"Demons" in the Service of The Demons: An Analysis of Pushkin's Poem and Its Role in the Epigraph to Dostoevskij's Novel

Michael M. Brewer, University of Pittsburgh

Pushkin's short poem "Besy" has remained one of his most popular poems on a wide cultural spectrum, in large part due to the accessability of its central folk motif. The poem, however, deserves close attention on a number of levels. Firstly, its apparent simplicity is deceptive. As the Soviet scholar Dmitrij Blagoj has shown (in response to Mixail Gershenzon's more naive reading of the poem), "Besy" is both formally and ideologically complex. Secondly, the poem is of great interest to Pushkinists and biographers of Pushkin as it was written at a critical juncture in his life and was the first work written during the so called "Boldino autumn" [Boldinskaja osen'] (1830), the poet's singularly richest creative period. Both of these topics have been at least marginally addressed by scholars. Scholars, however, have not addressed the fact that this poem also lives a kind of dual semantic life, as it exists in Russian culture in two distinct instantiations. On one hand it exists within Pushkin's oeuvre as a poem written in 1830, but "Besy" is no less well-known in its second instantiation, as an epigraph to Dostoevskij's 1872 anti-nihilist novel of the same name. The focus of this paper is on this second instantiation.

I begin the paper, however, with an brief analysis of Pushkin's text in the context of the life and work of the author, and then consider the semantic shift in the meaning and role of the poem (especially the lines chosen by Dostoevskij) in the context of Dostoevskij's novel Besy. Dostoevskij chose two epigraphs for his novel: the first, a selection from the Gospel according to Luke (8: 32-35) in which Christ drives demons out of a man and into a herd of swine; and the second, portions of two stanzas from Pushkin's poem. Many have commented on the allegorical meaning of the first epigraph in the context of the novel but few have commented on the selection of Pushkin's poem, other than on the obvious fact that the two share a common title. I contend that the two epigraphs function not only individually in their relation to the novel, but also as a system of epigraphs that have a particular correlation to one another, and serve as an organizing principle for the reader, and as a metaphorical explanation of the novel's import/substance. The selection of one text as an epigraph for a second, however, may also semantically alter the meaning of the appended text. As such, the novel also informs our understanding of Pushkin's text as a cultural entity, the meaning of which is generated through its ongoing interaction with other texts in the broader cultural sphere.