Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 5, 1984

The Chronicler of the Possessed: Character and Function

Ralph E. Matlaw, University of Chicago

The title of my paper points to two aspects of an interpretation; the first is that the chronicler is himself a character in the novel, although almost never considered as such; the second that he is a special version of an authorial mode, coloring the narrative not only through stylistic peculiarities but also through unstated assumptions about society, morality, etc., that the reader must or should consider in ways similar to those applied to other characters in the novel. Dostoevsky expended considerable effort on the compositional problem, finally dropping the term "narrator" (rasskazchik) for "chronicler" (khroniker) as the figure became clear to him and his function fixed. There are, of course, other dimensions to the problem, from a technical and even a  theoretical point of view, but I address myself only to the simpler approach, with a commensurately simple and comprehensible technical terminology.

Readers of the novel, bewildered by its apparent structural chaos, have expressed dismay at the figure of the chronicler, his extraordinary interest in other people's affairs, and at Dostoevsky's dropping him to act as omniscient author when reporting private conversations and scenes at which the chronicler could not have been present, others in which the chronicler himself informs the reader that he could not hear or see what was transpiring, and, at one point, even the private thoughts of Governor von Lembke. No amount of exegetical ingenuity can gainsay the fact that Dostoevsky arbitrarily varies his narrative mode in the Possessed, though the history of the novel's composition offers attenuation for this "blunder" in the fusing of two disparate subjects, one of which, Stavrogin's life, may not lend itself the chronicler's mode. If Dostoevsky did not solve the problem of narrative focus entirely satisfactorily in the Possessed, he was nevertheless acutely conscious of it, as is attested by the working notes to the novel. From a narrator who had reflected on the significance of Russia's social and intellectual development and


who tried to analyze and understand the implications of the characters and events of the novel, he evolves into a chronicler whose character and style Dostoevsky knows thoroughly but does not discuss in detail. On February 18, 1870 he writes:

I sat at Granovsky's and heard his irritable conversation with Shatov. In general even if I describe conversations held in private - don't pay any attention: either I have solid facts, or perhaps I myself compose them - but note that everything is true.

I chose the mode of the chronicle.

It should be noted that Dostoevsky reverts to a form he had brilliantly exploited in 1847, when in the four "Petersburg Chronicles" he was able to range freely over many events and issues, and exactly this kind of chronicle is suggested in the plan for a book Liza suggests to Shatov, but which he finally turns down. Yet in the novelistic sense he may also have had in mind such offshoots of the chronicle as history (in theory a consecutive and dispassionate recital of events) as Aksakov's Family Chronicle and Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir which bears the sub-title Chronique du dix-neuvième siècle.

In May he writes "After the Prince's death the chronicler must examine his character (a chapter entitled 'Analysis') without fail. Saying that he was a powerful, rapacious character... "

Readers of the Possessed would welcome the February 18 statement as a legitimate explanation for presenting material the narrator could not possibly know. But Dostoevsky found a much more original use for his narrator by stripping him of his supposed intelligence and literary consciousness. The process may be traced in the evolution of the opening paragraph, among the more effective openings in literature. For lack of time I will cite only the final version:

As I begin to describe the recent and so strange events that occurred in our town, which hitherto had in no way been distinctive, I am forced by my lack of skill to begin somewhat afar, that is, with certain biographical details about the talented and esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovenskij. Let these details serve only as an introduction to the proferred chronicle, while the real history I intend to describe is still to come.


I'll say it: outright: Stepan Trofimovich...

A special tone and a distinct personality immediately assert themselves. From the opening paragraph we are confronted by a man who associates himself with his community for which he immediately offers an apology, who is inexperienced in writing and admits it in a pretty disclaimer, who is so entranced by himself that the first person singular serves as the justification and touchstone of every remark he makes, though he insists upon his purely descriptive and objective role. From the beginning, too, we are confronted by rapid shifts between the present and the past and hints about the future, which later will dislocate  the sequence of the Possessed in the chronicler's eagerness to divulge his information. The clumsy prose resulting from his eagerness to justify and qualify is aggravated by his attempt to convey his urbanity and conviviality through a bantering tone and irony that quickly proclaim him a far less genial person than he would like to appear.

