Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

In his stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevski’s novel, Albert Camus came close to reconciling existentialism with Christianity. From the materials of Russian nihilism he fashioned a drama whose characters face the existential quandary of how to carry on in a world where old beliefs have died and traditional values seem meaningless. Absurdities abound in such a world: Nobles lack nobility, believers have doubts, revolutionaries despise the people, intellectuals go mad, love turns perverse, justice is defeated, and violence subverts order. The realization of such absurdity may move an existential hero to the kind of despair that leads intellectually to nihilism and physically to suicide. The fundamental question of existential ethics is, indeed, whether suicide is proper, if life is meaningless.

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The theme of suicide runs through the whole play. The young girl whom Stavrogin befriended in St. Petersburg, after being unjustly punished and perversely loved, takes her own life. Kirilov discusses suicide with several characters. His willingness to attach a false meaning to his own long-contemplated suicide shows how overwhelming and nauseating a consciousness of absurdity can be for a sensitive thinker. The play reaches its climax in Stavrogin’s suicide by hanging.

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Stavrogin is a contemporary hero inasmuch as his spiritual deterioration symbolizes the course of modern civilization. Of noble birth, the son of a czarist general, Stavrogin is blessed with wealth, strength, good looks, intelligence, and considerable charisma, for even his enemies find him a compelling leader. Yet he loses his faith, squanders his wealth, misplaces his affections, and misuses his strength in virtually every application. As willful debauchery wastes his physical, moral, and mental capacities, he becomes entangled in increasingly violent, mad, mistaken, and absurd situations. He is undone by his own actions.

A similar decline is to be discerned in Peter’s career. Unloved by his father Stepan, the liberal humanist, Peter eschews ideas for action. He thinks that his revolution will replace boredom with justice and love with science. In reality, however, it brings wanton destruction and wrongful death. Even before the revolution, he deliberately disrupts Stepan’s relations with Dasha, as well as Stavrogin’s relations with his mother and Lisa. With his own hands he kills the good Shatov, and he precipitates the deaths of his revolution’s other victims.

Camus explores in this play the psychological and intellectual sources of modern man’s frustration. Though he wants to love and to build, modern man often fails at both, floundering in neurosis and nihilism. Camus’ condemnation of these modern follies is emphasized by the contrasting values exhibited by the more authentic characters, such as Bishop Tihon and the Shatovs. The Shatovs’ family had been broken, in a sense, by Stavrogin’s adulterous lust. Yet the wife returns to her husband, and he extends genuine love to her and her bastard son. Their daughter Dasha never loses her faith, her sense of honor, or her ability to love. Ivan summons the intellectual honesty and personal courage to reject political fanaticism. Having penetrated the delusions of revolutionaries and atheists, he emerges as an existential hero who manages to regain honesty, freedom, and love.

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