“… I declared everything had happened to the highest degree by chance, through people who, though perhaps of a certain inclination, had very little awareness, were drunk, and had already lost the thread. I am still of that opinion.” (540)
The narrator is describing a singular event and how he later testified – but this is one of those sentences from a novel that so effectively sums up the whole feeling of it…
The start of Part Three brought me all the way back in my Dostoevsky reading to the early “Petersburg Feuilletons.” There, the erstwhile reader of this blog will recall, D. bitterly criticizes the Petersburg “circles” for their trifling and self-important behavior. As Part Three begins, the narrator describes the advent of the “fete” (including both a series of literary readings and a ball” in a tone quite similar to this. Despite the transparent pointlessness of both the “fete” and the planned revolutionary activity, a sense of inexorability sets in, as though the book is marching to a pre-ordained conclusion. The story is told from a standpoint definitely beyond the events, and every now and then, through the course of the book, the narrator has slipped forward in time to let us know this is all steering toward a depressingly absurd denouement. And so the first sub-chapter ends, speaking of the fete: “How could one not subscribe? Everyone subscribed” (463).
Three people are planned to speak at the fete – first Karmazinov, who delivers a predictably sentimentalist, self-important “merci” to his reading public (none of whom, if the narrator is to be trusted, were actually there); then the elder Verkhovensky, whose soft-liberal affirmation of Russia bores everyone, and last, an unnamed radical “maniac” academic whose only distinguishing quality is a propensity for throwing his fist in the air and banging it down again. But what really sets the tone is the impromptu poetics of the drunken Lebyadkin, who marches out on the stage and preempts everyone else, before disappearing amid a chorus of boos, threats and personal attacks. Most of the bystander “members of the public,” which Yulia Markovona, the governor’s wife, thought would be educated by these speeches end up heckling or laughing at unintended-to-be-funny parts of their respective speeches. A greater part of the crowd spends the majority of the time complaining that an advertised “buffet” actually is not included in the price of admission. The narrator thinks the crowd is packed with an unsavory element that has been brought in by the revolutionaries for the reason of starting a riot.
Of course the governor’s wife is devastated, and the dance goes even less well, as very few “legitimate society” types even show up, and even more buffet-seekers and the previously mentioned unsavory element dominate. Then, in the midst of a pedantic allegorical dance, designed to show the evolution of Russian literary and cultural ideals, the news comes in that a fire has been set in the part of the village where Lebyadkin and his lame sister live. It seems clear that this is the result somehow of Fedya the convict having killed them because Pyotr implicitly asked him to, because he thought Stavrogin wanted him to (whether he did is never made clear). The fire also seems somehow to involve the revolutionary program. And thus, all three strands of narrative – political, cultural and social, are drawn together. If that all makes sense you’ve been paying attention.
After the Lebyadkins’ deaths are confirmed, Pyotr is sure he’s helped Stavrogin, who meets with Liza and apparently spends the night with her. She then spurns him and he departs for Petersburg. The revolutionaries meet, and Pyotr argues that the reason their recent provocations have failed is because Shatov is an informer, or will soon become one. Plans are made to kill him, and Erkel, the lackey functionary, is sent to his house to tell him to meet them at 6pm on the outskirts of town, where he has buried a printing press. The night before that, Shatov’s estranged wife (who has been living in Geneva) appears and gives birth to a child (apparently Stavrogin’s). Virginsky’s wife acts as a midwife for the delivery. They tell Kirillov that it’s time he kills himself, and write his note taking the blame for everything (up to and including Shatov’s death).
In the final pages, the principal characters drop like flies (or, more appropriate, like pigs off cliffs). Here’s a quick summary:
Karmazinov– not heard from after his “Merci” speech at the fete.
Andrei Antonivich Von Lembke and his wife Yulia Mikhailovna– disgraced as regional governor and village socialite, respectively – a new unnamed “senator” arrives and seems likely to take power.
Ignat and Marya Lebyadkin – Murdered by Fedya the Convict during the arson.
Fedya the Convict – Murdered by someone else (I forgot).
Lizaveta – Spends the night with, and then refuses Stavrogin after the Lebyadkins’ murders.
Mavriky – Not really mentioned in the novel’s denouement, or I missed it if he was.
Shatov – Murdered by Pyotr V’s “fivesome” on the outskirts of the town, near where he had buried his printing press.
Kirillov – Writes a suicide note and kills himself– Pyotr V. and he struggle for a time but after Pyotr leaves, Kirillov shoots himself in the head. His note claims responsibility for all the town’s troubles, but the truth is soon discovered.
Stepan Trofinovich Verhovensky – Goes crazy, departs for the countryside to be with “the people”; raves more and more, affirms his faith in a moving deathbed confession; dies of brain fever.
Virginsky – After participating in Shatov’s murder, loses his nerve and questions the entire purpose of the “fivesome,” repeatedly shouting “this is not it!”
The “little Jew named Lyamshin” – confesses the entire conspiracy to the authorities.
Liputin – Participate in Shatov’s murder and is afterwards arrested in Petersburg when Lyamshin confesses.
Pyotr Stapanovich Verhovensky – Escapes to Petersburg and is never caught.
Nikolai Stravrogin – Wracked by guilt at what he’s more or less set in motion, hangs himself in his family’s mansion’s garret.
Varvara Stravrogin – In the final scene of the novel, discovers her son’s body hanging in the garret and faints.
Dasha – After Liza’s denial of Stavrogin, the presumptive future wife of Stavrogin, until his dead body is discovered.
In a lot of ways, this book has the feel of a grand, novel-length Shakespearean tragedy. Its principal character Stavrogin has qualities of several of Shakespeare’s greatest – certainly Hamlet’s inwardness, Iago’s amorality, Prince Hal’s carousing. And the elaborate and tripartite relationship established among the plot threads comes marvelously together in a strangely convincing panoply of violence and death. The novel’s “Conclusion” ends with the gruesome discovery of Stavrogin’s body dangling from a rope.
The book’s final line – “our medical men, after the autopsy, completely and emphatically ruled out insanity” (678) functions on so many levels it’s hard to articulate. It seems clearly and decisively to let the reader know that the “demons” of the title are not simply mental illnesses, or people who suffer from them. At another level, though, it also seems to imply that the society that gave rise to this story (and by extension ours) suffers from such extreme forms of collective neurosis, perhaps even requires them for us to have a coherent vision of our own subjectivity, that we could not possibly even know insanity when we saw it.
I will finish reading what Frank has to say about this novel (several chapters worth) and then write an overall reaction to novel.