Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 824
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 meaning and significance to life. In his confession, Stavrogin reveals the obsession with which all amoral individuals are possessed, the need to punish themselves. He had considered shooting himself but decides instead to marry a completely unsuitable woman as a way of making his suffering last longer. Dostoevski’s point is that masochism is the inevitable result of atheism, because atheism contains no transcendent value. That, then, means indifference, tedium, and ultimate self-annihilation.
Beyond the embodiment of individual, spiritual masochism, Stavrogin represents the social masochism of nihilism. He joins with the revolutionaries, those possessed with fanatical ideas, a possession compared by Dostoevski to the devils that drive the swine over the cliff in the New Testament. Stavrogin and the revolutionaries disrupt a provincial town with a series of spectacular scandals, but, in the end, Stavrogin finds that he is beyond caring about even the most wildly destructive of the radicals’ plans. He has no spiritual center and can in the blink of an eye annihilate in his mind his interest in nihilism. That, then, is the basic flaw in the revolutionaries’ doctrine: Its indifference to positive values is the seed of its own destruction. Nihilism cannot believe in anything, especially itself. It can only annihilate everything, including itself.
Pyotr Verkhovensky might be seen as the sadistic complement to Stavrogin’s masochism. The son of a faded provincial liberal, Verkhovensky arrives in his family’s town with grandiose plans for a revolution. He has a kind of genial charisma, and the radical group (formerly led by his father) quickly follows his lead. Their mean-spiritedness results in ugly incidents, such as the desecration of an icon and the setting of fires. When a member of the group decides to leave as a result of a change of mind, Verkhovensky maneuvers the others into murdering him, after which he flees, leaving the rest to suffer the consequences.
Verkhovensky is modeled on the self-righteous dreamers who had infected Russian politics in Dostoevski’s youth and who had been indicted thoroughly in Fathers and Sons. The significance of this portrait is that Verkhovensky is more than an example of Dostoevski’s ability to create political satire. Verkhovensky is the culmination of Dostoevski’s treatment of the interrelations of politics and religion, an embodiment of the idea that no social or political progress can be made without individual moral and spiritual regeneration. In using the disintegration of Verkhovensky’s active participation in his home town to show how the political ideals of the Russian left are bankrupt, Dostoevski indicates that the real problem lies in the spiritual emptiness of the revolutionaries themselves.
Just as there are two main characters in the novel, so there are two stories. One is about the few days in August during which nasty events in a provincial town take place. The other is the past action of all the characters who people the present moment in that provincial town. There is a constant interplay of these stories, and events from one expand the meaning of the other. It is a very unique, complex, and artistically satisfying structural device and, along with the two-main-character strategy, makes The Possessed one of Dostoevski’s greatest creations.