This is the kind of book you need to be really, really attentive to in order not to get lost. I read it two summers ago and spent most of that time thoroughly confused, with only the barest notion of the characters or the plot. I’m thinking that as I read it again I’ll be able to understand perhaps. This book would probably be best read in a college or graduate seminar, slowly, so each part could be collectively processed and digested. I’m going to simulate this process by writing about it serially as I read. This is mostly just to help me understand, but perhaps you too will be interested or will join me.
An initial reaction I had upon reading the first 30 pages (entitled “Instead of an Introduction”) is that reading the Frank biography will really help. There are so many topical and timely allusions to 1840-1860’s intellectual and political life that I can now understand. And beyond understanding those proper names, there is also a sense of urgency to the developing conflict I can now appreciate as urgent. The book depicts, among other things, the evolution of Russian liberalism of the 1840’s into the nihilism of the 1860’s and beyond. It’s sort of equal parts dialogical and novelistic, in quite an engaging if problematic way.
There is a HUGE cast of characters here. I will enumerate the ones so far introduced, for my benefit now:
Stepan Trofinovich Verhovensky – old-time liberal and aesthete. A mediocre academic in his day, but that day has passed. A circle of academics convene at his house, which is in as yet unspecified rural locale. He scolds them for their pseudoradicsalism but is mostly either ignored or just politely tolerated in his opinions. Something like the protagonist at the start of the book.
Anton Lavrentievich G-v – the narrator, confidant of Stepan Trofinovich Verhovensky.
Pyotr Stapanovich Verhovensky – son of Stepan, nihilistic hanger around who stays in Geneva and wants to return home and claim his estate (his father is its guardian)
Varvara Stravrogin – Stepan’s long-term Platonic friend (the two shared awkward moments but never actually got together), she is a sort of patroness and has founded a literary magazine.
Nikolai Stravrogin – son of Varvara – charismatic rabble-rouser. Travelled abroad including in Geneva, where he nearly became engaged to the Drozdov’s daughter, but then left under mysterious circumstances. Intends to return to their town soon.
Shatov – a onetime liberal turned Slavophile. He seems kind and soft spoken. He’s born to a serf family and was a pupil of Verhovensky.
Dasha – sister of Shatov, ward of Varvara, student of Verhovensky, Varvara wants them to become engaged, presumably to block her from becoming involved with her son.
Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushin- another student of Verhovensky’s, with a large inheritance. Somehow related to Von Lembke. Daughter of Praskovya Ivanovna Drozdov. Last names different because Liza’s father is Praskovya’s first husband.
Mavriky Nikolaevich Drozdov – suitor of Liza, nephew of Praskovya Ivanovna Drozdov’s deceased husband, general Drozdov.
Virginsky – a hopeful young man and local civil official whose wife quickly lost interest in and took up with Lebyadkin, a military official.
Ignat Timofeevich Lebyadkin – a former general and fraud who beats his mentally ill and lame sister. An alcoholic.
Marya Timofeevna Lebyadkin – lame sister of Ignat who ends up at the center of the action.
Liputin – an older, liberal town official known as an atheist.
Kirrillov – engineer and materialistic radical nihilist who rooms with Liputin, along with Shatov, who stays in Lebyadkin’s quarters, who apparently also lives there. Travelled with Shatov to America and was rescued by money sent to Stravrogin.
Karmazinov – a well-regarded novelist and poet who comes to their town.
Ivan Osipovich – Governor of the province at the start of the novel, with whom Varvara Stravogin is close.
Andrei Antonivich Von Lembke – the new governor, whose wife, Yulia, isn’t on good terms with Varvara Stravrogin.
Shigalyov – a gloomy intellectual who hasn’t done much yet.
Others not fully introduced – a “little Jew named Lyamshin,” and Captain Kartuzov. Also a Polish priest named Slonzevsky.
The novel is set sometime after the liberation of the serfs in 1861. The main characters are all well-off enough to have been concerned about the potential consequences this liberation might have had on their property holdings, and obviously not really liberal enough not to be concerned to ask whether thy deserved those holdings in the first place. They are the 19th century equivalent of privileged intellectual leftists.
They are intellectuals who, in a very familiar yet vivid way, are taken with their own radicalism – “it was written on their faces that they had just discovered some extremely important secret” (p. 22). They speak in a tone that says “this whole two-thousand year old question [about the authority of the church, for example] was, in our age of humaneness, industry, and railroads, but a trifling matter” (p. 34).
Shatov, though, foreshadows the book’s tragic conclusion when he says “not only have you overlooked the people – you have treated them with loathsome contempt… And those who have no people have no God! You may be sure that all those who cease to understand their people and lose their connection with them, at once, also lose the faith of their fathers, and become either athiests or indifferent. It’s right, what I’m saying! The fact will be borne out. That is why all of you, and all of us now, are either vile athiests or indifferent, depraved trash, and nothing more! And you, too, Stepan Trofimovich, I do not exclude you in the least…” (p. 38).
There, I suppose, is the thesis statement of the dialogue. The other characters’ refusal to heed the modesty implied by it is, in essence, what drives the novel. Keep in mind – this was written in 1870, not 1950… There is a prophetic sense about the future of Russia that is hard to ignore.