Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Demons

Go To
"When Stavrogin believes, he does not believe that he believes. And when he does not believe, he still does not believe that he does not believe."
Alexei Kirillov
Demons (Бесы, also translated under the titles The Devils and The Possessed) is a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was first published as a serial in The Russian Messenger in 1871–2.

Set in a small provincial town, Demons concerns a group of revolutionaries led by Pyotr Verkhovensky who plan to usher a revolution of some sort but explode as a series of personal connections between them weakens discipline, driving Verkhovensky to seek aid from Nikolai Stavrogin, a dissolute liberal nobleman and purported Prodigal Hero who he sees as the charismatic leader who could bind the cause and heal disputes. However, Stavrogin is himself highly schismatic and divided, reeling from secret trauma and is reluctant to take the role Verkhovensky tasks for him.

Drawing inspiration from the trial of Sergei Nechaev and the actions of several nihilist terrorists, Dostoevsky initially intended the book as a political pamphlet but as he wrote the book, he gradually departed from his original idea and devoted himself to exploring his complex cast of characters. The novel was originally published in English and French under the title of The Possessed by which it was known for the majority of the 20th Century, leading to adaptations for the stage by Albert Camus under Les possédés (later adapted for film by Andrezj Wajda). A chapter excised from original publication for its controversial content has since appeared in later editions as an Appendix, titled Stavrogin's Confession which has also been published separately.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Accomplice by Inaction: "Fedka the convict" bugs Nikolai Stavrogin for some money, and Stavrogin eventually complies. Afterwards, Stavrogin realizes why Fedka was asking for the money—in a very indirect way, Fedka was offering to kill Stavrogin's wife and brother-in-law in exchange for cash. Realizing this, Stavrogin leaps into action and... does nothing, until his wife and brother-in-law die at Fedka's hand. He outright says, the morning after, that even if he isn't legally guilty of the murders, he considers himself morally guilty.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Though it plays out in different ways depending on the situation, just about every romantic pairing in the book has this dynamic to some degree.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Verkhovensky definitely seems to be coded this way, at least according to the stereotypes of the day. He's friendly with and trusted by many of the town's women but never shows any attraction towards any of them, is slightly effeminate in appearance (he has "thin, rather long blond hair and a wispy, barely evident moustache and beard"), is noted for his manners, good dress, and chattiness, and, most importantly, presents an anguished Love Confession to Stavrogin which is hard to read as anything but romantic. (See Ho Yay on the YMMV tab for details.) Given that he's also the novel's Big Bad, these traits would probably qualify him as at least a Sissy Villain, if not an outright Depraved Homosexual.
  • Anyone Can Die: About half the main cast has been wiped out by the end of the book, most of them in the last few chapters. Lebyadkin and Marya Timofeevna are murdered by Fedka, Fedka himself is killed mysteriously outside of town, Lizaveta is beaten to death by a mob who blame her for the Lebyadkins' deaths, Shatov is murdered by the fivesome, Kirillov shoots himself and takes the fall for Shatov's murder, Stepan Trofimovich dies of an illness after striking out on his own, Marya Ignateevna and her newborn child die after hunting for Shatov in the cold, and Stavrogin hangs himself. It's a bit of a downer.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Two passages from The BibleLuke 8:32-36, about Jesus exorcising a man of his demons and sending them into a herd of pigs, and Revelation 3:14-18, about how being morally "lukewarm" is worse than being hot or cold—come up at various points in the book.
  • Author Tract: In Dostoevsky's own words, the book was originally conceived as a "novel-pamphlet" about what he perceived as a growing ideological problem in Russia.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Strongly Subverted with the handsome Stavrogin, who is thought of this way by many of the characters but who turns out to be almost totally defined by his lack of moral conviction.
    "I was also struck by his face: his hair was somehow too black, his light eyes were somehow too calm and clear, his complexion was somehow too delicate and white, his color somehow too bright and clean, his teeth like pearls, his lips like coral—the very image of beauty, it would seem, and at the same time repulsive, as it were. People said his face resembled a mask..."
