Category Archives: Demons

Demons: Read from June 10 to September 2, 2019

I actually finished the novel almost a month ago but I’ve been holding off writing a review of it because I needed time to think about what my problem is with it, especially since this is considered one of his great masterpieces and that not liking it felt sacrilegious.

The truth is that I just don’t think this is a very good novel and I’m a little ashamed that I feel that way. I even spoke to the person who recommended me this novel – a brilliant Literature Professor of mine – and we talked at length about it, but my mind didn’t change during our conversation.

Here’s the problem: the novel is structurally a mess. Now I want to be clear that I don’t mean that because the first hundred or so pages are … well, let’s just say slow going and the plot doesn’t move forward at all. Though I was not interested in the opening sections of the book, I just assumed they were character development needed to understand the later events of the story. And to a degree that is correct, but the real problem is the narrator. To often we’re told by our narrator that he will get back to certain details that he’s leaving out for the time being, but he never does go back to them. In fact, almost whenever something interesting seems like it might happen, it’s dropped and we move on. 

The main issue with the narrator other than his never picking up the threads he drops, is that he’s not the right person to narrate this story. He’s basically a useless character who, had he been an unreliable narrator might have been something (though I don’t see what the point of that would have been either), but he also doesn’t add anything to the story – and at times he’s privy to information he could never have known. I get the sense that Dostoevsky thought the narrator would be a good idea at first then wrote himself into a whole and wound up being stuck with him.

And that gets to another point of the novel: focus. Dostoevsky’s novels and stories often read like fever dreams, where Sisyphus’ stone is getting away from him and he’s running behind to catch up to something that is desperately inevitable. This novel, though it does read as if it were written in a fevered state, only feels muddled and confused. And perhaps that’s what he wanted to evoke since many of the characters lives are muddled and confused, but there is nothing really to snap any of these events into focus. We get a lot of description and cryptic explanations, some of which are explained, some aren’t and we, the reader, are left feeling lost in a sea of doubt.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explains how we must be empathetic to all people because we can never know what they are going through and that to judge is God’s right alone, and so I tried to take that to heart with the characters in this novel, but that proved to be impossible because I never got the sense even Dostoevsky liked these people. Most of them were hurtful, cruel, or, as in the case with Stepan Trofimovich, a buffoon – though, he and Kirillov were the only characters I really liked. I really wished that Stepan had been the central character of the novel to hold it all together since his journey is the most interesting.

And so at the end of the novel what was the point of it all? A town is thrown into chaos because of a possible revolutionary uprising? That desperate people resorted to murder? Well, when I put it like that then it sounds interesting, yet he managed to make that as uninteresting as possible. There is no life in this novel and as much as I hate to say it I agree with Tolstoy that all of Dostoevsky’s characters are (at least in this one novel) all just Dostoevsky speaking – the characters all sound like each other, all act like each other, and though sometimes they may say something remarkable, there is no real substance here.

I suppose this was his attempt to write a satire, and though I don’t expect him to have a sense of humor about any of this – though there are one or two quite funny moments – he fails to get us to care about any of these people. Part of the problem is the novel is staged like a play – there are almost no physical descriptions of setting and so we wind up imagining people talking in dark, empty rooms most of the time. There is no life surrounding these lifeless characters and for a reader it’s impossible to empathize with anyone here, with the possible exception of Kirillov and Stepan. 

I honestly think this novel could have used an editor – in fact considering how some version retain the Tikhon scene, wile others drop it as an appendix, I get the feeling even Dostoevsky wasn’t sure what to really do with this novel. It feels like a draft for something interesting, but in its current state it feels rushed, uninspired, and poorly constructed. And yet because he’s otherwise such a great writer, it’s still not a bad book – it’s just mediocre, and it’s only that good because Dostoevsky was a great writer – a lesser writer would have botched this up even more.

