollon Nikolayevitch Maikov 12 Feb. 1870. From Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends.
We should read Demons in the context of Dostoevsky’s philosophy and his literary development. The quote seen above is proof of that. Dostoevsky builds on the themes of Crime and Punishment and develops them in this work.
From unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism.Maguire, Robert A., translator. “Among Our Own” Demons , edited by Ronald Meyer, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Penguin , 2011, p. 446.
- Freedom and Will: It is very easy to ask for freedom, we constantly hear this in society. But how important is it and to what degree do we want it? This is something that Dostoevsky questioned. While emphasising the importance of freedom, he also states that freedom taken to its extreme would only lead to despotism.
- Atheism + Theism: This theme ties in with ideas of nihilism and existentialism. What are the implications of belief in the existence of God and the belief that God doesn’t exist? To Dostoevsky, these beliefs did not just entail a metaphysical conclusion but also an existential one.
- Revolution: What are the implications of revolution, socialism and societal upheaval? As a ex-revolutionary, he knew the intricacies of a revolutionary society. However, he changed his mind about these ideas and emphasised their flaws.
- Redemption: This has always been an important theme in all of Dostoevsky’s works. How one is never truly lost till the very end, and it is through this hope of redemption that all man be saved.
- Stepan Trofimovich: redemptive arc, a representation of Dostoevsky himself
- Varvara: represents the social structure, the social bond between the characters
- Nikolay: Moral conflict and struggle, represents the endless clash between good and evil, ultimately does not get saved, or is not committed to redemption
- Pyotr: Evil, nihilism. He embodies the rebellion and chaos
- Kirillov: He is the embodiment of atheism and the ethical theories lived out.
I hope this is a good introduction into Demons, the characters, the context and the themes. I hope it is helpful. For more discussion, feel free to check out the respective video on my channel where you can find more details and ideas.
One thought on “Demons | An Introduction”
Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky
An excerpt from The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey:
Pages 140-142: “A.N. Wilson, a biographer of Tolstoy, remarks that Tolstoy suffered from a ‘fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was ultimately a thing of Law rather than of Grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world.’ With crystalline clarity Tolstoy could see his own inadequacy in the light of God’s Ideal. But he could not take the further step of trusting God’s grace to overcome that inadequacy.
“Shortly after reading Tolstoy I discovered his countryman Fyodor Dostoyevsky. These two, the most famous and accomplished of all Russian writers, lived and worked during the same period of history. Oddly, they never met, and perhaps it was just as well—they were opposites in every way. Where Tolstoy wrote bright, sunny novels, Dostoyevsky wrote dark and brooding ones. Where Tolstoy worked out ascetic schemes for self-improvement, Dostoyevsky periodically squandered his health and fortune on alcohol and gambling. Dostoyevsky got many things wrong, but he got one thing right: His novels communicate grace and forgiveness with a Tolstoyan force.
“Early in his life, Dostoyevsky underwent a virtual resurrection. He had been arrested for belonging to a group judged treasonous by Tsar Nicholas I, who, to impress upon the young parlor radicals the gravity of their errors, sentenced them to death and staged a mock execution. The conspirators were dressed in white death gowns and led to a public square where a firing squad awaited them. Blindfolded, robed in white burial shrouds, hands bound tightly behind them, they were paraded before a gawking crowd and then tied to posts. At the very last instant, as the order, ‘Ready, aim!’ was heard and rifles were cocked and lifted upward, a horseman galloped up with a pre-arranged message from the tsar: he would mercifully commute their sentence to hard labor.
“Dostoyevsky never recovered from this experience. He had peered into the jaws of death, and from that moment life became for him precious beyond all calculation. ‘Now my life will change,’ he said; ‘I shall be born again in a new form.’ As he boarded the convict train toward Siberia, a devout woman handed him a New Testament, the only book allowed in prison. Believing that God had given him a second chance to fulfill his calling, Dostoyevsky pored over that New Testament during his confinement. After ten years he emerged from exile with unshakeable Christian convictions, as expressed in one famous passage, ‘If anyone proved to me that Christ was outside the truth . . . then I would prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.’
“Prison offered Dostoyevsky another opportunity as well. It forced him to live at close quarters with thieves, murderers, and drunken peasants. His shared life with these people later led to unmatched characterizations in his novels, such as that of the murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky’s liberal view of the inherent goodness in humanity shattered in collision with the granitic evil he found in his cellmates. Yet over time he also glimpsed the image of God in even the lowest of prisoners. He came to believe that only through being loved is a human being capable of love; ‘We love because he [God] first loved us,’ as the apostle John says.
“I encountered grace in the novels of Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment portrays a despicable human being who commits a despicable crime. Yet grace enters Raskolnikov’s life as well, through the person of the converted prostitute Sonia, who follows him all the way to Siberia and leads him to redemption. The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, draws a contrast between Ivan the brilliant agnostic and his devout brother Alyosha. Ivan can critique the failures of humankind and every political system devised to deal with those failures, but he can offer no solutions. Alyosha has no solutions for the intellectual problems Ivan raises, but he has a solution for humanity: love. ‘I do not know the answer to the problem of evil,’ said Alyosha, ‘but I do know love.’ Finally, in the magical novel The Idiot, Dostoyevsky presents a Christ figure in the form of an epileptic prince. Quietly, mysteriously, Prince Myshkin moves among the circles of Russia’s upper class, exposing their hypocrisy while also illuminating their lives with goodness and truth.
“Taken together, these two Russians became for me, at a crucial time in my Christian pilgrimage, spiritual directors. They helped me come to terms with a central paradox of the Christian life. From Tolstoy I learned the need to look inside, to the kingdom of God that is within me. I saw how miserably I had failed the high ideals of the gospel. But from Dostoyevsky I learned the full extent of grace. Not only the kingdom of God is within me; Christ himself dwells there. ‘Where sin increased, grace increased all the more,’ is how Paul expressed it in Romans.
“There is only one way for any of us to resolve the tension between the high ideals of the gospel and the grim reality of ourselves: to accept that we will never measure up, but that we do not have to. We are judged by the righteousness of the Christ who lives within, not our own. Tolstoy got it halfway right: anything that makes me feel comfort with God’s moral standard, anything that makes me feel, ‘At last I have arrived,’ is a cruel deception. But Dostoyevsky got the other half right: anything that makes me feel discomfort with God’s forgiving love is also a cruel deception. ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’: that message, Leo Tolstoy never fully grasped.”