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Toward Understanding Stavrogin

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


… Freud … on the occasion of his seventieth birthday paid the extraordinary tribute to Dostoevsky acknowledging … that everything he had discovered was already to be found in Dostoevsky's works

Edward Wasiolek

Dostoevsky [was] the only psychologist … from whom I had anything to learn: he belongs to the luckiest finds of my life, even more so than the discovery of Stendhal. This deep man …


The whole second half of a man's life is usually made up of nothing but the habits accumulated in the first half.


Stavrogin is an immense and bewildering character. In the opinion of Konstantin Mochulskii, he is "Dostoevsky's greatest artistic creation." He is complex and mysterious—and frightening because plausible. There is much more to him than the obvious Byronic dimension, and we are clearly confronted by more than just another Russian hero who is bored, passive, and las de vivre. He is strikingly handsome, powerful, and brilliant—exceptional in every way—but a miserable failure as a human being. In the excluded chapter "At Tikhon's," Tikhon tells Stavrogin, "I was horrified to see your great unused powers had been so deliberately turned toward filth" (434). How can a person of such intelligence and talent fail so abjectly in life and do so little good but so much evil? This question obviously fascinated Dostoevskii who probed Stavrogin deeply, looking for the answer, and ended up with a character whose complexity is rare even for Dostoevskii.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 1990

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1. Mochulskii, Konstantin, Dostoevsky : His Life and Work, trans. Michael A. Minihan (1967; reprint ed., Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1973) 463 Google Scholar. The epigraphs are from Wasiolek, Edward, “Raskolnikov's Motives : Love and Murder, ” American Imago 31 (Fall 1974) : 26.Google Scholar; Nietzsche, Friedrich, “Streifzuge eines Unzeitgemassen, ” Gotzen-Dammerung oder wie Mann mit dem Hammer philosophiert, Nietzsche Werke, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin : Walter de Gruyter, 1969) 3 (sect. 6) : 141 Google Scholar; and Dostoevskii, Fedor M., Besy, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, 30 vols. (Leningrad : Nauka, 1972-) 10 : 208 Google Scholar. The translation is ours, but all future citations in this article are from the Andrew R. MacAndrew translation of The Possessed (New York : New American Library, Signet, 1962); page numbers have been indicated in the text in parentheses.

2. We consider the chapter “At Tikhon's” an integral and indispensable part of the novel. That Dostoevskii hoped to the end to retain this crucial chapter is clear from the unpublished last lines of the manuscript : “They say that after the death of Nikolai Vsevolodovich some kind of notes were found, but no one knows about them. I am looking hard for them. Perhaps I'll find them and if possible… . “ See Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridsati tomakh 12 : 108. On the importance of this chapter to Dostoevskii, see Grossman, Leonid, Dostoevsky : A Biography, trans. Mary Macklen (London : Allen Lane, 1974) 471472 Google Scholar. In Dostoevsky : His Life and Work, 458-459, Mochulskii cites Dostoevskii's letter to S. A. Ivanova on 4 February 1872, in which Dostoevskii spoke of the difficulty of rewriting the chapter and said he planned to send the publisher an ultimatum and “if they don't agree, then I really don't know what to do.” Richard Peace writes that the exclusion of the banned chapter “not only disturbs the balance of the novel, it also withholds essential information about Stavrogin “; see his work Dostoyevsky : An Examination of the Major Novels (1971; reprint ed., Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1975) 211. Mochulskii considered “At Tikhon's” “the culmination of Stavrogin's tragedy and Dostoevskii's loftiest artistic creation” (Dostoevsky, 459).

3. In Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, The First Circle, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (1968; reprint ed., New York : Bantam, 1972)Google Scholar Sologdin, speaking of Stavrogin, Svidrigailov, and Kirilov, says, “Can one really understand them? They are as complex and incomprehensible as people in real life! How seldom do we understand another human being right from the start, and we never do completely! Something unexpected always turns up. That's why Dostoevsky is so great. And literary scholars imagine they can illuminate a human being fully. It's amusing” (442).

4. For the various possible etymologies of the name, see Passage, Charles E., Character Names in Dostoevsky's Fiction (Ann Arbor, Mich. : Ardis, 1982) 78 Google Scholar. See also Stenbock-Fermor, Elisabeth, “Lermontov and Dostoevskij's Novel The Devils , ” Slavic and East European Journal 17, n.s. 3 (1959) : 228 n.5.Google Scholar

5. See Wasiolek, Edward, “Raskolnikov's Motives : Love and Murder, ” American Imago 31 (Fall 1974) : 252–269Google Scholar; David, Kiremidjian, “ Crime and Punishment : Matricide and the Woman Question, ” American Imago 33 (Winter 1976) : 403–433Google Scholar; Breger, Louis, “ Crime and Punishment : A Psychoanalytic Reading, ” Dreamworks 3, no. 1 (1982) 35–50.Google Scholar

6. Frank, Joseph, “The Masks of Stavrogin, ” Sewanee Review 77 (October-December 1969) : 683 Google Scholar, sees Stavrogin as “a victim of the famous mal du siecle, the all-engulfing ennui that haunts the literature of the first half of the nineteenth century. “

7. Dostoevskii, Fedor, The Notebooks for The Possessed, ed. Edward Wasiolek, trans. Victor Terras (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1968 Google Scholar. All citations are from this edition and page numbers, preceded by N, have been included in the text in parentheses.

