“Demons” is a novel by the famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky that was first published in the journal “The Russian Messenger” over several months in 1871 and ’72. To this day, it is considered one of Dostoyevsky’s best works and a masterwork. The novel is a commentary on the political nihilism prevalent in Russia in the 1860’s.
The story centers around a fictional Russian town as it becomes the nexus point for an attempted political revolution. The head conspirator, a man named Pytor Verkhovensky organizes the revolution from his secret society, working in the shadows and in the homes of some of the richest people in the town to secretly bring them down.
His moral counterpart, Nikolai Stavrogin is the other dominant figure in the story. An aristocratic man who has recently returned to the town with a new wife and a dark secret. Along with Pytor’s father, Stepan, Nikolai ends up being an unwitting conspirator in the revolution and eventually hangs himself after his lover is killed.
The book continues to be considered a classic of Russian literature to this day and has been adapted many times, including three plays and two film productions.
Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky moves in with his wealthy friend Varvara at her estate, Skvoreshniki in Russia. Stepan is a prominent former teacher whose career was destroyed by government officials. Stepan originally moved into the house to work as a tutor for Varvara’s son Nikolai but stayed on for twenty years. He is now close friends with Varvara.
At the beginning of the novel, Varvara returns from Switzerland where she had been visiting her son. Varvara is upset and begins arguing with Stepan about his financial problems. She tells him that while she was in Switzerland, she discovered that her son has been dating the daughter of her friend, Liza. The friend, Praskovya told her that her young ward, Dasha has also been seeing Nikolai. Varvara wonders if she could arrange an engagement between young Dasha and Stepan. Stepan is unsure about the idea, but agrees to it as the arrangement will help him financially.
However, he soon begins to suspect that he is being married off to Dasha to cover up an illegitimate pregnancy from Nikolai. He begins writing letters to Nikolai and Dasha asking them about the rumors.
A strange mentally disturbed woman named Marya arrives at the house. Marya is also supposedly connected to Nikolai but no one can figure out exactly how. Varvara soon discovers that Marya and Nikolai seem to be married. She asks Marya if she still has the last name of Lebyadkin and the woman replies that she does not. Varvara takes Marya back to her home where Dasha, her older brother Ivan and Stepan are waiting. Praskovya comes to the house and demands to know what the scandal around the mentally disturbed woman is and how it is going to affect her daughter, Liza whom Nikolai was also seeing. Varvara asks Dasha about a large payment that Nikolai was supposed to send through her to Marya’s brother, Captain Lebyadkin.
The Captain arrives at the house as well and further confuses matters by ranting about a dishonor that has to remain unspoken. The butler then announces that Nikolai himself has arrived. But a strange man walks in in Nikolai’s place. The man turns out to be Pytor Stepanovich Verkhovensky, Stepan’s son whom he has not seen in years. Nikolai enters as Pytor is talking and Varvara demands that her son tell her if he is married to Marya. Nikolai merely looks at his mother and kisses her hand before walking over to Marya and explaining to her in calm tones that he is only her friend and not her husband and that she should not be there. He offers to take her home.
After they leave, chaos ensues among the people leftover in the room. Pytor begs Varvara to listen to his account of what has happened. He tells her that Nikolai befriended the Lebyadkins when he was living in Petersburg five years earlier. The crippled, mentally disturbed Marya had fallen in love with Nikolai instantly and he had responded by treating her kindly and letting her have her fantasy in her own mind.
However, Marya soon began to assume that they were really engaged. Nikolai left Petersburg and made arrangements for Marya’s care, including an allowance. Captain Lebyadkin began taking much of the money for himself and misappropriating it. Varvara is overjoyed to hear that Nikolai is not married and that he did such a nice thing for a friend. Pytor questions Captain Lebyadkin until he reveals that he did take the money from his sister. He leaves in disgrace.
Nikolai soon returns and congratulates Dasha on her engagement. He has discovered the impending marriage from Pytor who received a letter from Stepan. Pytor relates that the letter was confusing as Stepan talked about having to get married to make right “another man’s sins”. Varvara is enraged and demands that Stepan leave her house immediately. Another uproar ensues and Ivan, taking advantage of the tumult, suddenly walks over to Nikolai and punches him in the face. Nikolai recovers and moves to fight Ivan but thinks better of it, standing motionless before him. Ivan soon lowers his gaze and walks out of the house. Liza screams and faints on the floor.
