The Dangers of Idolatry: Dostoevskij's Demons

Carol Flath, Duke University

Nikolaj Stavrogin, due to his enigmatic nature, his apparent lack of conscience, and his central position in Dostoevskij's Demons, is generally assigned primary responsibility for the catastrophic events of the novel's plot. The characters of Petr Verxovenskij's circle of would-be revolutionaries trace their demonic possession to conversations with Stavrogin that occurred offstage and prior to his return to Skvoreshniki. Stavrogin's position at the center of a set of concentric circles of characters is elucidated beautifully by Konstantin Mochul'skij, who sees the events of the novel as resulting from the disintegration of Stavrogin's personality. My goal is not to challenge this authoritative map of the novel's structure, but to question the distribution of guilt and responsibility among characters of the novel that is too easily assumed based on their positions relative to Stavrogin.

My paper is part of a larger examination of Dostoevskij's novels in which I ask simple questions--who does and says what, to whom, and under what circumstances?--which lead to unexpected conclusions. If the devil operates through "lies," then we have to be careful about whom we believe. My fellow travellers here are Vladimir Kantor, Jostein Bortnes, Liudmilla Saraskina, and my own double. In a brilliant recent reading of The Brothers Karamazov (translated in the new Cambridge collection on Dostoevsky and the Religious Tradition), Kantor readjusts the hierarchies of guilt in the novel, according to which Ivan Karamazov, by desiring his father's murder, is most guilty of it. In Kantor's reading Smerdjakov becomes an agent of demonic possession, and Ivan's struggle is viewed as a desparate attempt to free himself from the demon. Bortnes, in a Dostoevsky Studies article, focuses his attention on the sin of idolatry in Demons and challenges the importance of Stavrogin's confession "At Tikhon's" as a guide to interpreting the novel. Saraskina's "Besy: Roman-predupreshdenie" explores Dostoevskij's use of folklore motifs in a convincing reading of the "saintly" jurodivaja, Mar'ja Timofeevna, as a witch. I also cite a study I have just completed of Svidrigajlov in Crime and Punishment, which highlights and explains this reputed villain's many virtuous qualities.

I conclude that possession, as dramatized in Dostoevskij's novel, is not a one-way process. The potential for evil lurks within each individual, and it erupts into action precisely when a character cedes control of his or her own will-power to another. In this reading, Stavrogin's guilt becomes a fiction created by characters unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions. This conclusion is in keeping with Dostoevskij's overall message, according to which confession and acceptance of guilt represent a positive moral impulse, and slander and blame are the carriers of evil.