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Ensign Erkel is young and innocent-looking, extremely quiet, and seemingly a sincerely sweet person who gives most of his money to his mother and is pitied even by the novel's narrator (who pretty much seems to loathe the other radicals). He's also completely taken in by Verkhovensky, and therefore has absolutely no qualms about killing for the cause.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: The gang of terrorists starts as anarchists, but throughout the novel they change their goal from destroying the authorities and liberating everyone to installing a crueler regime and enslaving 90% of the population.
  • Byronic Hero: Stavrogin is a particularly nasty deconstruction; it's lampshaded early in the book that this character type was common in Russian literature (and society) at the time.
  • Character Filibuster: This being a Dostoevsky novel, many characters discourse on their respective political, religious, and artistic views. There's even a minor character named "Filibusterov"!
  • Charity Ball: Yulia Mikhailovna throws one as a pretense to show off her social and cultural connections. It goes disastrously, thanks in part to its being deliberately sabotaged by the radicals.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Verkhovensky mentions to Stavrogin early on that there's an escaped criminal and murderer on the loose in the area. Fedka the Convict later becomes instrumental in bringing about at least a couple of the novel’s many deaths.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Most of the characters take it for granted that Marya Timofeevna is one, but she seems to see through Stavrogin in a way few others can. Shatov, at least, recognizes there's more to her than meets the eye.
  • The Confidant: Darya Shatova acts as one for Nikolai Stavrogin. Also Marya Timofeevna for Shatov, and the narrator for Stepan Trofimovich.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: One of the villains convinces a character who is undergoing an existential crisis to commit suicide and write a note in which he claims to be guilty of crimes actually committed by the villains. Some Fauxlosophic Narration ensues as the characters ponders whether 'tis nobler to be or not to be the fall guy.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Stepan Trofimovich undergoes a deathbed conversion and renounces his former ways, admitting that he's been "lying all [his] life."
  • Decoy Protagonist: The early focus is on Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna, making them decoy deuteragonists.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: From the moment Verkhovensky appears on the scene it's clear to the reader and at least the more perceptive characters that he's a slimy smooth talker willing to flatter anyone to get his way. He still manages to glide through all levels of society with ease, to set his many schemes in motion virtually unimpeded, and is just about the only character to escape completely unscathed in the end.
  • Dirty Commies: A pre-Soviet/Cold War example and probably a Trope Codifier. Dostoevsky's characters hit just about every negative stereotype which would come to be associated with the radical left in the next century.
  • Doorstopper: Like most of Dostoevsky's novels. This one comes in at around 700 pages in most editions.
  • Double-Meaning Title: There has been quite a bit of critical discussion about whether the "demons" of the title are meant to be the radicals themselves, or simply the ideas which have consumed them. (The text itself seems to support the second reading; towards the end Stepan Trofimovich hears a Bible passage about demons being cast out of a man and into a herd of pigs, and remarks that he and the other characters are like the pigs.) It doesn't help that for most of the 20th century the book was alternately translated into English as either The Devils or The Possessed—the whole emphasis of the title was completely reversed depending on which version you happened to pick up.
  • Double Standard: Stavrogin's sexual exploits are an open secret, but it's the women in his life who risk social ruin by getting involved with him. Liza actually attempts to take back some power by using Stavrogin for a one-night stand, even knowing that she'll be punished by society for it.
  • Downer Ending: Verkhovensky becomes a Karma Houdini, convinces his group to murder Shatov, Kirillov and Stavrogin commits suicide, and the appendix of Stavrogin's confession only proves how hollow and empty their adulation of Stavrogin was. About half the cast—including several of the most sympathetic characters, relatively speaking—also die for various reasons, and it's unclear if or how the community is going to rebuild in the wake of the chaos that has just been unleashed upon it.
  • Driven to Suicide: Kirillov develops a whole philosophy centered on the idea of his eventual suicide, and makes no secret of the fact that he plans to kill himself. He does go through with it in the end, though not without some complications. Stavrogin also hangs himself in the end, perhaps as penance for once having driven a young girl to suicide himself.
  • Dystopia Justifies the Means: "Shigalyovism", the philosophy of the terrorist group, argues that it is legitimate to subject 90% of humanity to abject slavery in order that the remaining 10% may enjoy a utopian paradise.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Stavrogin is described as absolutely charming and beautiful, like a prince from a fairy tale, while in fact, he is a depraved murderer, pedophile and rapist.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Anton Lavrentyevich witnesses plenty of the action but participates in very little of it.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: The novel makes it clear that if the radicals ever gain power, the results will be at least as bad as (and probably much worse than) the political and social system they're trying to replace.
