So, Demons comes to an end, but I’m not sure that there was a complete exorcism, although this scene after the murder of Shatov is a start:
…he snatched out the revolver and pointed it straight into the open mouth of the still screaming Lyamshin, whom Tolakchenko, Erkel and Liputin had already seized firmly by the arms, but Lyamshin went on shrieking even in spite of the revolver. Finally, Erkel, somehow bunched up his foulard and stuffed it deftly into his mouth, and thus the shouting ceased. Meanwhile, Tolkachenko tied his hands with a leftover end of rope.
Can we say that anything has been resolved, when we have young people like this in town who gape at suicides for fun?
I remember one of them saying aloud right then that “everything has become so boring that there’s no need to be punctilious about entertainment, as long as it’s diverting.”
Stepan Verkhovensky, the stuffy old-time liberal is aghast at the events in the town, and at the role his son played in organizing it all. He glimpses the truth that his own abstract, self-satisfied intellectual games helped set the stage for it, and shattered by the knowledge, he sets off wandering in Russia, like King Lear on the heath. Still, he remains absurd, childishly seeking a new female protector in the person of bible saleswoman he happens upon, and he still utters French expressions as would any self-respecting member of the intelligentsia. So much for finding the real Russia.
Joyce Carrol Oates has written a fine essay on the novel in which she jeers at critics who insist on judging the book by an arbitrary standard, including Nabokov, and where she draws many parallels with Shakespearean tragedy:
Much has been said of the unevenness of The Possessed: Dostoyevsky has been accused of creating caricatures rather than characters, and of exaggerating the imbecilic nature of his “anarchists.” Several close readings of the novel have convinced me that this is not the case. Of course if The Possessed—like any of Dostoyevsky’s work, beginning with The Double—is measured against the conventional standards of naturalism, it will seem somewhat feverish and improbable: but so will King Lear and Hamlet.
Oates remarks on the frequent comparison of Stavrogin to Prince Hal, a foolish one, she thinks: Hamlet is the more suitable comparison. An exceedingly dark Hamlet, and all the darker for knowledge of the suppressed chapter, At Tikhon’s, in which the jaded superman character, above all normal human feeling, reveals his cruel seduction/rape – it’s not completely clear which – of a twelve-year-old girl who then killed herself. His demonic narcissism and self-destructiveness makes him a perfect front man, for Pytor’s nihilist machinations, as well as being a figure of magentic attraction for him:
No need for education, enough of science! There’s sufficient material even without science for a thousand years to come, but obedience must be set up. Only one thing is lacking in the world: obedience. The thirst for education is already an aristocratic thirst. As soon as there’s just a tiny bit of family or love, there’s a desire for property. We’ll extinguish desire: we’ll get drinking, gossip, denunciation going: we’ll get unheard-of depravity going: we’ll stifle every genius in infancy.
So I wince when I hear anarcho-hipsters singing Pink Floyd’s We Don’t Need No Education, from The Wall. Those who learned the lessons carried on, but in a more organized fashion. They had the courage and ego to create a structure to ensure their place at the vanguard of the destructive wave
In the meantime your whole step is towards getting everything destroyed: both the state and its morality. We alone will remain, having destined ourselves beforehand to assume power: we shall rally the smart ones to ourselves and ride on the backs of the fools. You should not be embarrassed by it. This generation must be re-educated to make it worthy of freedom. There are still many thousands of Shatovs ahead of us.
But if Dostoyevsky is ruthless in his depiction of the nihilists, their hangers-on, and by implication, their progeny in the revolutionaries of 1917, he is not light on the Establishment. Governor von Lembke is an idiot – is he the only thing standing between Russia and the abyss? Well, he has a German name anyway…
And, in the end, what is to be done? I will go on to read just that novel since it appears to be one of the most influential in the history of 19th century Russia.