Stavrogin and Rousseau's Patrimony: The Sins of the Fathers in Dostoevskij's Besy

Boris Wolfson, University of California, Berkeley

The legacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau plays a crucial role in Dostoevskij's examination, in Besy, of the relationship between the revolution of the "sons" and the worldview of their "fathers." While "imitations of Rousseau" in the life of Stepan Trofimovic Verxovenskij, explored by Robin Feuer Miller (1984), take on a relatively benign and even mildly comic form, the reverberations of Rousseau's life and thought in the actions of the younger generation acquire sinister and dangerous overtones. This paper traces some of the specific ways in which Rousseau and his "Genevan ideas" enter the consciousness of Stepan Verxovenskij's favorite student, Nikolaj Stavrogin.

The Rousseauvian atmosphere of Stavrogin's upbringing (young Nikolaj Stavrogin's relationship with his mentor recalls young Rousseau's interaction with his father) "unsettles his nerves," and instills in him "that age-old anguish" which he later comes to "cherish more than the most radical satisfaction." Later, this proto-nadryv manifests itself in Stavrogin's willful assertion of his self on those around him. His "experiments" in thoughts, words, and deeds echo, eerily, the logic of the man who first announced to his readers that he was like no one in the whole world. Rousseau's ethical teaching, as delineated in his Confessions, asserts the primacy of the individual's personal moral judgment because it assumes the inherent goodness of human nature. Guided by his insatiable "anguish," Stavrogin explores the chilling repercussions of the alternative: an ethics premised not on acts of kindness and sincerity but on vicious, disgusting jokes.

Stavrogin's intellectual affinity with Rousseau, which emerges through his various confessions (particularly in his interactions with Shatov, Kirillov and Verxovenskij Junior), provides a new context for understanding how, exactly, Nikolaj Stavrogin is at the heart of Petr Verxovenskij's "revolution." Employing Karl J. Weintraub's analysis (1978) of Rousseau's Confessions, this paper suggests that Dostoevskij's novel illustrates some of the philosophical connections between the spirit of Rousseau's ethics and the new destructive ideology of the "sons" (Weintraub argues that Rousseau's ethics possessed the potential for mutating into a totalitarian ideology). Thus the citoyen of canton Uri who is found hanging in a closet at Skvoreshniki is held responsible both for the sins of his many "fathers" (including his Genevan counterpart) and for the imminent destruction of many innocent lives in the name of his brave new ethics.