For the moment we may gauge the chronicler's structural function by turning to what would be, but for a slight oversight, the concluding paragraph of the novel. Everything has now been "explained, " everything in town has returned to "normal, " every character has been "completed" by a brief indication of his position after the events of the novel. Then, in a startling throw-away line, the chronicler continues:

Indeed, I don't know whom else to mention in order not to forget anyone. Mavrikij Nikolaevich has gone away somewhere for good. Old Mrs. Drozdov has become senile... However, there remains one very gloomy story to be told. I will confine myself to the facts.

And he recounts Stavrogin's end, concluding, as the only summary, "At the inquest our doctors completely and emphatically rejected the idea of insanity. " It is a shrewdly calculated effect to have the chronicler almost forget the most essential thing.

From a non-descript chronicler, awkwardly recording conversations ("This is what he said... "), factually reporting events and then separately presenting his own interpretation and analysis, from a man whose purpose in writing the chronicle was to be evident throughout, the chronicler has evolved into a distinct figure in his own right and into a manipulator of thematic


threads and time consequences, therefore also of meaning. He insists that he is a "chronicler, " a dispassionate or at least an objective reporter of events, but in fact he is an active participant in the events, sufficiently volatile not only to express his hopes and dissatisfactions but also to note his own angry outbursts against Petr Verkhovenskij: "Here I suddenly lost ray patience and shouted furiously at Petr Stepanovich 'It's you, you scoundrel, who arranged it all'" and to note "I was almost moved to tears. Perhaps I even cried. "

From the first he presents many things entirely through their effect on him, and it has been claimed that this is one of his main functions: to influence the reader's reaction by indicating to him his own surprise or indignation at certain information or events ("I've only recently discovered, " "to my surprise, " etc. ), and to increase the aura of mysteriousness and incomprehensibility, of the unusual and even chaotic, by retaining information or insisting that nothing was known "at that time. " But his function is far more complicated, consisting simultaneously of an ingenuous recitation of events through which he characterizes himself and his society, and a narrative mode that underscores his inability or refusal to consider the significance of the events (which the reader must do), that deliberately obscures events and meanings, thereby heightening the chaos that reflects his society. He indiscriminately divulges information that marks him as a malicious gossip and busybody, whose only concern in life is to remain abreast of everything  that occurs within the city - a process at which he is most adept. At the same time, his disarmingly candid, chatty, bantering, rambling narrative reveals a figure whose character and social significance - not to mention his style - Dostoevsky  captures perfectly. It is done entirely by implication, for neither the chronicler nor Dostoevsky wants him introduced. Other characters are described in detail physically (there is usually at least one distinctive, symbolic physical feature) and are given a biography. But we are forced to piece together from occasional remarks anything more than the chronicler's general type.

Who is the chronicler? According to Liputin he is "a young man of classical education acquainted with the highest society" (local society, of course). Nominally he has a government post. He was not there twenty years before, when Stepan Trofimovich arrived, but all his attitudes toward what he calls "our city" and "our province" seem to mark him for a member of its establish-


ment, perhaps a native. He is well bred (Varvara Petrovna signals his respectability in contrast to the rest of Stepan Trofimovich's friends), a long standing member of the Club (he does not even bother to add that it is the Noblemen's Club), a bachelor eligible to entertain the notion of courting Liza. One gathers that he is moderately well off, but that perhaps Liza's wealth attracts him at least as much as her beauty. His acquaintance with other elements in the city is a function of its provinciality: he is Stepan's confidant and a member of his liberal circle out of social rather than political reasons (Shatov calls him a "moderate liberal" —umerennyj liberal). He refers to the revolutionaries as "ours" (nashi) because he knows them socially, has discussed theory with them in the pleasant company of Stepan Trofimovich and his champagne. But he knows nothing of their rabid intentions and violent aims, distinguishing that aspect of their activity, in which he does not participate, by italicizing "ours" when they appear in that context. And yet, in this novel where everyone is associated with a specific station, function or view, he is far more generalized, representing nothing less than the city's ingrained mentality, principles, and mode of life.