Gossip about the scandal surrounding the events of part one spread around society like wildfire and all of the participants in the drawing room drama are forced to stay away from society to avoid more talk. All except Pytor who goes out of his way to make himself as social as possible with the people in the town.
After a week he visits Nikolai and the reader is let in on the true nature of their relationship. Pytor is trying to involve Nikolai in some of his political plans and Nikolai is not very interested. Nikolai leaves his mothers house late one night and walks over to his friend, Kirillov’s house. Unfortunately, this is also the house where Ivan lives.
Nikolai has been the recipient of an offensive letter from Artemy Gaganov, the son of a rich man in town whom he has had a long rivalry with. Nikolai once pulled the boy’s nose as a joke and Artemy has never forgiven him this offense.
The letter was so insulting that Nikolai decides that he must challenge Artemy to a duel. He asks his friend, Kirillov to be his second in the duel. Kirillov is fine with this as he is extremely depressed and has decided to commit suicide at some point in the near future. Nikolai talks to his friend about this decision and the philosophical complications it poses. Nikolai then speaks to Ivan and it is revealed that Nikolai and Marya are indeed married. Ivan is aware of this and this is the reason that he punched Nikolai at Skvoreshniki.
Ivan reveals that he used to look up to Nikolai and that his actions with the women in his life recently have besmirched his reputation and his morals. Nikolai stays calm in the face of Ivan’s anger and tries to defend himself but is not very convincing. Nikolai also warns Ivan who is an enemy of Pytor’s revolutionary club that Pytor may be planning to assassinate him.
Nikolai leaves to pay a call to the Lebyadkins at their new home and bumps into an escaped convict named Fedka on the way. Fedka, who had been waiting for Nikolai on the bridge, tells Nikolai that Pytor sent him to help with the Lebyadkins. Nikolai turns him down, knowing that Fedka’s help would only mean murder. He tells Fedka that he is not paying him a cent and that if he sees him again he will go to the police.
Nikolai continues to the Lebyadkins and tells the Captain that he will be making an announcement of his marriage to Marya in the near future. The Captain is angered by this as it means that he will not be getting anymore free money from Nikolai. Nikolai visits with Marya who becomes frightened of him for some reason and distrusts him. He suggests that she come and live with him in Switzerland but is rebuffed.
In a fit of mental delusion, Marya accuses Nikolai of being an imposter who was sent to kill her. She demands that he tell her what he has done with her “Prince”. In his anger, Nikolai pushes Marya before storming out of the house. Fedka stops Nikolai again and offers his help and Nikolai slams him against a wall before stopping and continuing on his way. Fedka follows and Nikolai stops abruptly, laughing as he empties the contents of his wallet onto the man’s face and walks away.
The following afternoon, the duel takes place with no casualties. Nikolai purposefully misses his shot at Artemy because he does not wish to kill anyone else. Artemy is furious at the insult. Nikolai returns to Skvoreshniki and talks to Dasha, telling her that he gave Fedka money that may be seen as a payment for killing Marya. He asks her if she will still be with him if he chooses to accept Fedka’s murderous offer and Dasha is too horrified to answer.
Meanwhile, Pytor is forming new friendships and political relationships all over town. He befriends the governor’s wife, Julia and enjoys heavy influence over her and her social circle. He and his political club exploit their power over Julie to agitate and disrupt the normal running of society. They start a workers rebellion in a local factory, distribute revolutionary pamphlets and generally create mayhem wherever they go. For this part, the governor, Andrey Antonovich is disturbed by Pytor’s control over his wife but lacks the gumption to do anything about it. His mental health begins to deteriorate from the pressure and stress.
Pytor takes the same tack against his father, slowly driving Stepan closer to insanity by ridiculing him and further destroying his relationship with Varvara. It is revealed that Pytor has told Kirillov to commit suicide because he feels that it will make him a martyr for the revolutionary club. He invites Kirillov, Ivan and Nikolai to a meeting of the club.