8. “Introduction, ” Notebooks, 14.

9. Klein, Melanie, “A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States” in Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945 (London : Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1975), 265.Google Scholar

10. Winnicott, D. W., “Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development, ” in Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis, International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 100 (1975; reprint ed., London : Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1985), 214.Google Scholar

11. Winnicott, “Metapsychological and Clinical Aspects of Regression within the Psycho-Analytical Set-Up, ” in Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis 280. This paper was originally read before the British Psycho-Analytical Society on 17 March 1954.

12. Kiremidjian has approached Raskolnikov with this concept in mind : “Dostoevsky builds the complex structures of motivation and ego-relationships out of a fundamental insult to wholeness occurring during” the pre-oedipal period ( “Matricide and the Woman Question, ” 405).

13. The resemblance to Raskolnikov and his mother is striking. Louis Breger rightly points out that one source of Raskolnikov's rageful behavior is his mother's “total inability to see Raskolnikov as himself or to respond to him as the living person he is” ( “A Psychoanalytic Reading” 42).

14. Again the analogy with Raskolnikov is striking. Raskolnikov keeps his mother at bay and deeply disturbs her by his relationships with his sickly homely fiancee and the prostitute Sonia. Kiremidjian points out that the pawnbroker is “only the focus of a generalized pattern of aggression on various levels and toward a number of women, of whom Raskolnikov's mother is the ultimate pivot. Dostoevsky seems here to be implying that … the whole range of personally and socially destructive drives … is fundamentally a matricidal impulse, and that, more significantly, all aggression originates in the pre-oedipal phase” ( “Matricide and the Woman Question, ” 404).

15. “A Psychoanalytical Reading, ” 46.

16. Richard Peace suggests that Stavrogin's marriage to Maria can be viewed not only as “an act of self-knowledge, ” but also as “an act of self-identification.” Peace sees the marriage as an act through which the subject—Stavrogin the emotional cripple— “is revealing an essential identity with the object” (Examination of the Major Novels, 199). Louis Breger insightfully explains Raskolnikov's attachment to his fiancee in a similar manner : “There is the indirect hostility involved in a relationship with a degraded love-object… . Of greater significance is his identification with victims. His involvement with these poor creatures, and his acts of generosity toward them, expresses what he wants for himself” ( “A Psychoanalytic Reading, ” 38).

17. In the original version serialized in The Russian Herald, which was written before Dostoevskii knew that his publisher would veto the chapter “At Tikhon's, ” Dostoevskii had Stavrogin describe his devil to Dasha at greater length and end with this remarkable confession : “ ‘Oh, no, I don't believe in him, don't worry, ’ he smiled. ‘As yet, I don't believe. I know that this is myself under different forms; / appear double and talk with myself.'” We have used Minihan's translation of this part of the passage as cited in Mochulskii, Dostoevsky, 457. Elsewhere in this original passage Stavrogin refers to his hallucinations as an “illness “— “You know, ” he says to Dasha, “that I have such an illness. You are the only person on earth to whom I spoke about it.” Wondering whether perhaps he had not told her about it after all he adds, “If that's so, then I'm really raving or … have gone out of my mind “; see PSS 12 (1975); 141.

18. Compare this to Raskolnikov's anxiety and terror when Porfiry ridicules his theory on crime, which—as Louis Breger points out—is a “grandiose defense against profound feelings of inferiority.” Shortly after the interview with Porfiry, we see Raskolnikov's “grandiosity break apart, ” and the scene ends in horror as Raskolnikov dreams of the old hag laughing at his unsuccessful attempts to murder her and people crowding into the room laughing ( “Psychoanalytic Reading, ” 44).

19. Cited by Lary, Nikita M., Dostoevsky and Dickens : A Study of Literary Influence (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 108 Google Scholar. Lary discusses Dostoevskii's wavering between making Stavrogin tragic or ignoble. See also Wasiolek, Edward, Dostoevsky : The Major Fiction (1964; reprint ed., Cambridge : M.I.T. Press, 1971) 111.Google Scholar

20. Dostoevskii, Fedor, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Andrew H. MacAndrew (1970; reprint ed., New York : Bantam, 1981), 386.Google Scholar

21. Ibid. 387.

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