|Portrait of Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).|
The Devils (Бесы; also known as The Possessed, The Devils, and Demons) is a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, first published in 1871–2. It's one of his 'Big Four', the others being Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. The title comes from a passage from the New Testament, Luke 8: 32 - 36, known as the Exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac:
32 And there was there an herd of many swine feeding on the mountain: and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them. 33 Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked. 34 When they that fed them saw what was done, they fled, and went and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. 36 They also which saw it told them by what means he that was possessed of the devils was healed.
The thought behind the novel was the increasing prevalence of the philosophy of nihilism in Russia during this period. Nihilism denied meaningful existence, disputed the idea of ethics and innate morality, and rejected authority. In The Devils Dostoyevsky portrays a small society under the influence of nihilists, specifically the charismatic and Godless Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin. Dostoyevsky explores the ideas of not only how the attempts to bring a revolution in the provincial town about but why, and this question goes far beyond the mechanics of the actions. Some answers are fairly specific: Stavrogin's parents, for example, must take a portion of the blame for their self-centred stupidity, or the vain liberal Verkhovensky whose search for power brings the town to the brink of catastrophe, but some answers have larger implications for society as a whole: the lack of direction, moral substance, and, crucially, lack of faith. This lack of faith is one of the most important elements of The Devils as we see people who have become vulnerable to immoral, dangerous and exceedingly cruel forces, which in turn brings evil and the destruction of society.
It is a bleak and often upsetting novel though oddly enough not devoid of humour. It's also an exhausting read: I'm rather drawn to The Devils and feel as though if I kept reading it I would come to love it, yet somehow I never manage it. It's undeniably a great novel, but it's far too grim to actually enjoy. I do admire it, though, I admire it greatly.
Dostoyevsky's Devils by Dr. Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 - 2012)