In analyzing Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Stepan Trofimovich on his deathbed, a number of those writing on The Devils have come to the conclusion that, in spite of his liaison with Sophia Ulitina (a symbol of the God-bearing Russian people) and his profession of faith, the character does not experience a conversion to Christianity. Pointing to the vague wording of Stepan’s profession and his failure to reach Spasovo (“the village of the Savior”), Joseph Frank, Nancy K. Anderson, and Richard Peace all claim, in the words of the latter, that, “Stepan Trofimovich offers merely a hope for faith rather than its full realization” (205).
Such statements concerning Stepan’s “falling short” of reciting something akin to the Nicene Creed (in Russian – symvol very), however, create the misleading impression that Dostoevsky shied away from his usual ideological (that is to say, Christian) intentions in the case of this character and by extension, to some degree, in the case of the entire novel. I have three principal objections to the above theories. First, Dostoevsky’s notes for this work indicate that the question of “can one believe while being civilized, i.e, a European” [that is to a say a Russian “man of the world,” which Stepan clearly is] (PSS 11:178) had to be decided positively. Further in Dostoevsky’s plans for the novel we read: “But if Orthodoxy is impossible for an enlightened person (and in 100 years one-half of Russia will be enlightened), then, it would seem, everything is just hocus-pocus and all of Russia’s power is only temporary” (PSS 11: 179). Secondly, the doctrinal vagueness of Stepan’s profession, which Frank insists merely illustrates Dostoevsky’s refusal to “violate the integrity” of his formerly agnostic creation (496), has a far more subtle purpose. It represents Dostoevsky’s juxtaposition between faith as a living essence, which comes out of an ability to recognize true aesthetic beauty (which Stepan clearly has), and the facsimile of faith that is purely doctrinaire (note the contrast between Stepan’s sincere and heart-felt profession and the dry, pat speech of the priest who has been summoned to the intellectual’s deathbed). Thirdly, the aforementioned interpretations of Stepan’s last days contradict what we know regarding the novelist’s methods of argument and style of narration. As Robin Feuer Miller states, “Dostoevsky understood narration as a strategy, as a subtle means of persuasion rather than a simple vehicle for direct expression of his thoughts” (12). In my paper, I hope to show that this is precisely what we are witness to in Stepan’s final acts; the scene indeed represents a “means of persuasion,” rather than a straightforward proclamation of the novelist’s views, but as “persuasion” it most certainly has a specific direction toward which it is pointing the reader.
Dostoevskii, F. M. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh. Ed.
V. G Bazanov. 30 vols. Leningrad: Nauka, 1972 – 76.
Anderson, Nancy K. The Perverted Ideal in Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Middlebury Studies in Russian Language and Literature 8. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years: 1865 – 1871. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.
Miller, Robin Feuer. Dostoevsky and The Idiot: Author, Narrator, Reader. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.
Peace, Richard. Dostoevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.