Even his age is vague in a novel that shows the current generation, the devils, as the natural result of the liberalism of the 184O's. He is called a "young man" by the elderly Liputin and by Stepan Trofimovich, and he is one of the "young men" chosen as ushers for the fete. But that term can be ambiguous or ironic, as in its application to Akakij Akakevich in Gogol's "Overcoat. " The chronicler attempts to explain the extent of his indignation at Stepan's secret about Darja by his being "still a young man. " But the chronology will not support this view, and several remarks in the text suggest that his youth, like his candor, is pretense. He is, in the first place, extremely concerned with age, as with social standing, always showing deference in his description of the elders of the club and other dignitaries. In describing Stepan's circle he begins with Liputin as the oldest. "Another young man... Virginskij" is immediately qualified as "a pathetic and extremely quiet young man, for that matter already aged thirty. " He has been Stepan's friend for a dozen years, and while Stepan's need for a confidant is so great that he pours out his woes to the eleven or twelve year old Stavrogin and wakes up his young son to discuss his wife's infidelity, it is hardly likely that


Stepan would do so with a stranger of the same age. The chronicler reminds Kirillov of his deceased brother, who was much older than the twenty-eight year old engineer. In his first meeting with Karmazinov, the most revealing scene in the novel about the chronicler, he is exasperated with himself for acting like an awe-struck schoolboy. Karmazinov is described as a

short affected old man, for that matter not over fifty-five years old... I read Karmazinov from childhood. His tales and stories were known to the entire past and even present generation. I revelled in them. They were the delight of my adolescence and of my youth.

In 1871 Turgenev was fifty-three. The Hunter's Sketches appeared in book form in 1852, and most of the tales and stories by 186O. On that score alone the chronicler would have to be at least thirty. Even if Turgenev's dates are not strictly relevant, the chronicler's remarks fail to identify him specifically either with the past or the current generation. This is precisely the point: he does not belong to the generation of the 184O's, but he is older than the young men around Stepan Trofimovich and the new group around his son; the real oldsters at the club view him as a young man, though not so young as not to be an active participant in their talk and card games. He is old enough to scoff at the young prince with the high collar, and the marital misfortunes of Shatov and Virginskij, but not too old to consider marrying Liza. He is a charter member of Stepan's circle and his long time crony and confidant, a man in his early or middle thirties, faintly conscious or at least sensitive about his age, belonging to neither of the generations depicted in the novel, lacking the poetry of the first and despising the aims and crudity of the second, fundamentally aspiring to no more than to become a respected elder of the club and a member of its steering committee, to perpetuating the values and society whose sham he has so skilfully disclosed, apparently without realizing it himself. For he is only a chronicler, a genius of gossip and anecdote, for whom the monstrous events of the book are interesting rather than significant:

I repeat that the case is not yet finished. Now, three months later, our society has rested, recovered, refreshed itself, [the three verbs suggest recovery from an illness - R. M. ] has its own opinion, even to the point that some consider even Peter


Stepanovich himself almost as a genius, or at least "as having the abilities of genius. " "Organisation, sir!" they say at the club holding up a finger. For that matter, that's all very innocent, and few say it. Others, on the contrary, do not deny his keen abilities, but combined with complete ignorance of reality, fearful theoreticism  and stupid one-sideness, and the extreme recklessness resulting from it. So far as his moral qualities are concerned, everyone is agreed; non one can argue about that.

He thus functions as a spokesman for attitudes and reactions of his society, personifying the "correct, " generally accepted views of its entrenched members, incapable or unwilling to consider the real issues involved or to have a view of his own. It is impossible for him now to express the explicit and devastating comment he had been vouchsafed in the notebooks: "Our principle - to amass wealth - peace - our circle, indolent tranquility, red nose, bad habits. " In the final version he conveys instead his inability to dissociate himself from his society's mentality even in the judgements he makes of it,

Yet his acceptance of that society betrays an insecurity unthinkable, for example, in Tolstoy's major characters. The chronicler constantly tries to bolster his own  position and to emphasize his superiority to the provincialism of the city. When indicating the impression Stavrogin first made on the city's ladies, he comments "of course it didn't require a great deal of culture to astonish us, " and elsewhere he is similarly depreciatory. The city is for him its better elements: "practically the entire city, that is, of course, the upper level of our society, was gathered for the mass, " and even its members occasionally lack decorum. A long paragraph distinguishes the bulk of inhabitants, whom the narrator deems "postal and administrative small-fry" from the upper crust, and he notes, too, the influx of "various strange unruly elements" and riff-raff.

