The Possessed (novel)

The Possessed (novel)

Infobox Book
name = The Possessed
(aka "The Devils" or "Demons")
title_orig = Бесы
translator = Constance Garnett (1916)
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1995)

image_caption = Pevear & Volokhonsky Translation of "Demons"
author = Fyodor Dostoevsky
illustrator =
country = Russia
language = Russian
series =
subject =
genre = Philosophical novel
publisher =
release_date = 1872

english_release_date = 1916
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The Possessed" (In Russian: Бесы, tr. "Besy"), also translated as "The Devils" or "Demons", is an 1872 novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. For an explanation of the marked difference in the English-language title, please see the section "Note on the title" below.

An extremely political book, "The Possessed" is a testimonial of life in Imperial Russia in the late 19th century.

As the revolutionary democrats begin to rise in Russia, different ideologies begin to collide. Dostoevsky casts a critical eye on both the left-wing idealists, exposing their ideas and ideological foundation as demonic, [ The introduction of Demons Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1995] and the conservative establishment's ineptitude in dealing with those ideas and their social consequences.

This form of intellectual conservativism tied to the Slavophil movement of Dostoevsky's day, is seen to have continued on into its modern manifestation in individuals like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. [An Intellectual Tradition: Dostoyevsky and Alex Solzhenitsyn In an elaborately researched monograph, Russian scholar and political philosopher, Nicholas Rzhevsky, unequivocally confirms that Dostoyevsky created a unique religious synthesis and conservative intellectual tradition in late nineteenth-century Russian history (Cf. his Russian Literature and Ideology: Herzen,Dostoyevsky, Leontiev, Tolstoy , Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. l3-14; 22; 65-95; 149-154)] Dostoevsky's novels focusing on the idea that utopias and positivists ideas, in being utilitarian, were unrealistic and unobtainable. [,M1]

The book has five primary ideological characters: Verkhovensky, Shatov, Stavrogin, Stepan Trofimovich, and Kirilov. Through their philosophies, Dostoevsky describes the political chaos seen in 19th-Century Russia.

Note on the title

The title has been an ongoing source of confusion among readers unfamiliar with the work. There are at least three popular translations: "The Possessed", "The Devils", and "Demons". This is largely a result of Constance Garnett's earlier translation which popularized the novel and gained it notoriety as "The Possessed" among English-speakers; however, later Dostoevsky scholars said the original translation was inaccurate. These scholars argued that "The Possessed" "points in the wrong direction," and interpreted the original Russian title Бесы (Besy) as referring not to those who are "possessed" but rather to those who are doing the possessing. Some insist that the 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 "Besy" 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. [Dostoevsky, Fyodor. "Demons." Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1995. Page xiii.]

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


The novel takes place in a provincial Russian setting, primarily on the estates of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky and Varvara Stavrogin. 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 Stavrogin's son, Nikolai, central to his plot because he thinks Nikolai Stavrogin has no sympathy for mankind whatsoever.

Verkhovensky gathers conspirators like the philosophizing Shigalyov, suicidal Kirillov, and the former military man Virginsky, and he schemes to solidify their loyalty to him and each other by murdering Ivan Shatov, a fellow conspirator. Verkhovensky plans to have Kirillov, who was committed to killing himself, take credit for the murder in his suicide note. Kirillov complies and Verkhovensky murders Shatov, but his scheme falls apart when Nikolai Stavrogin, tortured by his own misdeeds, kills himself. Verkhovensky escapes, but the remainder of his aspiring revolutionary crew is arrested.

Historical Origins

"The Possessed" is a combination of two separate novels that Dostoevsky 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". Also 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".


* Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin is the main character of the novel. A complex figure, he has many anti-social traits that mark him as a manipulative psychopathic personality. He attracts both the best and worst characters in the novel who are fascinated by him. He inspires both good and evil. In a stirring and originally censored chapter, he confesses he is a pedophile and refuses to repent. At the very end of the novel, he commits suicide.
* Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is the philosopher and intellectual that is partly to blame for the revolutionary ideas that fuel the destruction that occurs in the book, whose 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.
* Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky is the son of Stepan and the cause of much of the destruction. He is at the center of what may be a vast conspiracy to overthrow the church, government, and the family across Russia. He is a nihilist and a master charlatan and manipulator. He despises family ties. Though he has followers and his revolutionary groups look to him for guidance, his only regard is for Stavrogin. His character may be based on the revolutionary Sergey Nechayev.
* Lizaveta Nikolaevna is a vivacious local beauty who becomes engaged to Mavriky Nikolaevitch, but is fatally attracted to Stavrogin.
* Alexei Nilych Kirilov (or 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.
* Shigalyov is a self-confessed anarchistic social theorist. He is a member of Pyotr Stepanovich's revolutionary His character is intended to embody everything that Dostoyevsky's image of Christ does not; he is, in essence, the antithesis of Christ.Fact|date=April 2008
* 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. 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.
* Varvara Stavrogina is Nikolai's mother and is a rich lady who plays at being leftist.
* Captain Lebyadkin is the drunken former officer whose sister is secretly married to Nikolai.
* Fedka the Convict is a roaming criminal suspected of several thefts and murders in the novel.
* Mavriky Nikolaevich Drozdov is a visiting gentleman and guest of Ms. Stavrogin, and is Lizaveta Nikolaevna's fiancée. He is quiet, sensible, and traditional.
* Maria Timofeevna Lebyadkin is Captain Lebyadkin's sister, rumored to be married to Nikolai Stavrogin's past. She is crippled.
* Bishop Tikhon is a bishop who, in Dostoevsky's original drafts, Stavrogin visited for guidance, and revealed some of the disturbing events of his past. Their interview has little effect on Stavrogin, but provides the reader a better understanding of his background. However, this chapter was not accepted by the censors and Dostoevsky excised it from the original version, in which Bishop Tikhon is not mentioned. Most modern editions of "The Possessed" include this chapter, called "Stavrogin's Confession" or "At Tikhon's" in an appendix.


