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.