At the beginning of the year, my goal was to read all of Dostoevsky’s major works that I hadn’t read. As my list attests, it didn’t really work out; Demons is the first of his novels I’ve completed this year, and I didn’t leave much time to spare. In retrospect, though, it’s probably for the best; Demons was dense—and entertaining—enough to fulfill my big Russian book needs for a while.
Demons is different from Dostoevsky’s other major novels in that it is, at least on the surface, a political novel. It follows a fairly large cast of characters through a period of several months of upheaval, as a radical contingent of anarchists and nihilists try their best to overthrow the established government through a combination of civil unrest, labyrinthine schemes, and, eventually, murder. Of course, this is reductive: even if you don’t quite follow all the political machinations, the focus is, as always, on the people caught up in the intrigues, and the ideas and emotions that drive them. Calling Demons a political novel undersells it, and probably would have put me off of it had I not heard that it was also a comedy. It is, incidentally, but engaging it expecting Catch-22 is a mistake. The humor here is of a more vicious sort—brutal satire, bleak jokes, sad (and wicked) clowns; these are the main attractions here.
And the characters here are some of Dostoevsky’s richest: Stepan Trofimovich, a former rabble-rouser, reduced by years and unrequited love to a delusional shell of his former self; his son, Pyotr Stepanovich, a nihilist anarchist who disguises his own malicious ideas beneath the veneer of a clown; Kirillov, whose dedication to his nihilism makes Pyotr look like a poser; Nikolai Stavrogin, the mysterious figure whose messianic bearing is integral to the anarchists’ plot to bring down the government, but who may be interested in other things; and dozens of others.
Demons is, in some ways, a very unsubtle book. Unlike The Brothers Karamazov, wherein Dostoevsky gives Ivan the atheist the stronger case, even though Dostoevsky himself agrees with Alyosha, the saint, there’s never any question who Dostoevsky sides with in Demons. The anarchists are indeed misguided, but in unique ways. Repeatedly, it’s made clear that there is ultimately nothing to the ideology of the anarchists but a desire for upheaval and childish rebellion, but, in spite of this, they never come across as straw men. This is partially because Dostoevsky never spells out what the characters are thinking. Sure, there are long monologues and philosophical conversations, but the characters that people this novel are essentially as unknowable as a real human, in the best possible way. When the denouement arrives, it’s completely unpredictable and strangely inevitable, in the same way real life often is.
There’s no way to really share what this book is like in a short review, but I’d like to note that Demons is, like all of Dostoevsky’s major novels, a religious one. It’s a novel about God where God exists mostly in the margins. Not one of the major characters is religious, and the only one who has any sort of spiritual experience at all is brutally dispatched. It’s a novel of emptiness, and God is conspicuous in his absence. Stepan Trofimovich, in the scene excerpted above, is the only character to receive redemption, but what a glorious moment it is when a single point of light pierces through the darkness, illuminating the entire novel and showing what might have been, before disappearing as more men choose to be controlled by their demons instead.