At the meeting are a number of philosophers and idealists. Pytor takes control of the meeting when he asks the room if anyone there has real commitment to the revolutionary cause. He asks them if they would inform the police if they discovered an assassination plot. Everyone in the room assures him that they would not. Ivan, Nikolai and Kirillov leave and Pytor rushes after them. He catches up with them and demands to know when Nikolai is going to deal with the Lebyadkins. He has a letter stating that the Captain is going to betray the society. Nikolai refuses and storms away, throwing Pytor to the ground when he tries to stop him.
Pytor, furious, suddenly begins raving and begging Nikolai to join the society. The speech is so passionate that it almost becomes romantic as he tells Nikolai that he is beautiful and tries to kiss his hand. All Pytor cares about is being the leader of the cause and destroying the old government and he does not care much about the specifics of how to run things himself. Nikolai does not agree to join the society but doesn’t refuse again either and Pytor takes it as a sign that he should continue with his plans.
The society throws a gala for the governors wife’s charity. In the days before, the governor’s assistant mistakenly assumes that Stepan is the leader of the society and orders a raid on his house. Stepan goes to complain to the governor and arrives just as a group of protests from the factory are gathering outside the governor’s house. Already suffering from his mental wear, the governor begins responding to the problems in a draconian fashion. Julie returns from a visit to Skvoreshniki with Varvara and Liza and further humiliates her husband by snubbing him in public.
Pytor enters and the governor’s mental state only grows worse. Nikolai also enters and is confronted by Liza who claims that the Captain has been harassing her and has told her that he is Nikolai’s brother-in-law. Nikolai finally confesses that Marya is his wife and tells Liza that he will talk to the Captain. Overhearing this, Varvara is horrified.
The gala takes place the next day with many of societies most influential and wealthy people in attendance. Things begin to go wrong almost immediately. Pytor’s associates, Lyamshin and Liputin act as stewards and allow many low class people in for free. Captain Lebyadkin, hopelessly drunk, gets onto the stage and reads aloud some of his poetry. Liputin realizes how drunk the Captain is and decides to read the poem himself, which turns out to be a poorly written and insulting piece.
The writer Karmazinov, a literary genius and the main speaker at the gala, reads aloud his poem that is meant to be a farewell to his public. He reads for over and hour and the audience is shocked by the poor quality and self-absorbed nature of the writing. Eventually, the reading comes to an abrupt end when someone in the audience shouts about it being rubbish and Karmazinov exchanges insults with the audience. Stepan takes the stage next and the audience turns on him as well, forcing him to storm away.
At this point, the audience is near full protest and an unexpected speaker, a professor from Petersburg, takes the stage. The professor harangues Russia and the government and is dragged off stage by soldiers. More speakers then rush the stage to try and stir the audience into a full protest. Julia is horrified that her gala went so badly and Pytor tries to comfort her. He tries to cheer her up by telling her that the town is already gossiping about another scandal in the form of Liza leaving her home to move into Skvoreshniki with Nikolai. Despite the poor showing at the reading, the gala continues with a ball later that night. Unfortunately, the number of criminal types at the ball has only increased. The governor tries to keep matters under control by launching back into his draconian persona and Julia is offended by this and tries to apologize for him.
Suddenly, news erupts that a fire has broken out in town and everyone stampedes for the exits. The governor, now losing his sanity completely, orders that everyone must be stopped and searched and orders the arrest of his wife when she calls out for him in distress. Julie faints and is carried away and the governor goes to the fire where he is knocked unconscious by falling debris. He survives but goes fully insane and is forced to step down as governor.
The fire dwindles overnight and a rain washes away the rest of it. News spreads that it was started when a Captain, his sister and their maid were stabbed to death and their house set on fire. Liza and Nikolai wake together and hear the news of the fire. Liza is sure that this scandal will effectively end her life and prepares to leave Nikolai. Pytor stops by to tell them of the Lebyadkins’ murder. He claims that Fedka killed them and that he was not involved.
