The Possessed opens on a darkened stage. The spotlight picks out a Narrator, who welcomes the audience into the home of a nobleman’s widow, Varvara Stavrogin, who for twenty years has been boarding the widowed author and professor Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, whose influence is soon felt. There he is joined by friends who talk about reforming the social, political, and religious life of Russia. Often declaring that he will not be led by the nose, Gaganov remains unconvinced of their claims. Varvara’s wayward son, Nicholas Stavrogin, shocks the group by literally grabbing him by the nose and dragging him around the room. Pressed to apologize, he leans over, as if to whisper, and bites Gaganov on the ear.
Varvara plans to marry Stepan, age fifty-three, to the twenty-year-old Dasha Shatov and secures their agreement in principle. The match is unmade, however, when Stepan’s long-absent son Peter Verkhovensky returns and unwittingly discloses his father’s misgivings. Varvara bans Stepan from her home.
Peter also reveals that Stavrogin had avenged insults to a lame girl in a St. Petersburg cabaret and taken her into his care. Thus Lisa Drozdov, the current object of his affections, is encouraged to entertain the marriage proposal of Maurice Nicolaevich. Ivan Shatov, whom Stavrogin had rescued from poverty and then cuckolded, boldly slaps Stavrogin on the face, without rebuff.
The further spiritual disintegration of Stavrogin is played out in the second part. He is seen condemning the religious optimism of suicide-prone Alexey Kirilov and is chided by Shatov for his newfound atheism. He moves to reveal his secret marriage to the lame girl and to cut off support for her and her drunken brother. In a painful meeting with his half-crazed wife, he reveals that he had no real love for her. The escaped convict Fedka offers to kill the pair, but Stavrogin spurns his suggestion.
Accepting Gaganov’s challenge to a duel, Stavrogin deliberately fires over his head and feigns a small wound to assuage his opponent’s anguish. Women are...
(The entire section is 853 words.)