Wednesday, October 14, 2009

a review of DEVILS by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

For me, the most fascinating thing about Devils by Dostoyevsky, are the power plays seen in many of the key relationships. Nothing is upfront, everything is subterfuge -- whether it's in Peter Stepanovich's manipulation of the governor's wife, Yulia Mikhailovna or Varvara Patrovna's often mean-spirited way of controlling the weak-willed but incredibly sweet-natured Stepan Trofimovich.

It's a huge novel. The Oxford Press softcover edition is 756 pages, and it requires some focus. It isn't a demanding novel, however, but a surprisingly snappy read. The story begins with an introduction of Stepan Trofimovich, the above-mentioned weak-willed character. A well-traveled, well-educated man, who gained some fame/notoriety early on because of some political lectures he had given early in his career, he came into the service of Varvara Patrovna, a matriarch in the town in which the novel is set, who basically held him fast to her with money and by holding over his head his impetuous, overwrought emotional letters of anger and regret with her. It's a frustrating relationship to watch. Stepan Trofimovich is essentially tied down with comforts to a lifestyle that in his early lectures he actually railed against. This wealthy widow even dresses him, choosing his wardrobe and making disparaging remarks when he strays from it. And he is an intelligent enough man to recognize it, referring to himself early in the novel as "an ordinary hanger-on -- just a parasite." This sense of self-hatred pervades and is explored through the first part of the novel.

It isn't until Peter Stepanovich Verkohvensky, Stepan Trofomivich's grown son, raised from an infant in a distant town, also educated and well-traveled, appears on the scene at the end of the first part of the novel, in a chapter titled "The Wise Serpent" does the story, already interesting and curious, kick into a higher gear.

In addition to Peter Stepanovich, Nikolai Vsevoldovich Stavrogin, Vavara Petrovna's son, also appears. We're introduced to him earlier, actually -- a willful, ill-mannered, strong, and handsome young man who shows no respect for behaving in a traditional fashion. He is also the most tragic figure, desperate for some strong moral guidance, but cynical to any who might offer and also considering himself throughout the story, completely unworthy.

Dostoyevesky's played with this notion before in Crime and Punishment. Stavrogin has done something horrible in his past, and this act has bred a self-hatred and cynicism towards the world that frees him to do whatever strikes him in the moment. It's what many people dream they wish they could do, but it has uprooted his spirit. His attitude towards family, religion, town, nation, any ideal whatsoever, is not present. He's an incredibly charismatic figure, but is ultimately tragic because he cannot connect with anything -- try as he might. Most of his over-the-top actions throughout the novel seems to be some attempt to wrest a sense of purpose from his life and from the world.

Peter Stepanovich attempts to behave in the same way -- but it isn't motivated by a deepfelt wish for a spiritual connection, but rather a vicious self-centeredness. It results in a coldly detached method of manipulation and deceit and eventually murder.

All but Peter Stepanovich seem to wish for connection, and most are manipulated by Peter Stepanovich by playing to their weaknesses or sins: Yulia Mikhailovna, for example, is easily controlled by her vanity, her wish to appear a particular way to the town, and -- it would seem ultimately -- to herself. She wants to matter.

That seems to be it. The novel is about characters hungering for a connection, characters who want to commit to something higher, but the atheism professed by a number of them, the rationalistic approach to living, or the weakness of will, the desire for comfort or control, keep them from it.

The delight of the story is also in the fact that it is actually a surprisingly funny novel. It gets dark towards the end -- very dark, actually -- and then is redeemed by Stepan Trofimovich's final quest, his ultimate break from the control of Varvara Patrovna and his connection with regular folk, most particularly a woman who sells bibles, a gracious, giving woman who he connects with because she simply and easily gives with no regard for herself.

A strong novel, written with humor and insight.