Something similar may be seen in the narrator's attitude toward his unnamed city. His failure to provide physical description, which in the Notebooks was to be purposeful and programmatic, and even in the final text plays some role (XI, 24O and X, 267), does not lessen the effectiveness, the almost palpable intrusion of the setting. With the exception of the striking paragraph before Shatov's murder there is no set description at all, as though the narrator took it for granted as much as he does society.


To he sure, there is no more coherence in his presentation of the city than that of its society. Each is seen only in that aspect confronting the narrator at the moment, subject to his personality and prejudices, devoid of meaningful generalization and summary. Beginning with the opening paragraph, the narrator tries to ingratiate himself with the reader by indicating his awareness of the city's provinciality, its lack of distinction and amenities like decent sidewalks. It is a point worth noting, because some readers and critics have taken it to be a small town, inappropriate as the setting for so elaborate a political intrigue. Yet it is a provincial capital, populated by Dostoevsky with a large and variegated population that presents the broadest possible cross-section of Russian life, a microcosm and perhaps a symbol for Russia as a whole. Fittingly, the town (unnamed but based on Tver', the present Kalinin) is located entirely in relationship to St. Petersburg, the source of revolutionary ideology rather than the closer Moscow, the locus of Russia's traditional values.

We have already seen the implications of the narrator's admitted lack of skill, its resultant uncontrollable narrative and the clumsy, cumbersome prose resulting from his eagerness to qualify and justify. Dostoevsky particularly emphasizes this in the opening pages as he establishes the chronicler's personality. One of his verbal characteristics is the abuse of vprochem (however, although) as an unjustified connective and the expressions "so to speak" (tak skazat') and "if one may express it that way" (esli mozhno tak vyrazit'sja) frequently used as unnecessary qualification since the words so qualified do not essentially differ from others, are set apart in quotation marks, or simply do not need qualification: "Stepan Trofimovich... played a certain special and, so to speak, civic role, " "He dearly loved his position as a 'persecuted' and, so to speak, 'exiled' man. " The more elaborate form of qualification, used when the narrator apparently thinks a term is inexact, colloquial or indecorous: "in a more innocent and harmless form, if one may put it so, " "everything was resolved by the ardent participation and the invaluable, so to speak classical, friendship of Varvara Petrovna, if only one may express oneself so about friendship, " "she participated completely, totally and, if one may express it so, without restraint. " Numerous other words, however, used incorrectly or idiosyncratically, are not qualified at all, so that presumably the chronicler is not aware of his mistakes.


In the opening paragraph, one may "describe" (opisyvat') events but not a story; one cannot "look worse" (Lembke smotrit khuzhe) - the verb is wrong; one can hardly refer even jocularly to a ticket permitting entry to all the young ladies of a family "even to the number of ten specimens (éksempljarov)". Gallicisms and barbarisms occur throughout the narrative, from "became ambitious (sambitsioznichal)" to "aroused sympathy (vozbudil simpatiju)". Perhaps even more curious is the chronicler's use of key terms in the novel: "poézija" used as fantasy, imagination (Einbildung) - Julija Mikhajlovna acts from an excess of it; "politics (politika)" as circumspection - outsiders at the fête began cursing "without delay (bez vsjakoj politiki)"; and "revoljutsija" used only once in the novel and then applied to the "upheaval" caused in town by the preparations.

Through the peculiarities of the chronicler's style and vocabulary Dostoevsky establishes a context of verbal dislocation and insecurity that constantly operates in the novel. It eventually involves every character of consequence in the Possessed, each of whom commits a lexical or stylistic mistake, errs in usage, or employs a barbarism, frequently noted as such immediately by another character. At some point even a casual, reader must notice how the verbal surface reflects and emphasizes a portrait of a disintegrating society and that the chronicler plays a leading role in that process.