  • Genre Shift: The first third of the novel is basically a social satire about the clueless intelligentsia of a nondescript small town. The middle section starts to get more serious as Stavrogin and Verkhovensky enter the scene, but it still retains a strong satirical bent. In the last third the book veers towards full-blown tragedy, complete with a massive death toll.
  • A God Am I: Kirillov's personal philosophy revolves around the idea that by killing himself he will in some sense become God. It makes about as much sense in context.
  • Grande Dame: Varvara Petrovna is a wealthy widow and socialite eager to position herself as a fixture of society and a sponsor of the arts. Tensions occur when Yulia Mikhailovna, the wife of the new governor, tries to edge Varvara out of this role.
  • Gratuitous French: About every second sentence Stepan Tromifovich utters is in French, illustrating his snobbish, sentimental, and "Western" (in the political terms of the day) outlook.
  • Henpecked Husband: Anton von Lembke is a spineless doormat for his wife and is generally a weak-willed person. The narrator says with total contempt that he was a virgin when he married his wife, while she wasn't.
  • Hope Spot: Shatov is reunited with his wife, Marya Ignateevna, and helps her deliver her baby. The experience binds them together emotionally, and they start preparing for their new life together. Then Shatov is murdered, and Marya and the baby get sick and die after she goes out searching for him.
  • The Informant / The Mole: The radicals live in constant fear of informants and spies, whether from the tsarist government or their own ranks. Shatov is eventually murdered on the false pretense that he is one of these.
  • Informed Ability: Nearly every major character is obsessed, to one degree or another, with Nikolai Stavrogin. Each one has had some sort of profoundly moving experience with him—all of which took place, not only before the events of the novel, but even outside the country—and he exerts a lasting, though in most cases unintended and unpredictable, influence over each of them. Yet almost nothing he's seen to do justifies why they hold him in such regard. This is Justified since Dostoevsky is trying to show how people draw attention and influence by projecting their notions on some "leader" or "ideologue".
  • Jumping the Shark: In-Universe, Karamzinov had been one of the greatest Russian writers in the past, but then he jumped the shark.
  • Karma Houdini: Pyotr Verkhovensky, Smug Snake and Manipulative Bastard, causes the death and/or the ruin of the great majority of the other characters, both the positive and the negative ones, either directly or indirectly; by the end of the book, he is the only one who gets away from the massacre unscathed, happy and successful.
  • Lampshade Hanging: One of the secondary characters, Governor Von Lembke, has a habit of writing long, melodramatic novels and subjecting his friends to them. Dostoevsky, a notorious writer of long, melodramatic Russian novels, takes the opportunity to indulge in a bit of self-deprecation:
    "[Von Lembke's relative] was mainly summoned to listen to his novels in secret, intimate readings, would sit it out like a post for six hours on end; sweated, exerted all his strength to smile and not fall asleep; on coming home would lament, together with his long-legged and lean-fleshed wife, over their benefactor's unfortunate weakness for Russian literature."
  • Lemony Narrator: The peripheral narrator makes no secret of his opinions about the events he's describing, and even gets involved himself at a few points. He's also pretty snarky.
  • Loving a Shadow:
    • Many characters love an idea of Stavrogin which has little to do with his real self. He, in turn, has a pretty patronizing view of the women in his life and is caught off guard when they exhibit agency of their own.
    • Stepan Trofimovich tends to project his ideals onto whatever woman he's obsessed with at a given time.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Verkhovensky is the absolute definition of this trope. Nearly all of the chaos of the novel is a deliberate result of his scheming.
  • Meaningful Name: Stavrogin, who is viewed as a savior figure by most of the cast, has a surname derived from the Greek word for "cross."
  • Meet the New Boss: At least the more cynical members of the radical group have no intention of actually improving the world for anyone other than themselves. Shigalyov explicitly proposes a system which would leave 90% of the population enslaved by the remaining 10%.
  • Messianic Archetype: Played With and ultimately Subverted in the case of Stavrogin. Most of the characters view him as a savior figure, but in reality he lacks any sort of moral conviction—and has committed some truly heinous deeds to boot. The more we learn about him, the more it seems he might be more of an Antichrist figure instead.
