Set in a small provincial town, the 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 Verkhoevensky 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 Verkhoevensky 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.
- "Awesome McCool" Name: Pyotr Verkhovensky, whose family name is formed from "verkhovenstvo", which means "supremacy" in Russian.
- 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.
- The Confidant: Darya Shatova acts as one for Nikolai Stavrogin.
- 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.
- Downer Ending: To a certain degree, Verkhoevensky 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: Petr Stepanovic, 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.
- 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.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Karmazinov is widely seen as a caricature on fellow writer, Ivan Turgenev.
- One-Word Title
- Psycho for Hire: Fedka The Convict, psychotic murderer and robber, who acts as paid muscle for Verkhovensky's gang.
- 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.
- Ripped from the Headlines: Demons is a blatant fictionalization of Sergey Nechayev's case.
- Straw Nihilist: Pretty much all the young radicals (although Stavrogin and Verkhovensky stand out).
- Ten Paces and Turn: Nikolay Stavrogin duels Gaganov over a family insult. During the duel, Stavrogin intentionally fires into the air, which infuriates Gaganov.
- 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.