Moreover, the chronicler is given to generalizations, to commonplaces masquerading as aphorisms, almost invariably spoiled even more by redundancy. Of the dozens of examples, I cite only two: "destructive instincts which, alas, are hidden in everyone's soul, even in the soul of the meekest and most domestic titular councillor" and "Generally speaking, in every misfortune of someone close to us there is always something that cheers a stranger - and even no matter who you may be" (LaRochefoucauld said it more succinctly and psychologically more accurately: "Dans l'adversité de nos meilleurs amis, nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous déplaît pas"). Yet it must be added that at times Dostoevsky permits his chronicler to mouth some of his own cherished notions: "'The higher liberalism' and the 'higher liberal', that is, a liberal without any goal, is possible only in Russia" and similar opinions.

The chronicler's incompetence and fatuousness are no barrier to the venemous deprecating of other characters, particularly of his ostensibly admired, old-time friend,


Stepan Trofimovich. No detail can be too insignificant for this process ("kholerina" - his intestinal upsets), and no explanation too glib. After noting that Stepan would have been offended if it had been proved to him that he had nothing to fear politically, the chronicler continues in justification "and yet he was, after all, a most intelligent and gifted man, even a man of science, so to speak, though for that matter, in science... well, in short, in science he did not do so much and, it seems, did nothing at all. But then, with us in Russia that happens with men of science time and again. " Every secret and sordid detail adds to the picture: after describing  Stepan's intensive and variegated reading, his quickly cooling interest toward contemporary political phenomena, we read "He would take Tocqueville with him into the garden, while he had a volume of Paul de Kock hidden in his pocket. But of course that's a trifle. "

Under the chronicler's influence I have left to the end a crucial paragraph, illustrating the chronicler's obfuscations, his pretense at accuracy, his incompetence, his genius for making piquant and puzzling something sordid and simple, for inflating the unsubstantial until it seems to become solid. The paragraph reports Liza's slapping - or not slapping - Stavrogin's face at the jurodivyj's:

An yet at this point, it is said, still another extremely enigmatic incident occurred, and I admit that it was chiefly for its sake that I mentioned this outing in such detail.

It is said that when everyone rushed away in a crowd, Liza, supported by Mavrikij Nikolaevich, suddenly jostled at the door, in the crush, against Nikolaj Vsevolodovich. It must be said that since that Sunday morning and her fainting, they didn't approach each other and said nothing to each other although both met more than once. I saw how they bumped at the door: it seemed to me that they both stood still for a moment and looked somehow strangely at one another. But I could see poorly in the crowd. It is maintained on the contrary, and quite seriously, that Liza, having looked at Nikolaj Vsevolodovich, quickly raised her hand, just even with his face, and would surely have hit him, if he has not succeeded in drawing away. Perhaps she didn't like the expression on his face or some smile of his, particularly now, after such an episode with


Mavrikij Nikolaevich. I admit, I saw nothing myself but then everyone maintained that they saw, though everyone could not of course have seen it for the uproar, but perhaps a few. But I didn't believe it then. I remember, however, that on the whole trip back Nikolaj Vsevolodovich was somewhat pale.

If this confusing tid-bit is indeed the chief purpose for describing the outing, perhaps the episode might have been omitted. But perhaps no single passage in the novel communicates so well the chronicler's incompetence, his failure to understand, his eagerness to associate himself with the consensus but to remain accurate, his adducing crucial episodes merely for their gossip value, and the deliberate obfuscation Dostoevsky introduces through him, a kind of verbal equivalent of the darkness in which society finds itself. It is not an isolated instance: the same technique is used in reporting Liza's murder, the meeting with Karmazinov when the chronicler did, or did not, pick up the tiny bag that goes through verbal metamorphoses while it is dropped, and in many other places.

Examples could be multiplied. But it has become clear that the chronicler has a distinctive "voice" (in Ivan Karamazov's terminology) that particularizes his rather shoddy character within a larger context in which he epitomizes the pointless and groundless views of a society that is disintegrating because, in Dostoevsky's view, it has no tenable moral and theological foundation. It may well be that, fascinating and vital as the major characters, Stavrogin, Shatov, Stepan, Petr and others are, Dostoevsky's novel is dominated by its "chronicler" Anton Lavrentevich G-v.

University of Toronto