(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Possessed is the most topical of Dostoevski’s novels and stories. During the 1860’s, the radical fringe of the Russian intelligentsia attempted to implant the ideology known as “nihilism” into the general revolutionary fervor caused by the recent abolition of serfdom. Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing”) was concerned more with destroying societal forms and traditions than with establishing something positive. The destructive anger of this group had been the topic of several novels already published, the most important of which was Ivan Turgenev’s Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867). The Possessed, therefore, is both an attack on nihilism, with sharp caricatures of contemporary revolutionaries, and an attempt to create the great antinihilist novel. Dostoevski’s most important innovation to the antinihilist novel is the structural device of having two chief characters. These two, Pyotr Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin, embody the two sides of Dostoevski’s political anger, his hatred of the Russian revolutionary left, and his violent distrust of the Russian aristocracy.

In addition to his key role in this novel, Stavrogin is a foreshadowing of characters to appear in Dostoevski’s last novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In The Possessed, this character is obviously another version of Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), but whereas Raskolnikov is a weak man without values and direction, Stavrogin has a strong character but is still without values and goals. Through him, Dostoevski pictures the consequences of atheism, especially those destructive consequences particularly suffered by the strong and intelligent. Such persons begin in a vague moral drift, progress to a reliance on individual goals, develop from this a self-centeredness, and eventually come to a cosmic self-indulgence that forever separates the individual from moorings of universal truth, the only kind of truth that would bring...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

The Possessed Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Stepan Verhovensky, a self-styled progressive patriot and erstwhile university lecturer, is at loose ends in a provincial Russian town until Varvara Stavrogin hires him to tutor her only son, Nikolay Stavrogin. Stepan’s radicalism, which is largely a pose, shocks Varvara, but the two become friends. Varvara’s husband dies, and Stepan looks forward to marrying his friend. They travel together to St. Petersburg, where they move in daringly radical circles. After attempting without success to start a literary journal, they leave St. Petersburg, Varvara returning to the province and Stepan, in an attempt to assert his independence, going to Berlin. After four months in Germany, Stepan, realizing that he is in Varvara’s thrall emotionally and financially, returns to the province to be near her.

Stepan becomes the leader of a small group that meets to discuss progressive ideas. The group includes Shatov, the independent son of one of Varvara’s serfs, a liberal named Virginsky, and Liputin, a man who makes everyone’s business his business. Nikolay, whom Stepan had introduced to progressivism, goes on to school in St. Petersburg and from there into the army as an officer. He resigns his commission, however, returns to St. Petersburg, and lives in the slums. When he returns home, at Varvara’s request, he insults the members of Stepan’s group. He bites the ear of the provincial governor during an interview with that dignitary. Everyone concludes that he is mentally unbalanced, and Nikolay is committed to bed. Three months later, apparently recovered, he apologizes for his actions and again leaves the province.

Some months later, Varvara is invited to visit a childhood friend in Switzerland, where Nikolay is paying court to her friend’s daughter, Lizaveta. Before the party returns to Russia, Lizaveta and Nikolay break their engagement because Nikolay is interested in Dasha, Varvara’s servant woman. In Switzerland, Nikolay and Stepan’s son, Pyotr, meet and find themselves in sympathy on political matters.

A new governor, von Lembke, comes to the provinces. Stepan is lost without Varvara, and he visibly deteriorates during her absence. Varvara arranges for Dasha, who is the sister of Shatov and twenty years old, to marry Stepan, who is fifty-three years old. Dasha submits passively to her mistress’s wishes, and Stepan reluctantly consents to the marriage, but he balks when he discovers from a member of his group that he is being used to cover up Nikolay’s relations with the girl.

New arrivals in the province include Captain Lebyadkin and his disabled sister, Marya. One day, Marya attracts the attention of Varvara in front of the cathedral, whereupon Varvara takes Marya home with her. She learns that Nikolay had known the Lebyadkins in St. Petersburg. Pyotr assures Varvara, who is suspicious, that Nikolay and Marya Lebyadkin are not married.

Using his personal charm and representing himself as a mysterious revolutionary agent returned from exile, Pyotr begins to dominate Stepan’s liberal friends and becomes, for his own scheming purposes, the protégé of Yulia, the governor’s wife. Nikolay at first follows Pyotr in his political activities but then turns against the revolutionary movement and warns Shatov that Pyotr’s group is plotting to kill Shatov because of information he possesses. Nikolay confesses to Shatov that on a bet he had married Marya Lebyadkin in St. Petersburg.

As a result of a duel between Nikolay and a local aristocrat who hates him, a...

(The entire section is 1445 words.)