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This will be an utterly inadequate post, but one must write something.

The first thirty pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons (1871-2) comprise a chapter with one of those delightfully faux-pretentious nineteenth-century titles: "Instead of an Introduction: A Few Details from the Biography of the Much Esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky." (Dostoevsky loved Dickens.) From the very beginning, starting with that ironic subtitle, Stepan Trofimovich seems utterly harmless. However avant-garde he may think himself -- and he does indeed promote liberal, Western opinions -- the distance between the man and his self-conception makes Stepan Trofimovich an immediately endearing figure (much more so, in my opinion, than Don Quixote or Lemuel Gulliver, two clear literary ancestors). But Stepan Trofimovich is much more than figure of fun. By the end of the novel, when one's opinion of the man has been wholly complicated and upended, it is tempting to reassess and in a certain sense affirm his original self-estimation. He truly was  dangerous.

But back to the first chapter. A mild but persistent case of persecution mania shapes Stepan Trofimovich's life.

I will say straight off: Stepan Trofimovich constantly played a certain special and, so to speak, civic role among us, and loved this role to the point of passion--so much so that it even seems to me he would have been unable to live without it. (7)

In the late 1840s, his lecturing career at a Russian university is cut short after several public missteps: the lectures themselves "cleverly and painfully needle" the "Slavophils of the day"; then comes the suggestion of links to a revolutionary group in St Petersburg; finally, the authorities in Moscow seize a purportedly subversive poem he'd written years earlier -- a fantastic claim, as the narrator makes clear. Whether Stepan Trofimovich loses or forfeits his position is less clear, but he leaves the city and eventually settles in the provincial town where the novel is set. He earns his keep by tutoring a young gentleman (Nikolai Stavrogin), develops a close but entirely chaste relationship with the boy's widowed mother (Varvara Patrovna Stavrogin), and cultivates his reputation as an exiled radical scholar. He isn't exactly dishonest, for the narrator, whom we have no reason to doubt, couldn't possibly "equate him with a stage actor: God forbid, particularly as I happen to respect him" (7); and again, "he himself sincerely believed all his life that he was a cause of constant apprehension in certain spheres, that his steps were ceaselessly known and numbered" (8).

This unmalicious, unconvincing "so to speak civic role" is the first charming thing we learn about Stepan Trofimovich. Additional charms in the first chapter include his embarrassing attempts to rejoin literary and intellectual circles in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the conversation of his circle of liberal friends, his French phrases, his reactionary fear when the serfs are emancipated, and his fumblings with the widow Stavrogin, whom he idolizes.

Much could be said of that "woman-classic," that "woman Maecenas, whose acts presupposed only the loftiest considerations" (13). Some other time. But it won't do to omit Stepan Trofimovich's son, Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky. And yet Dostoevsky almost entirely omits him from the chapter! Father and son do not know one another at all; they don't even live together. In his "very first and still reckless youth" -- even before the university -- Stepan Trofimovich had married a "flighty" local girl. After a few years and the birth of their son, she left him for Paris and (by implication) another man. She died three years later. Here is the single sentence the narrator gives to young Pyotr in the first chapter:

The nestling was from the very start sent back to Russia, where he was brought up all the while in the hands of some distant aunts, somewhere in a remote corner. (12)

The details seem almost deliberately muddy. To what precisely does "very start" refer? Pyotr's birth? The parents' separation (in Berlin)? The mother's death (in Paris)? The boy's destination is likewise unclear: "some...aunts, somewhere" in one "remote corner" among many. Perhaps the narrator doesn't know. He's only a character in the story, not an omniscient observer. (This technique is not strictly maintained.) Nevertheless, and to jump far beyond this initial chapter, when Pyotr does return, he will damage and ruin and end any number of lives. Pyotr's merciless and crude mockery of Stepan Trofimovich is not the worst of his sins, but it is far from the least. It would be unfair to blame the father entirely for the adult Pyotr's evil acts, but of course it would also be unfair to deny him all responsibility. "Some distant aunts"! This is a careless father.

Not unexpectedly, the heedless treatment of Pyotr finds a parallel in Stepan's too-familiar tutelage of young Nikolai, who will grow up to be somehow even worse than the nihilist Pyotr (who fact both adores and hates Nikolai by turns, perhaps with an unresolved envy over the latter's intimacy with his father). Here I must borrow from the first two pages of the next chapter. Like Pyotr, Nikolai's parents separated early (40), though he was raised by his mother rather than "distant aunts." But Stepan Trofimovich does not fill the missing father's place. In fact, "he knew how to win his pupil over. The whole secret lay in his being a child himself." The narrator is something like Stepan Trofimovich's only real friend, and he remarks that he "was not around" at the time of Nikolai's youth; consequently, Stepan "was constantly in need of a true friend. He did not hesitate to make a friend of [Nikolai], once he had grown up a bit." Teachers mustn't pretend to pure equality with their students; it makes for bad teaching and bad friendship. Yet this "friendship" is imbalanced even further in the wrong direction, for the teacher makes selfish use of the student, as representing a willing ear. There was even the occasional midnight confession of "[Stepan's] injured feelings," or the imprudent revelation of "some domestic secret" to the boy. They "used to throw themselves into each other's embrace and weep" over Stepan's grievances.

With suitable dramatic reserve, the narrator remarks "one may suppose that the pedagogue somewhat unsettled his pupil's nerves" (40-1). More ominously (the full horror must wait for the reader of the censored chapter, "At Tikhon's") he writes,

Stepan Trofimovich managed to touch the deepest strings in his friend's heart and to call forth in him the first, still uncertain sensation of that age-old, sacred anguish which the chosen soul, having once tasted and known it, will never exchange for any cheap satisfaction. (There are lovers of this anguish who cherish it more than the most radical satisfaction, if that were even possible.)

This is a prophetic moment that I don't wish to spoil for any future readers of the novel. All political allegory aside, Demons dramatizes how parents can as it were accidentally contribute to their children's ruin. A parent can in no way infallibly prevent his child from doing evil, but for his own conscience's sake, he had better die every day trying.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Demons: A Novel in Three Parts. 1871-2. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky . New York: Vintage-Random House, 1994. Print.

 


Posted
AuthorSeth Holler