Book Review: Demons

Today I finished reading Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Verdict: like everything Dostoevsky writes, frustrating but also quite rewarding. Demons is less frustrating than The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot, though; it’s also, I think, less rewarding than Brothers, not attempting as much.

Demons is basically about how liberalism leads to socialism leads to nihilism, and how life, according to Dostoevsky, boils down to a choice between Christianity and suicide. An important concept, to be sure; but the book is entirely about intellect and will, leaving out the physical being that is the person; that’s what has always bugged me about Dostoevsky, that he ignores the real world in favor of the world of ideas. At least the Karamazovs were sensualists, and had Dmitri to go on sprees all the time…

Demons has other qualities than its predominant thought, of course; it’s a very engaging novel, more suspenseful than others of Dostoevsky, both because it’s more violent (being about socialist nihilist anarchists and all), and because it takes a long time to get a sense for what motivates the main character, Nikolai Stavrogin.

In the end, it turns out that he is the quintessential doubter; he claims to believe in nothing, to feel nothing, to be empty. But the thoughts he does have – though he doesn’t believe them – are what the people around him – Shatov, Kirillov, and Verkhovensky, in particular – latch on to; they make themselves into manifestations of those ideas (the ideas being the “demons” of the title, those three the Genesarene swine?). By embodying these ideas, they destroy themselves; Stavrogin’s eventual fate is determined by whether or not he is able to overcome the demons and achieve faith.

Interestingly, Dostoevsky says, through his mouthpiece Tikhon, that absolute doubt immediately proceeds absolute faith; thus Stavrogin, as the quintessential doubter, is also the closest among the main cast of characters to true Christianity. This idea, that a person must not give in to his ideas, must strain against them to be a person, is a fascinating one… unfortunately, there’s no really good word for it that I can think of; otherwise I’d add it to my dictionary.

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