I so wanted to love this novel because Dostoevsky is one of my favorites, but this is a tough slog with almost no reward for the effort.

page 502 of 768 of Demons

The whole fete scene was really well done, but am I crazy for siding with Stepan Trofimovich’s speech about beauty being the most important thing in the world? I mean, yes, obviously people need food and shelter, I get that, but to not appreciate beauty, not appreciate art, to think only science and engineering is our fate, as if we are only worker bees seems – like the argument people would rather believe.

page 410 of 768 of Demons

It’s rare Dostoevsky plays up much comedy, but the scene where everyone is trying to decide if their party is actually a (illegal) meeting or not was very funny. Typical of these kinds of people to not really have any idea what’s going on, even the ones, like the young lady, who are full of fervor but are totally unreliable. And Shigalyov’s idea of putting 90% of all Russians into absolute servitude is … absurd.

page 342 of 768 of Demons

Stephan is kicked out, but he’s still getting a nice pension of 3000 rubles a year. Hard to complain about that, but I do feel bad for him, even if he never really accomplished anything and is, I believe fairly accused, of being a sponger. 

More troubling was the lady in the group who needed to see the young man who had committed suicide because all other forms of “entertainment” bored her. The whole group was crass

page 294 of 768 of Demons

The duel was funny – sad funny. We don’t know why Gaganov is so furious with Nikolai except it’s something that happened a few years ago which, though nobody knows about it, was a disgrace to his family and caused him to end his military career. Yet we know as much as Nikolai seems to care. But imagine being Gaganov and having Nikolai not even care about the duel even though it means so much to him. And he still lost

page 260 of 768 of Demons

Fascinating speech between Shatov and Nikolai about how each nation has their own God and a nation that does not have their own god but shares it with others is bound to fail. I can also see where the root of the ‘socialism leads to atheism’ argument comes from among nationalists and conservatives in how Shatov presents the idea. But is Nikolai that bad? Shatov is devastated, but which path is more dangerous?

page 202 of 768 of Demons

Now some of this is making some sense, if in a convoluted way. The poor Marya thought she was married to Nikolai, and he even paid her an allowance, but this was stolen by her drunkard brother who beat her. I now wonder how much of her story of having a baby is true? She seemed to think it might be, but she also might have imagined it. Poor woman.

page 171 of 768 of Demons

Someone once told me that Dostoevsky would have been a very good playwright and I agree with that. He’s all about dialogue (though everyone talks in long speeches) and it always seems as if every scene takes place in a stuffy, dusty, airless room in which everyone is poor and miserable, except for one character who has money but is even more miserable (at least morally).

I still have no idea what’s going on, however.

There a wonderful comment on Goodreads from someone also reading this novel that says simply, ” Voy a paso de tortuga”. Me too, Natalia. Me too.

page 141 of 768 of Demons

While everyone is somewhat mean and cruel to each other, I never get the impression that Dostoevsky is mean or cruel to them, he’s only showing us how these people live, and it’s about what you’d expect if you looked in on a lot of people’s lives: bickering, petty intrigue, half-baked ideas, affairs, generalizations about politics and society. But the point is that he wants us to care about these people.

page 117 of 768 of Demons

Kirillov’s philosophy that man is only free once he no longer fears death is interesting and threatening. He sounds like someone who wants to not have anything left to lose in order to make some sort of grand statement (though he probably doesn’t know what). Either way he seems very dissatisfied and I like how it’s pointed out to him that his desire to blow everything up will cost him his job of building a bridge.

page 87 of 768 of Demons

When he talks about writers whose ideas have run out and younger generations have all forgotten I wonder who he had in mind when he wrote that. 

I’m still having a hard time wondering what the point of all this is, and to be honest I probably would have stopped reading were it written by nearly anyone else. Basically there ins’t really a plot driving anything forward, it’s all domestic squabbling which is depressing

page 70 of 768 of Demons

I’m still a little unclear what is going on, but it seems Varvara wants to marry off Darya to Stepan because she thinks something was going on with Darya and her own son, Nikolai. It’s all vague and I’m honestly having a hard time trying to find a reason to care about these characters, but there is something unseemly about these people that is sort of fascinating to watch.

page 62 of 768 of Demons

I like the odd relationship between Stepan and Varvara; their bickering is funny to listen to. It’s odd to think that these people have the means to not have to work because they don’t act like they have much class – they’re almost low class in their scheming and behavior, yet they have land and money and leisure to act – well I wouldn’t say horribly, but they aren’t the sort of people I’d want to spend time with.

page 58 of 768 of Demons

It’s been awhile since I’ve read Dostoevsky, which is a problem because it always takes awhile to get into gear with his novels. The only other author I feel this way about is Shakespeare because whenever I start one of his plays I always feel lost until about Act 3 or 4. This novel is starting off the same way with a huge list of (unusual) characters but with no plot to attach them to. But I’m sure I’ll love this.