  • Mood Whiplash: The murder of Shatov and death of Marya Ignateevna and her newborn child occur immediately after the couple have reunited and begun planning their future together.
  • Moral Myopia: A major theme of the novel. The fivesome have convinced themselves that their political worldview justifies any crime, as long as they commit it for "the good of the cause".
  • Murder Makes You Crazy: Most of the fivesome start to mentally deteriorate within days (in some cases, minutes) of the killing of Shatov.
  • Neologism: The narrator coins the term "Shigalyovism" ("Shigalyovschina", in Russian), describing the ideology of a minor character. A member of the town's secret cadre of nihilists, who range from laughable idiots to terrifying psychopaths, Shigalyov argues that it is legitimate to subject 90% of humanity to abject slavery in order that the remaining 10% may enjoy a utopian paradise. The term came into common usage in Russia during the Stalinist era.
  • Nice Guy: Few and far between, but not totally nonexistent.
    • Poor Mavriky is just about the only character who genuinely seems to want to do right by everyone else, especially his fiancée Liza. He suffers for it.
    • The narrator seems like a pretty decent guy too, and is especially devoted to Stepan Trofimovich, even if he can be a bit cranky.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Karmazinov is widely seen as a caricature on fellow writer, Ivan Turgenev. (Though somewhat confusingly, it is indicated at least once that the actual Turgenev exists in the novel's universe as well.) Various other characters are at least partially based on real-life figures as well. Verkhovensky was inspired by the revolutionary Sergei Nechayev, Stavrogin is based on an acquaintance of Dostoevsky's named Nikolai Speshnev, Stepan Trofimovich is a Composite Character based on several liberal intellectuals, etc.
  • Noodle Incident: Shatov and Kirillov journeyed to America together at some point in the past and had a falling-out. This trip is mentioned frequently and seems to have been a turning point for both of them, but the reader never learns any details.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: Stavrogin and Liza have a one-night stand. In an inversion of Stavrogin's usual dynamic with women, this time it's Stavrogin who wants to pursue the relationship further and Liza who admits she's only using him.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: This is one of Verkhovensky's favorite strategies for manipulating and extracting information from people. He's more than happy to be thought of as a fool as long as he gets what he wants from his mark.
  • Off Stage Villainy: Stavrogin really doesn't do… well, much of anything in the course of the novel itself. Off-page, on the other hand, he has apparently committed just about every crime you can imagine in an attempt to alleviate his soul-crushing ennui.
  • One-Steve Limit:
    • Averted with Marya Timofeevna and Marya Ignateevna. Both have significant relationships with Shatov, too.
    • Also averted with the narrator, Anton Lavrentyevich, and the provincial governor, Anton von Lembke (though the former's name is almost never used in-text).
  • One-Word Title: In Russian. In English it has alternately been called The Possessed, The Devils, and simply Demons, though the latter has started to edge the other two out in recent decades.
  • The Power of Love: Becomes a theme towards the end of the book, with the reuniting of Shatov and Marya Ignateevna and then that of Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna. These are pretty much the only truly sweet and hopeful spots amid the book's overwhelming darkness.
  • Princely Young Man: Stavrogin is young, rich, well-connected, and handsome. Another character even compares him to Prince Hal from Shakespeare's Henry IV plays. He receives absolutely no pleasure from any of it.
  • Properly Paranoid: The current and ex members of the radical group are all very aware that they're in danger from the authorities and especially one another at all times.
    • Subverted in the case of Stepan Trofimovich, who believes the authorities have been keeping tabs on him for years when in reality no one takes him seriously enough to be threatened by him.
  • Psycho for Hire: Fedka The Convict, psychotic murderer and robber, who acts as paid muscle for Verkhovensky's gang.
  • Purple Prose: In-Universe, everything Stepan Trofimovich writes (and most of what he speaks) qualifies, much to the annoyance of the other characters. Karmazinov is somehow even worse.
