The Possessed

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Dostoevski had worked for several years on a novel to be called “The Life of a Great Sinner.” This became THE POSSESSED, the story of Nikolai Stavrogin, a spiritual nihilist.

The account of Stavrogin’s degradation is fused with a “pamphlet novel” describing the machinations of a group of political radicals. Taken together, the two plots give a bleak picture of human alienation--from God, from country, from fellow humans. Dostoevski’s Christian ethic and love of Russia are felt everywhere in THE POSSESSED.

Dostoevski got the idea for a novel about political radicals from the murder in 1869 of a young Moscow student named Ivanov by a group of revolutionaries. The rebels were inflamed by a leftist agitator named Sergey Nechaev.

In THE POSSESSED, Nechaev becomes Pyotr Verkhovensky, who takes over an innocuous liberal discussion group from his father and urges the members to perform acts of unrest and incendiarism. One feature of the plot is the disgrace of the writer Karmazinov, intended to represent the great Russian author Ivan Turgenev, who also wrote about Russian nihilism.

Another important revolutionary is Shatov, a devout Russian nationalist crippled by his lack of genuine religious faith. Shatov’s opposite is the engineer Kirillov, who rejects his Russian heritage for Western values. Together, Shatov and Kirillov dramatize the tension in nineteenth century Russia between Slavophiles and Westerners....

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Provincial capital

Provincial capital. Unnamed town that Dostoevski modeled on the city of Tver (located approximately one hundred miles northwest of Moscow), where he spent five months in 1859. The town is the site of much of the novel’s activity, which tends to cluster in one of the following locations: a drawing room in the house of Mrs. Stavrogin (the mother of the novel’s central figure, Nikolai Stavrogin); the rooms inhabited by Stepan Verkhovensky, Nikolai Stavrogin’s childhood tutor and a longtime friend of Mrs. Stavrogin’s; the residence of the provincial governor Von Lembke, an ineffectual bureaucrat who is easily manipulated by the novel’s villain, the radical activist Peter Verkhovensky; and a house on Bogoyavlenskaya Street (the Russian name means “epiphany”). This last location is the residence of several of the novel’s secondary characters: Shatov, Kirillov, and Captain Lebyadkin and his sister Marya. When Nikolai Stavrogin pays a visit to each of these individuals one night, he symbolically revisits his past, for they each reflect one aspect of Nikolai’s futile search for meaning in life. Across the river is a working-class district into which the Lebyadkins move shortly before they are murdered.


Skvoreshniki. Summer estate of Mrs. Stavrogin that is the scene of several dramatic incidents, including a tryst between the married Nikolai Stavrogin and Lisa Tushin, the headstrong woman who loves him desperately. Shatov is murdered in a remote part of the estate, and his body is flung into a pond. Nikolai Stavrogin hangs himself in the attic of the house.


Ustyevo. Small village where Stepan Verkhovensky spends time with a woman who distributes the New Testament. There he renounces atheism and accepts religion before his death.

*St. Petersburg

*St. Petersburg. Russia’s capital city, where Nikolai Stavrogin spends several years of dissipation and where he apparently seduces a young girl, committing a crime that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Yefimyev Mother of God Monastery

Yefimyev Mother of God Monastery. Site of the cell of Bishop Tikhon, a monk who is visited by Nikolai with a confession of his crimes in St. Petersburg.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Dostoevsky relies on a fairly traditional device for the telling of his story: an unnamed and unidentified narrator (a townsman who relates...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

It might be helpful to review the history of the Bolshevik movement and the events of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 (and the events that...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The overriding social concern in this powerful novel, which was also published as The Devils, is nothing less than the fate of...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

World literature is rife with examples of narratives about pre-Revolutionary activity (in English, many of the novels of Sir Walter Scott fit...

(The entire section is 92 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Probably the closest fictional piece to this novel, insofar as any works by Dostoevsky can be viewed as really similar, is the early story,...

(The entire section is 94 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Almost all adaptations are foreign. The Moscow Art Theatre mounted a production entitled Nikolai Stavroqin; it was produced by...

(The entire section is 84 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1955. A comprehensive critical biography. Frank outlines the sociocultural context in which The Possessed was written and evaluates the novel’s response to the corrosive doctrines of Russian nihilism.

Holquist, Michael. Dostoevsky and the Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. An examination of Dostoevsky’s works as studies in the problem of self-identification. Holquist’s discussion of The Possessed highlights Stavrogin’s struggle to resist group pressures and to assert himself.

Ivanov, Viacheslav. Freedom and the Tragic Life: A Study in Dostoevsky. New York: Noonday Press, 1971. An investigation into the religious and mythical foundations of Dostoevsky’s artistic work. Ivanov argues that The Possessed depicts in symbolic forms the relationship between the powers of evil and the daring human spirit.

Mochul’skii, Konstantin. Dostoevsky: His Life and Work. Translated by Michael A. Minihan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. A detailed analytical discussion of the evolution of Dostoevsky’s art. Examines the ways in which The Possessed emerged from two different preliminary projects and describes the central ideological and spiritual themes of the work.

Peace, Richard. Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971. Includes two chapters on The Possessed, in which Peace discusses the historical background for the novel and analyzes the significant interrelationships among the main characters. Concludes that the secondary figures serve to highlight the tragic situation of the central protagonist.