|| Date: 18-06-02 || Back to index ||
|| Tag: article ||

On Ideologies: A Character Analysis of Dostoyevsky’s Demons

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are do not necessarily represent those of the author’s. This is merely a summary and analysis of different pieces of literature.

For Dostoyevsky, the main issue he focused most of his writing around was the existence of God. I think that most of his major works revolved around the concept of an ultimate “Good” or “Truth” and what would happen to people when they stray away from that path, either intentionally or unintentionally. Nikolai Berdyaev, in a critique of Dostoyevsky’s religious framework in which he separates his character to either a believer or non-believer, states the following:

“He did not have to solve the divine problem as does the pagan, but the problem of mankind, which is the problem of the spiritual man, the Christian.” — Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev

Courtesy of Penguin Publishing
Courtesy of Penguin Publishing

In Demons, Dostoyevsky puts his characters in a situation where they have to answer what would happen when their national roots and faith of their fathers are abolished.

The problem with ideologies is the inevitable conclusion they reach to: the original meaning of the ‘idea’ gets thrown into a pile of vagueness and arbitrariness for most of the general public and then people with a very ugly and motivated set of beliefs start abusing the ‘idea’ and its source texts for their own machinations. The original idea becomes a copy of a copy of a copy and gets horrendously distorted and shaped into what can be seen in the conclusion: An Ideology.

This is very accurately described by Nietzsche in Man Alone with Himself:

Idealists think that their cause is always better than other causes, disregarding the fact that they would have to undertake the same foul-smelling manure to drag it to the light.

Character Analysis

There were three very interesting characters in Dostoyevsky’s Demons: Stepan Trofimovich, Shatov, and Kirillov.

The first character is Stepan Trofimovich.

Stepan Trofimovich

Here’s a summary of the character’s history and actions from Wikipedia: > > Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is the philosopher and intellectual (though far more so in the image he has created for himself in the novel’s provincial backwater than in reality) who is partly to blame for the revolutionary ideas that fuel the destruction that occurs in the book. > > He served as a father figure to Nikolai Vsevolodovich when Stavrogin was a child. Stepan Trofimovich has been married twice, but is a widower during the events of the novel. During his first marriage he and his wife conceived one child, Pyotor Stepanovich, who was given to his aunts to be raised. Stepan takes very little interest in raising his son and instead uses the money set aside for his son in order to repay his own debts.

Stepan has constant financial problems. He squanders his money and lacks any entrepreneurial skills. He is able to manage a meager outside income through tutoring younger students and lecturing at local universities, but effectively he has been taken on as the ward of Stavrogin’s mother. His writings and occasional speeches argue on the Western side of the Westernerizer/Slavophile debate that dominated intellectual discussion at that time in Russia. He claims, or at least suggests, that this has made government officials concerned that he is a potentially dangerous thinker, forcing him out of academia and into exile in the provinces.

In reality, his academic career was a failure after a promising start, and no one of note in the government knows who he is, much less has any concern about his spreading dangerous ideas. Teaching is a profession that he greatly enjoys and values, allowing him to display his intelligence, but it has given him little deference within his community, and he relies on Stavrogin’s mother Varvara to support him. Her exasperation with him is constant through most of the novel, but ultimately the reality is that they have enjoyed a long, though completely chaste, love affair. At the end of the story after the chaos created by his son, he leaves the town, finally deciding to be his own man. He soon falls ill and dies, but Varvara is able to reach him on his deathbed and confirm her love for him as he rejects his Western ideas and embraces God and Mother Russia.

Stepan Trofimovich is an exiled radical scholar. He is portrayed as an old man; very ‘profound’ and poetic. He speaks in French phrases all the time; his books and ideas are what he considers his most valued possessions. As you read more on how he talks and articulates his ideas, you’ll notice a very big separation between Stepan Trofimovich, the man, and Stepan Trofimovich, the idealist with a head in the clouds. What’s most interesting is that his words and sentences do not have an ulterior motive of power or danger. In fact, the narrator, Mr. Govorov, says about Stepan Trofimovich on him connecting to his pupils, “the whole secret lay in his being a child himself”. What we have here is an idealist with a head above the clouds. He considers himself a true Russian talent that no one recognises.

In reality, he has two failed marriages and a child from the first marriage, Pytor Stepanovich, whom he sent off to live with ’some distant aunts’; he barely can survive financially; he has a dependent/subordinate relationship with a woman he has feelings for but could never articulate his feelings to for over 20 years, Varvara Petrovna.

Much can be said about the dreamer, Stepan Trofimovich, but his actions really don’t speak good volumes about the man himself. I think Dostoyevsky wanted to show that the father’s negligence to his son, Pytor Stepanovich, is what led him to become the destructive nihilist he was.

And then there was Kirillov.


Here’s a summary of the character’s history and actions from Wikipedia

Alexei Nilych Kirillov is an engineer who lives in the same house as Shatov. He also has a connection to Verkhovensky’s revolutionary society, but of a very unusual kind: he is determined to kill himself and has agreed to do it at a time when it can be of use to the society’s aims.