  • Reign of Terror: Dostoevsky saw this as the inevitable outcome of radical movements, as he illustrates in this novel.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The novel argues that violence is a tool of binding revolutionaries together in a single unit, since everyone is equally dehumanized and guilty, and moulded on the path to discipline. The revolutionaries in the book are so obsessed with this form of discipline that they never think of actual political ideology. So they become corrupt and abusive, led by Pyotr Verkhovensky, their ideologist who preaches about the necessity of wiping out millions of people for the victory of the revolution and finally kills one of his own cell members at the suspicion that he could be The Mole. Likewise, the original ideologist of the group, Nikolai Stavrogin who they all believe to be a Byronic Hero is in fact a self-destructive nihilist reeling from guilt at the time he raped a little girl. What is even worse, the leader of this group has a prototype from real life — Sergey Nechaev, one of the most infamous Russian terrorists of that time.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: Strongly averted. The whole novel is essentially an exercise in vilifying the revolution, as Dostoevsky was the first to admit.
  • Riddle for the Ages: It's never revealed whether the cells of radical agitators which Verkhovensky claims to have established all over Russia actually exist, or if the "fivesome" of the novel is the only one. Liputin comes to believe that the other groups are a lie, the narrator speculates that they might actually be real, and Verkhovensky never gives a straight answer either way.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Demons is a blatant fictionalization of Sergey Nechayev's case, Nechayev being the leader of a small group of Russian radicals who killed one of his own followers and claimed he was working with the secret police, when in fact he had just become openly disillusioned with Nechayev and become to question him.
  • Satanic Archetype: What would a book called Demons be without one? Verkhovensky fits this role to a T, with his snakelike personality, his skill in tempting others, and his uncanny ability to slip away just when things get really nasty. (Ironically–or maybe not?–he’s also obsessed with the designated Messianic Archetype, Stavrogin.)
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: The novel is weighted heavily to the cynical end, with almost no admirable characters and a fairly hopeless ending. It's a dark one even by Dostoevsky standards.
  • The Sociopath: Pyotr Verkhovensky, a completely immoral master manipulator, definitely qualifies. Stavrogin probably does too, with his near-total lack of strong emotions or moral scruples, though he at least recognizes it in himself and on some level wishes he was different.
  • Starving Student: Technically Shatov has already been expelled from his university by the time the novel starts, but he's referred to as a student by the other characters and lives in a state of poverty in a barren apartment.
  • Straw Atheist: As usual with Dostoevsky, both Played Straight and Averted at various times. Pretty much all of the main characters are atheists or at least struggle with the concept of faith, but they all express their disbelief in different ways. Some are portrayed as fools, but others are quite eloquent and sympathetic.
  • Straw Nihilist: Pretty much all the young radicals (although Stavrogin and Verkhovensky stand out).
  • Strawman Political: Dostoevsky has often been criticized for his less-than-subtle skewering of socialists, anarchists, and other left-wing radicals in this novel. Middle-of-the-road liberals don’t fare much better.
  • Take That!: The whole character of Karmazinov is one of these directed at Dostoevsky's fellow author Ivan Turgenev, and the pompous farewell address he reads during the fête is a Parody of some of Turgenev's real writings.
  • Ten Paces and Turn: Nikolay Stavrogin duels Gaganov over a family insult. During the duel, Stavrogin intentionally fires into the air, which infuriates Gaganov.
  • Three Faces of Eve: This seems to be more or less how Stavrogin views his three main romantic interests. The self-sacrificing Darya Pavlovna is the Wife, the passionate Lizaveta is the Seductress, and the seemingly-innocent Marya Timofeevna is the Child. None of them end up being quite as simple as he imagines.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Mostly averted with the radicals, but at least a couple of them (Liputin and Erkel, most notably) do seem to be driven by a sincere desire to create a better society. Unfortunately they're also quite naïve, and their sincerity makes it all the more easy for Verkhovensky to manipulate them.
  • Western Terrorists: The plot revolves around such a group. Though it must be noted that the Nihilists of 19th Century Russia were the original terrorists.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Several characters (Karmazinov, Mavriky, the Von Lembkes...) essentially just disappear when their key scenes are over, some of them without even a word of follow-up in the narration.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Stepan Trofimovich is one. It comes off as a totally misguided outlook in the cynical universe of this novel, and is usually Played for Laughs.
  • Would Hurt a Child: In a chapter which was deemed too shocking to even be published in Dostoevsky's lifetime, Stavrogin reveals that he once raped a young girl, who then hung herself. Though he has committed many other crimes, he himself acknowledges that this was his Moral Event Horizon.