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...
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