Liza demands to know what he is talking about and Nikolai confesses that he knew that the murder was going to happen but that he was against it. Liza rushes away, heading to the house to see the bodies. Nikolai tries to stop her but Pytor stops him to demand an answer to his earlier question. Nikolai tells him to come back the next day.
Pytor agrees to this and rushes after Liza to stop her. When she reaches the house a mob has formed. The mob has reached the conclusion that Nikolai was responsible for the murders in some way and that Liza, being his woman, is also responsible. She is attacked by the crowd and killed. Society’s anger over the incident is also directed at Julia. Pytor escapes any detection and gossip spreads that Nikolai has left town.
The revolutionary society is on the point of mutiny when Pytor returns to them and tells them of the Captain’s near betrayal of them. He tells them that Ivan is also planning to turn them in. The group agrees that Ivan is going to have to be killed and a plan is devised to lure him to an isolated place where he previously buried the societies printing press. Pytor tells them that Kirillov has agreed to write a note taking all responsibility for the murder before he kills himself.
Meanwhile, Ivan is distracted by the return of his ex-wife, Marie who has unexpectedly shown up at his house pregnant. Unfortunately, he discovers that she is pregnant with Nikolai’s child. Marie gives birth and Ivan helps her deliver it. That night, one of the members of the society, Erkel arrives to bring Ivan to the isolated place nearby Skvoreshniki.
Ivan agrees to go along, thinking that he can convince the society to leave him alone. When they get to the spot, the other members of the society jump Ivan and hold him while Pytor shoots him dead. The members weigh the body down with stones and put it in the pond. One of the conspirators, Lyamshin has a brief attack of guilt and has to be calmed down by the others before they go their separate ways.
The following morning, Pytor goes to Kirillov’s house but Kirillov has had a change of heart about committing suicide and the two have a standoff with guns aimed at each other. Eventually, Kirillov relents and signs the note taking responsibility for Ivan’s murder before going into the next room and shooting himself.
Stepan leaves town, unaware of everything that has happened. He is offered a ride by some peasants and is taken to a nearby village where he meets a gospel seller and becomes obsessed with her. While he is ill, Stepan confesses his life story and then begs her to stay with him. Varvara suddenly shows up at the cottage where Stepan is lying in his sickbed. Initially, she is furious with him still but she softens when she realizes that he is ill and sends for a doctor. The friends reconcile shortly before Stepan dies.
Marie, still lying in her child bed, is confused and worried when Ivan fails to return home. She tries to find Kirillov and is horrified to find his dead body instead. Taking her baby with her, she rushes out into the freezing cold to yell for help. The police arrive and read Kirillov’s note. Shortly after this, Ivan’s body is discovered as well. Both Marie and her baby become ill and die days later.
The police reveal that Kirillov had to have been acting with others to kill Ivan and the revolutionary group is revealed to the public. The town is entrenched in paranoia until Lyamshin confesses to the police. He confesses everything and all of the other members of the society, excluding Pytor are arrested. Varvara returns home, shaken by the news of what has happened in the town. Dasha receives a letter from Nikolai that says that he has locked himself away in Skvoreshniki and will not speak to anyone. Hurrying there, they discover that he has hanged himself.
Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky – a former professor who believes that he was fired as a result of a government interference, which is, in reality, most likely not true. Stepan is the father of the head of the revolutionary society, Pytor. Stepan suffers much guilt over his neglect of Pytor when he was growing into adulthood. Stephan has lived with Varvara for two decades, originally moving in to tutor her son Nikolai and staying on long after Nikolai moved away.
Stepan’s relationship with Varvara is perhaps his most important one as the two seem to be the most genuine friends in the novel and his falling out with her is what causes him to leave town. Stepan is a classic idealist and a bit of a bumbling buffoon who relies entirely on Varvara to survive and is cast completely adrift when he falls out with her. In the end, he replaces her with the gospel seller in his affections but is later reconciled with her just before he dies.
Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin – if anyone is the main character of the novel, it is probably the handsome and brave Nikolai. Nikolai is the son of Varvara and former pupil of Stepan who returns to town in part one having married a mentally disturbed woman. Despite all of the characters assertions that Nikolai is an honest man, he lies often throughout the novel and allows his wife to be killed by Pytor without interfering. He also carries one several simultaneous romantic relationships with different women. Nikolai is outwardly charming and social but this inner personality matches up with the narrator’s assertion that despite his attraction, there is something deeply repellent about Nikolai.