Alexei Nilych Kirilov (or Kirillov) is one of the most astonishing characters in "The Possessed". He is a "thoroughgoing madman", who has been driven to nihilistic ideas by Nikolai Stavrogin. On the one side, he is just an ordinary unsociable man, though particularly concerned with his health.

"Pyotr Stepanovitch went first to Kirillov's. He found him, as usual, alone, and at the moment practising 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."

But on the other side, this introverted engineer is also a theorist. We can trace both philosophy of religion and philosophy of freedom in his character. They are intertwined, and completelly influenced by atheism. Without any doubt, those theories had lead Kirilov to a suicide, who considered it as a highest act of free will. In the explanatory scheme of this idea, we will start with philosophy of religion and then proceed to philosophy of freedom.

Fear is a specific notion that has got a lot in common with "pain", which is the central theme in this discourse. Dostoevsky illustrates this notion with a following example - consider a big rock which would kill you if it fell onto you. Even though we are sure of it, we also know, that because of its enormous size and mass, it is sure that we wouldn't feel any pain. In other words, we are not afraid of a rock, but of death. Since fear is a component of pain, in this case it follows that pain is in death. Now comes a crucial point: God is a pain in the fear of death'.

Now, we can continue with philosophy of freedom. Kirilov is obsessively attached to freedom, so that he doesn't agree, not in a single moment, that there is the slightest possibility that he is not a free agent. In a conversation to Pyotr Stepanovitch, he argues:

"It's not an agreement and not an obligation. I have not bound myself in any way." or "I didn't bind myself, I agreed, because it makes no difference to me."

And even if Kirilov doesn't bring into question the very existence of free will, he is convinced that there are several levels of it. A highest act of free will is a suicide.

"I want to put an end to my life, because that's my idea, because I don't want to be afraid of death." Kirilov can now infer that if one commits suicide, he directly rejects God's existence, since he does not have any fear, and God is a fear. Hypothetically, one would kill oneself not in affection, but in calmness. Such an agent, who would prove that there is no God, would then declare himself as God.

Although this is an idea of Stavrogin, Kirilov is proud of it, and lives in its accordance. At few occasions, he gets very unpleasant, when this theory is set on scene.

"No, it's not excellent, for you are being tedious. I am not obliged to give you any account of myself and you can't understand my ideas."

But Pyotr Stepanovitch, to whom these words were directed, didn't care much even if he didn't understand his ideas. There was a plan he cared about. Kirilov plays a central role in the plot of the novel. Mentioned plan consists in an agreement between Kirilov and Pyotr Stepanovitch that Kirilov would take guilt onto himself for the murder which conspiracy group tends to execute.


'Demons' is often noted for the range of clashing ideologies present in the novel. As in most Dostoevsky works, certain characters are descriptive of specific philosophies.
* Anarchism, embodied by Pyotr Verkhovensky, is an extreme 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 the predicted death toll.
* Shigalyovism is a philosophy specific to the book and particularly of the character Shigalyov. Very similar to barracks communism, Shigalyovism demands that ninety percent of society be reduced to a condition of inhuman slavery so the other actually useful ten percent of society is free to make progress. Dostoyevsky advances this bizarre doctrine, not with the intention of proposing a viable philosophy, but rather an inane one, that lends weight to his portrayal of Shigalyov and his fellow conspirators as radical "demons", themselves more caricatures than accurate reflections of revolutionaries.
* Conservatism is embodied by the provincial governor Andrei Antonovich Von Lembke, and is shown to be incapable of dealing with subversive extremism.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

* 1959, French play of the same name written by Albert Camus.
* 1967, French film La Chinoise adapted by Jean-Luc Godard.
* 1969, BBC mini-series "The Possessed" adapted by Lennox Phillips starring Keith Bell; also broadcast on PBS television in 1972.
**imdb title|id=0066703|title=The Possessed
* 1984, French drama "La femme publique"("The Public Woman") is a film inspired from the novel.
** imdb title|id=0087250|title=La femme publique
* 1988, "Les Possédés" adapted by Andrzej Wajda.


ee also

*"Catechism of a Revolutionary"
*Russian Literature
*"The Dispossessed"
*Immanentize the eschaton
*The Grand Inquisitor
*"We" (Russian: Мы), a dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921 in response to Russian Revolution.

External links

* [ Full Synopsis and Character Analysis]
*gutenberg|no=8117|name=The Possessed (The Devils)
* [ The introduction to Demons Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1995]
* [ Joyce Carol Oates: Tragic Rites In Dostoevsky's The Possessed]


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