“Strike me dead, the track has vanished, Well, what now? We’ve lost the way, Demons have bewitched our horses, Led us in the wilds astray.”
This poem by Alexander Pushkin, quoted in the epilogue, provides an excellent preamble to the story. Devils or also called Demons or Possessed, is Dostoevsky’s platform to address the political and moral nihilism of his day. Dostoevsky saw the damage both these concepts were doing to society. Political nihilism was paving the way to the destruction of the established structure of governance while moral nihilism was unsettling the established conventional behaviors and beliefs. Dostoevsky was not a prig, but he was an anti-nihilist. He saw nihilism as a dangerous concept that will destruct the future of Russia.
Dostoevsky was a believer, but he was liberal minded toward the atheists. However, he was positively antagonistic towards nihilism as can be observed in the story. He was cynical towards these moral and political nihilists and saw them as misguided enthusiasts whose idea of reform was the destruction of established political and social institutions along with the accepted social values and principles. To Dostoevsky, they were the seeds of anarchy.
Dostoevsky employs five main characters to weave his story and establish his point. We first meet Stepan Trofimovich, a liberal idealist. He was once a celebrated professor whose liberal ideas have unwittingly contributed to the cultivation of nihilism in his younger audiences. His liberal ideas take root in both his son, Pyotr, and Nikolai Stavrogin, the son of his benefactress. Stepan plays a large role in the story, both seen and unseen. His liberal ideas go through the test of time and Dostoevsky shows that the aged Stepan doesn’t share the same views as the young Stepan. And what is more? Dostoevsky also shows that while both Stepan’s “students”, Pyotr and Nikolai, embrace nihilistic ideals, their convictions differ from one another.
Nikolai Stavrogin is the chosen hero of the story. He is an intelligent, handsome, strong, and fearless atheist, who, though outwardly refined, is morally decayed with his nonbelief in good or evil. Dostoevsky portrays Nikolai with such a psychological intensity exposing the innermost cruelty of a man of intellect. Both Pyotr Stepanovich and Ivan Shatov, the two conflicting characters, are disillusioned by Nikolai. Pyotr sees him as the perfect figurehead for a socialist revolutionary movement, and he tries to lure Nikolai to his camp. Shatov sees him as one who can inspire Russia to a “Christian regeneration”. Dostoevsky shows that Nikolai is nothing but a hypocrite, who is waving between the two ends, belief and nonbelief, as it suits him. (The censored chapter “At Tikhon’s” which was luckily included in my edition establishes this point well.)
Pyotr Stepanovich is the driving force of the story. The entire action of the story is revolved around him. He is the antagonist, a shrewd man who is skilled in manipulating and monopolizing others to achieve his idealistic ends. Pyotr belongs to a secret society that seeks to overthrow the established government and its governance structure. Their intention is “systematically undermining the foundations, systematically destroying society and all principles; with the idea of nonplussing everyone and making hay of everything, and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and skeptical though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in their hands, raising the standard of revolt and relying on a complete network of quintets, which were actively, meanwhile, gathering recruits and seeking out the weak spots which could be attacked.” In other words, the sole intention of these revolutionists is to create mayhem and do all possible evil to outrage society into a general uprising against the government and its established political and social institutions. Pyotr claims that his revolutionary movement is guided by communist values, but Dostoevsky shows that he was only a misguided fanatic and that he and his fellow revolutionists have nothing to do with socialism.
Ivan Shatov is the believer. He is Dostoevsky’s voice in the story. A former nihilist himself, he has turned to become a passionate defender of Russia’s “Christian heritage”. But Shatov painfully realizes that it isn’t easy to be of faith and survive in a degenerating society. Shatov is the opposing force of Nikolai and Pyotr, but he is outmatched by them.
Dostoevsky is addressing many questions throughout the story. Stepan is representing the 1840s liberal idealists, who were the first to shoot against faith and beliefs. This baton was next taken by the nihilists, two decades later, in the 1860s. They were taking further steps toward the degeneration of society. Pyotr represents the nihilists. Dostoevsky shows that this isn’t socialism, nor is it progress. It is mere fanaticism and anarchy. Then Dostoevsky goes to show that even the moral and political nihilists are divided in their convictions, as was shown through Nikolai and Pyotr. Nikolai’s and Pyotr’s ideas don’t go hand in hand. Their ambitions differ. Nikolai has no desire for a change of governance like Pyotr. The present condition of life is good for Nikolai as a landowner himself and as an influential wealthy mother behind. And in the middle of all this moral corruption stands those of faith, friendless and vulnerable as Shatov.
Shatov’s death is caused by Pyotr’s hand. And what is more? Even though Pyotr’s accomplices get punished, Pyotr doesn’t. What Dostoevsky was driving at with these incidents cannot be fully fathomed. But I couldn’t help wondering whether he was making a gloomy prediction for the future of Russia. It almost seems that Dostoevsky saw that, in the name of socialism, anarchy, which eventually turns into despotism, establishing itself, suppressing the voice of those with opposing views, and Christian heritage being supplanted by nihilistic idealism.
Devils is, undoubtedly, the most brutally written work by Dostoevsky. The fiery and intense psychological portrayal of all the characters made the reading quite hard to endure at times. But what is interesting is that I was both shocked and fascinated at the same time. Such opposite emotions can be roused only by a masterpiece. And alongside Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Devils is a masterpiece written by an unparalleled genius.