Like Shatov, Kirillov has been deeply influenced by Stavrogin, but in a diametrically opposed way. While inspiring Shatov with the ecstatic image of the Russian Christ, Stavrogin was simultaneously encouraging Kirillov toward the logical extremes of atheism — the absolute supremacy of the human will. “If God does not exist” according to Kirillov, “then all will is mine, and I am obliged to proclaim self-will.” This proclamation must take the form of the act of killing himself, with the sole motive being annihilation of mankind’s fear of death, a fear implicit in their belief in God. He believes that this purposeful act, by demonstrating the transcendence of this fear, will initiate the new era of the Man-God, when there is no God other than the human will.

Despite the apparent grandiosity of the idea, Kirillov is a reclusive, deeply humble, almost selfless person who has become obsessed with making himself a sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. Pyotr Stepanovich tells him: “You haven’t consumed the idea but you… have been consumed by the idea, and so you won’t be able to relinquish it.”

Kirillov was consumed by the idea that man can stop living in fear of death only by rejecting the fear to such an extent that he is willing to kill himself for no reason other than to prove his point and without a care; even Pytor Stepanovich, the main antagonist in the novel, says to him, “You haven’t consumed the idea, but you have been consumed by the idea, and so you won’t be able to relinquish it”.

Kirillov’s intention is to free humans from the shackles of having to fear death by killing himself without a care. In his study of suicide, The Savage God, Al Alvares postulates this theory about Kirillov: > > “Thus Kirillov. . . . kills himself, he says, to show that he is God. But secretly he kills himself because he knows he is not God. Had his ambitions been less, perhaps he would only have attempted the deed or mutilated himself. He conceived of his mortality as a kind of lapse, an error which offended him beyond bearing. So in the end he pulled the trigger in order to shed this mortality like a tatty suit of clothes, but without taking into account that the clothes were, in fact, his own warm body” > > # I want to put an end to my life, because that’s my idea, because I don’t want to be afraid of death.” — Kirillov

The following is a rationalization and revelation of intention he puts forward to himself when conversing with Nikolai Stavrogin regarding why would he wants to commit suicide.

“I don’t understand how, up to now, an atheist could know there is no God and not kill himself at once. To recognize that there is no God, and not to recognize at the same time that you have become God, is an absurdity, otherwise you must necessarily kill yourself. Once you recognize it, you are king, and you will not kill yourself but live in the chiefest glory. But one, the one who is first, must necessarily kill himself, otherwise who will begin and prove it? It is I who will necessarily kill myself in order to begin and prove it. I am still God against my will, and I am unhappy, because it is my duty to proclaim self-will. Everyone is unhappy, because everyone is afraid to proclaim self-will. That is why man has been so unhappy and poor up to now, because he was afraid to proclaim the chief point of self-will and was self-willed only on the margins, like a schoolboy. I am terribly unhappy, because I am terrible afraid. Fear is man’s curse…But I will proclaim self-will, it is my duty to believe that I do not believe. I will begin, and end, and open the door. And save. Only this one thing will save all men and in the next generation transform them physically” — Kirillov

And then, there was Shatov.


Here’s a summary of the character’s history and actions from Wikipedia

Ivan Pavlovich Shatov is the son of Varvara Stavrogina’s deceased valet. He received tutoring from Stepan Trofimovich, a radical socialist in his time. At university Shatov had socialist convictions and was expelled following an incident. He travelled abroad as a tutor with a merchant’s family and married from them. Having no money and not recognizing the ties of marriage because of his leftist convictions, they parted almost immediately. He wandered Europe alone before eventually returning to Russia.

By the time of the events in the novel Shatov has completely rejected his former convictions and become a passionate defender of Russia’s Christian heritage. Shatov’s reformed ideas resemble those of the contemporary philosophy Pochvennichestvo (roughly: “return to the soil”), with which Dostoevsky was sympathetic. Like the broader Slavophile movement, Pochvennichestvo asserted the paramount importance of Slavic traditions in Russia, as opposed to cultural influences originating in Western Europe, and particularly emphasized the unique mission of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Shatov, on the other, is a different story than Kirillov. The difference between them was shown to me by an analysis from Reishman & Oberoi I found here.

Our Mr. Shatov believes in the “Idea of God” and feels that religion is necessary, but he simply has no faith. He feels betrayed when he sees Nikolai Stavrogin as an atheist since Stavrogin is the one who influenced his inclination to his Russian idealist convictions from his early socialist convictions.

“In America, I lay on a straw mat for three months next to a poor wretch, and I found out from him that at the same time you were sewing the seeds of God and motherland in my heart. At the same time, perhaps at the same day, you were poisoning the heart of that wretch, that maniac, Kirillov. You were confirming lies and slander in him and you led his reason to the verge of insanity” — Shatov

So, our character here is caught in a disconnection of being raised with a radical socialist ideas from his early childhood and between what he believes is true, but can’t admit it to himself since it conflicts with his lifestyle.

“I couldn’t tear myself away from what I clung to since childhood and lavished all my hopes and tears on. Its hard to change one’s gods. I didn’t believe you at the time because I didn’t want to believe and I plunged into that filthy cesspool for the last time but the seed remained in me and took root” — Shatov

Quoting from Reishman & Oberoi, Kirillov, as discussed before, became an atheist fanatic who would kill himself for the reason of A) to practice his free will and B) to challenge his mortality and to reject his fear of death which he hates with a vengeance. Shatov is a character who believes in God, but feels he has no faith. Both characters have firm convictions, the former has faith but does not believe in God, and the latter believes in God but has no faith.