Pytor, however, is pulled in by Nikolai’s charms and envisions him as the figurehead for his revolutionary society. He goes to desperate lengths to bring Nikolai into the society, eventually killing Marya and her brother to help him. Nikolai, who is not particularly interested in politics, tacitly goes along with the murder in order to rid himself of the Lebyadkins. In the end of the novel, after Nikolai’s lover, Liza has been killed by an angry mob, he kills himself for her death and the guilt over the death of his wife.
Pytor Stepanovich Verkhovensky – the son of Stepan and the head conspirator of the revolutionary society. Pytor is the cause of all of the mayhem that happens in the town over the course of the novel. Pytor manages to grasp control of the society by claiming that he is connected to a underground network of groups that are working to overthrow the government and establish socialism in Russia. He convinces the group that they are working with this network and that their revolt will kick off a series of other revolts in other towns.
Pytor kills without compunction and causes chaos at every turn in order to aid his revolution. Despite the evil nature of his deeds, he is perhaps the most focused character in the book and the most willing to fight for what he believes in.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Biography
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born on November 11th, 1821 in Moscow, Russia. The son of a doctor he was raised in a family home on the surrounding grounds of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in a low class district in Moscow. Dostoyevsky learned to read at an early age and fell in love with literature and novels. Many of his childhood experiences living near the hospital and seeing the poor patients influenced his writing later in life.
In 1833, he was sent away to a French boarding school and four years later his mother died of tuberculosis. Soon, he and his brother Nikolayev were conscripted into the military although Nikolayev was soon turned away due to poor health. Dostoyevsky was sent to Estonia to begin his military training. Though he did well in the military academy, Dostoyevsky disliked the regimented style of learning and spent most of his time alone, reading.
In 1839, his father died of a stroke. Dostoyevsky soon attained the rank of engineer cadet and then lieutenant engineer. It was during this time that he began writing his own works and his first work, a translation of the French novel “Eugenie Grandet” was published in 1843. He completed several other translations but did not receive much money for them.
In 1845, he completed his first novel, “Poor Folk” and the novel was a commercial success, being described as Russia’s first “social novel”. After resigning his military career, Dostoyevsky began writing full time and published his second novel, “The Double” in 1846. It was during this time that he discovered and became involved in socialism. “The Double” was not as well received in the press and Dostoyevsky began suffering from frequent health issues.
Dostoyevsky joined a socialist circle called “Petrashevsky Circle” which was later investigated by the police. Dostoyevsky was accused of reading banned books and circulating copies of these books. He and the other members of the circle were arrested in 1849 and sent to exile in a Siberian prison camp which was then followed by a term of compulsory military service. The conditions in the camp were so terrible and Dostoyevsky spent most of his time there ill. After being released in 1854, Dostoyevsky wrote a novel about his experience in the camp called “The House of the Dead” which became the first novel published about Russian prison camps.
In 1855, Dostoyevsky met a woman named Maria Dmitrievna and fell in love. Dostoyevsky was given leave to marry her although, as a convict he remained under police surveillance for the rest of his life. The marriage was an unhappy one and the couple lived apart for most of it.
In the late 1860’s, Dostoyevsky produced some of his most famous works, including “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “The Gambler” (1866) and “The Idiot” (1868)
He married again in 1867 after his first wife died and had a daughter named Sonya who unfortunately passed away as an infant. Despite his literary success, Dostoyevsky suffered from an acute gambling addiction that left his family in a constant state of poverty. In 1871, he had a son named Fyodor and two years later began a new periodical.
His health began to decline as he had suffered from seizures for much of his life. In 1875, Dostoyevsky had another son name Alexey and continued to write, publishing “The Adolescent” the same year.
On January 25th, 1881, Dostoyevsky suffered a pulmonary haemorrhage and passed away shortly afterward. Reports of the attendance at his funeral range from 40,000 to 100,000. He was buried in Tikhvin Cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia.