Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 6, 1985

The Voices of Legion: The Narrator of The Possessed

Gene M. Moore, Amsterdam.

Literary fictions are always involved with the indeterminacies inherent in all discourse; but in Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed, this latent issue is emphasized and doubled with a pervasive atmosphere of doubt and suspicion concerning not only the events the narrator undertakes to describe, but also the manner in which he describes them. Anton Lavrent'evich G----v's chronicle of the "recent and strange events" that befell his provincial town is riddled with contradictions and impossibilities of a kind that signal the perpetration of a fiction. The authority of his text is based ultimately on rumor and gossip, on unattributed (or unattributable) discourse of obscure and irresponsible origin, yet able for that very reason to heap catastrophe upon all who possess or are possessed by it. If Liputin is a notorious rumor-monger, Petr Stepanovich Verkhovenskii is a virtuoso of rumor, a subtle master of innuendo and suggestion able to transform a provincial inferiority complex into a ghostly empire of imaginary quintets; while Stavrogin, whose outlived avatars have become the private demons that haunt and destroy those to whom he has "meant so much," refuses to explain himself either in speech or in action, silently watching as his own silence and immobility generate rumors and occasion crimes of omission. The narrator himself, despite the apparent confidence of his tone and the safety of his position "now that it's all over," manages in the course of his chronicle to demonstrate the impossibility of ever achieving a final and ultimately valid description of events. The problem of evil influence, as a form of demonic possession, is a central theme in much of Dostoevsky's later work: when one man's idle fantasies become another's rigid faith, is the former responsible for actions the latter may commit in the name of his own ideas? How literally can words be taken? To what extent is Ivan Karamazov guilty of his father's death, or Stavrogin to blame for the deaths in The Possessed? "We are all to blame," as Shatov declares in one of many possible morals to the narrator's story (446; I:5:iii). (1) The voice of "all," the background noise of rumor, hisses and crackles throughout the narrator's chronicle; and the evil of his story lies not only in the tale, but also in the manner of its telling.

Information is power; but good information is not immediately or inherently more powerful than bad information, and the counterfeit coin of rumor may gain currency all the more readily in closed societies where the forces of government or geography restrict the flow of information and limit the means of testing its validity. Similarly, in those engaging macro-rumors known as works of fiction, a variety of narrative personae organize and control the flow of information (on behalf of the author, if not always exactly as he intends) and largely determine the extent to which indications may be subject to internal or external verification. An examination of the narrator's credibility in The Possessed reveals that although his position as


narrator entitles him to certain conventional advantages, he is as thoroughly mystified and possessed as his fellow townspeople. The narrator is by definition the first possessor and spellbound captive of his story; and all references to narration in his text may be understood as more or less veiled commentaries on his own storytelling methods.

Critical opinion appears to be divided on the significance to be accorded the narrator of The Possessed. Horst-Jürgen Gerigk and Wolf Schmid regard him as a peripheral figure, one lacking a "psycho-physical personality" (Gerigk); while Klaus-Dietrich Städtke has described him as "more an amazed participant with to some extent a strongly outlined social-psychological physiognomy." (2) Mikhail Bakhtin claimed that "Narration in Dostoevsky is always narration without perspective," and that in The Possessed the narrator "structures his narration without any significant perspective at all." (3) The narrator's perspective has also been explored by Slobodanka B. Vladiv, who notes the importance of rumor in the novel, claiming that indeed "The entire chronicle of Anton Lavrent'evic G----v could be classified, in an extreme view, as one huge piece of local provincial gossip," while "the narrator's pathos lies in his attempts to orientate himself as objectively as he can amidst the morass of gossip, which he attempts to sift and organize into a causal chain of events." (4) Other critics have ignored the narrator altogether, or regarded his role as so transparently conventional as to allow his views to stand for those of the (omniscient) author. (5) If such discrepancies suggest an unresolved problem, they may also be taken as a tribute to the subtle discretion of a narrator so unobtrusive as to be easily overlooked.

But is this actually the case? Is the narrator really an impartial, objective, "reliable" chronicler who serves as a transparent vehicle for a conventionally omniscient author? Michael Holquist has described The Possessed as a "temporal palimpsest" in the sense that the narrator's chronicle relates events whose sources and motives lie in previous times and distant places. The narrator's story is based on other stories that are not told, but which—to the extent they can be understood at all—must be deciphered and reconstructed from clues that appear as the effects of implied causes. As Holquist puts it, the characters "do not act in the novel's present so much as continue merely to work out predictable patterns of behavior that are encoded in the ideology to which they gave themselves in the novel's Vorgeschichte." (6) In this sense the entire novel is an epilogue acted out by characters already "possessed" by their surrender to ideology, while the precise circumstances surrounding these surrenders remain as mysterious as the original "possession" of the man named Legion whose rescue serves the novel as a motto. Since all the evidence concerning the characters is filtered through the narrator's consciousness and conveyed through his style, however seemingly transparent and objective, the novel may also be described as an epistemological palimpsest composed of multiple and often contradictory layers of rumor, speculation, and eyewitness testimony. As far as we are given to know, the narrator has never left his provincial town. He alone has no Vorgeschichte, so that except for the (always unexpected!) arrival of characters from outside, he can report the motivating prehistory of the others only as it sifts down through the var-


ious concentric societal circles of America, Switzerland, and Petersburg to become part of local rumor and legend.

What do we actually know about Anton Lavrent'evich G----V? His name is revealed in Proustian fashion, late, and in installments through the mouths of others: his self-effacing surname by Stepan Trofimovich (74; I:3:iii), his first name and patronymic by Lizaveta Nikolaevna (102-03; 1:4:i). He tells Liza's mother, Madame Drozdov, "I'm in the service" (102; I:4:i), but we never see him serve. His own motives in undertaking his chronicle are never stated explicitly, so that his account appears as unmotivated and irresponsible as the rumors of which it so largely consists. It is difficult to identify the narrator as belonging either to the generation of the "liberal" parents of the forties or to that of their "radical" children of the sixties. Childless and unmarried, the narrator is evidently young enough to feel stirrings of jealous infatuation for Liza, although nothing comes of this, while his old-fashioned attitudes and his long fidelity to Stepan Trofimovich mark him as somewhat older than the younger set. He presents himself most often simply as a friend of Stepan Trofimovich, and functions at first rather like a first-person Jamesian ficelle to expose the character and reputation of Verkhovenskij père in the opening chapters of his chronicle.

With the introduction of Stepan Trofimovich the reader is also introduced to the narrator's characteristic technique of oscillating suggestion or chronic epanorthosis, which consists in first making an assertion, then qualifying it, then contradicting it directly, then re-qualifying it back in the other direction, etc., according to the model: "This is so. On second thought, it isn't certain that it's so. In fact, I'm convinced it isn't so. There is some evidence, however ..." Classic examples of this technique are to be found in Notes from Underground, whose anguished hero glories in a paradoxical spirit worthy of Zeno ("I was lying just now when I said I was a spiteful official; I was lying out of spite"). But The Possessed abounds in similar contradictory sequences, beginning with the narrator's introductory portrait of Stepan Trofimovich:

I am even inclined to suppose that towards the end he had been entirely forgotten everywhere; but still it cannot be said that his name had never been known. It is beyond question that he had at one time belonged to a certain distinguished constellation of celebrated leaders of the last generation [. . .] But Stepan Trofimovich's activity ceased almost at the moment it began, owing, so to say, to a "whirlwind of combined circumstances." And would you believe it? It turned out afterwards that there had been no "whirlwind" and even no "circumstances" [. . .] Yet he was a most intelligent and gifted man, even, so to say, a man of science, although indeed, in science . . . well, in fact he had not done such great things in science, indeed apparently nothing at all. But that's very often the case, of course, with men of science among us in Russia. (8; I:1:i)

If this amounts, as Edward Said puts it, to "hedging" or "pur—


poseful vagueness," it is also a demonstrating of Dostoevsky's recognition that in fiction "everything is true," in the sense that once a suggestion has been made, no amount of retraction can ever fully erase it. (7) Stepan Trofimovich is described as both having and not having a reputation; his son Petr is introduced in a striking series of descriptive paradoxes which warn that he is not at all what he appears to be (143; I:5:v); the narrator both extols and undercuts Liza's beauty (88-89; I:3:vii); he both blames and excuses Julia Mikhailovna for the disastrous fete (248-49, 387; II:5:i, III:2:iii). In short, the narrator both has his cake and eats it too, since new contradictions do not invalidate old assumptions but serve instead to cast doubt on the very possibility of ultimate and stable constructions. Moreover, what is true of the suggestion is also true of its source: given the staggering number of narratological variables, characters cannot be deemed "reliable" or "unreliable" once and for all, but at best only sometimes reliable and sometimes not, always pending further evidence to the contrary. All one can say with certainty—reliably—is that once a character gives reason to suspect that he may be unreliable, he becomes and remains forever a potentially unreliable character, and this latent unreliability tends to cast a retrospective shadow of doubt over earlier accounts in which one had as yet no cause to suspect his sincerity. Soon the cumulative effects of such signs of unreliability can lead to an atmosphere in which all statements appear insincere, manipulative, idiotic, or otherwise unworthy of belief (not to mention the fact of their being fictional) . It is within such wide margins of indeterminacy that political opportunists like Petr Stepanovich can best develop their propagandistic techniques; while the epistemological palimpsest presented by G----v also reveals his own narrative mastery of the suggestive allusion and the elusive suggestion.

Perhaps we can attempt to analyze the narrator's use of rumor and illusion by dividing the evidence presented by G----v into, say, four categories: 1) eyewitness testimony, where the narrator is himself an observer or direct participant in the events he describes; 2) second-hand accounts in which the source of information is identified; 3) general rumors, assumptions made by people in the town whose specific sources remain unidentified, and which contribute to what the narrator calls "the mood of society"; and 4) omniscient speculation, accounts of things the narrator cannot possibly know, given what we come to know (through him) of the fates of the other characters. Obviously these categories are not discrete and will always coincide with the second, for example, while the third may be only a special instance of the fourth. These distinctions are proposed only as heuristic devices for the purpose of analyzing the narrator's perspective, in particular his use of rumor as a narrative mode. (8)

1. Eyewitness testimony. One might assume that this category is relatively safe ground, and that the narrator should at least be trusted to "know" what he has experienced personally. In fact, however, he is quite willing to admit to ignorance or absent-mindedness in his own capacity as eyewitness. He declares, for example, during the scene that ends Book One: "I've forgotten a little the order in which things happened, for a scene of confusion followed" (147; I:5:vi); yet he shows


no such, modesty when facing the far greater difficulty of assessing the mood of the town, not to mention reporting conversations he cannot possibly have witnessed or even heard about. The accuracy of his eye is also put to the test in his encounter with Karmazinov, described as follows:

He [Karmazinov] suddenly dropped a tiny bag, which he was holding in his left hand; though indeed it was not a bag but a kind of little box, or more exactly some sort of small pocket-book, or better yet a tiny reticule, like an old-fashioned lady's reticule, though indeed I really don't know what it was. I only know that I flew to pick it up. I am utterly convinced that I did not really pick it up, but my first motion was unmistakable. (71; I:3:ii) (9)
In the interest of greater accuracy, the dropped object is repeatedly revised to the point of total obscurity; while the narrator, having begun with acuity enough to note that Karmazinov was holding the object in his left hand, is soon reduced to such confused uncertainty that he cannot even be sure that he did not pick it up! (The guilt-ridden overemphasis of his denial only serves to convince the reader that indeed he probably did pick it up.) If objects can thus be made to half-disappear, so can persons like Avdotja Petrovna Tarapygin, the old woman said to have been flogged at von Lembke's imaginary riot— which was "as evident to him as the prison carts had recently been to Stepan Trofimovich" 342; II:10:i). The tale of Tarapygin' s flogging is printed, and sympathizers even take up a collection for the victim; but when the narrator makes his own inquiry, he discovers that no such woman exists:
I mention this non-existent Avdotja Petrovna because what happened to her (should she really have existed) very nearly happened to Stepan Trofimovich; it is even possible that he was somehow himself the source of the absurd rumor about the old woman, that is, as the gossip went on spreading it transformed him into some kind of Madame Tarapygin. (343; II:10:i) (10)
What "very nearly happened"—but did not happen—to Stepan Trofimovich remains as inaccessible and speculative as Karmazinov's motive for dropping the unidentifiable object; and it is of course just possible that nothing would have happened, or that Karmazinov dropped the object quite by accident. In other words, the meaning the narrator gives to the events he witnesses may be entirely his own invention, as impossible to validate as his accounts of events he could not possibly have witnessed.

2. Second-hand accounts. Among the narrator's functions is that of "reflecting" the moods of his friend Stefan Trofimovich, who remains his chief interlocutor throughout the novel. The narrator's alleged humiliation at the hands of Karmazinov, with its ritual palimpsest of over courtesy and covert loathing, is soon paralleled by Stepan Trofimovich's account of his own later brush with the great author:

"Cher," he said to me that evening, recalling all that had happened that day, "I wondered at that


moment which of us was the more contemptible: he, embracing me only to humiliate me, or I, despising him and his face and kissing it on the spot, though I might have turned away. . . . Foo!" (347; II:1O: iii)

There is an unmistakable hall-of-mirrors effect in the narrator's account of his attempt to console Stepan Trofimovich over what the latter perceives as an arranged marriage with Dasha to cover "the sins of others":

In the heat of the moment—and, I must confess, because I was tired of being his confidant— I may have blamed him too much. I was so cruel as to try to force him to confess it all to me himself, though indeed I did recognize that it might be difficult to confess certain things. He also saw right through me; I mean he clearly perceived that I saw right through him and that I was even angry with him, and he was angry with me for being angry with him and seeing right through him. My irritation was perhaps petty and stupid; but mutual solitude is sometimes exceedingly damaging to true friendship. (66-67; I:3:i) (11)

The narrator prefaces this statement with the remark that "as I was still young, I was rather indignant at the coarseness of his feelings and the ugliness of some of his suspicions." As chronicler, he can be only three or four months older than the "still young" man who confesses to his own coarseness and ugliness in forcing his friend to confess, imputing to Stepan Trofimovich his own feelings and fears.

For all their "mutual solitude," neither the narrator nor Stepan Trofimovich is exempt from the charge of gossip-mongering. Varvara Petrovna chides Stepan Trofimovich for his laziness and susceptibility to gossip: "you read nothing but Paul de Kock, and write nothing, while all of them write; all your time's wasted in gossip" (51; I:2:iv). (12) The narrator is guilty of spreading at least one rumor of his own, albeit at Stepan Trofimovich' s request, again while his friend is agonizing over his arranged marriage with Dasha:

I went round to everyone at his request and told everybody that Varvara Petrovna had given our "old man" (as we all used to call Stepan Trofimovich among ourselves) a special job, to put in order some correspondence of many years; that he had shut himself up to do it and I was helping him, etc., etc. Liputin was the only one I did not have time to visit, and I kept putting it off— and to tell the truth, I was afraid to go to him. I knew beforehand that he would not believe one word of my story, that he was sure to imagine there was some secret everybody was trying to keep from him alone, and that as soon as I left him he would set to work making inquiries and gossiping all over town. (68; I:3:i)


In fact it is only the narrator who is gossiping here, while Liputin is suspected of guessing the truth; yet the narrator faults Liputin for his insight and charges him with gossiping before the fact. It remains unclear whether Stepan Trofimovich commissioned the details of the narrator's rumor or merely provided the idea, but in any event, the narrator's reasoning not only apes the worries of the "old man," but is altogether as neurotic and defensive as that of the Underground Man. As with the dropped object and the half-existent lady, the narrator's objectivity may certainly be questioned under such circumstances. (13)

3. General rumors. The narrator frequently presents himself as a chronicler of local "public opinion," often shifting to the first-person plural "we," although the precise scope of inclusion within this "we" is difficult to ascertain. "We" can refer to the townspeople in general, or to the members of Stepan Trofimovich 's circle, or to "our fellows" of the quintet (which always seems to have far more than five members). In this muddled context it is hardly surprising that Stefan Trofimovich, when questioned directly by the narrator, is unable to say whether or not he belongs to a secret society: "You may suppose you don't belong, and suddenly it turns out that you do belong to something" (331; II, 9). There is also an interesting reference to "we" in a draft version of Stavrogin's confession to Tikhon recorded in the Notebooks:

"How can we have such high understanding?" says Tikhon. "Say 'How can I?', please do!" says the Prince. "Why do you want me to say that?" "When one says we, it is as if one were hiding behind everybody else . . ." (14)

It is effectively as just such a screen that the narrator uses the "we" of public opinion, as a means of transmitting rumors without naming their sources. At times the voice of common rumor, like a chorus on the periphery, expresses itself with astonishing unanimity: thus, when Stavrogin pulls Gaganov's nose, "it is remarkable that no one in the whole town had attributed this wild act to madness" (40; I:2:ii}; yet in the end, when "at last everything was explained," the very same townspeople eagerly accept the verdict of "our three doctors" that Stavrogin's outrages were a result of "acute brain fever": "At the club they were ashamed and wondered how it was they had failed to 'see the elephant' and had missed the only possible explanation of all these wonders. Some skeptics, of course, also appeared, but they could not prevail for long" (43; I:2:iii). One might well wonder how the doctors' definition of "brain fever" can be said to differ from insanity:

Our three doctors all expressed their opinion that the patient might well have been delirious for three days beforehand, and that although he was evidently in possession of consciousness and cunning, he must have lacked common sense and volition, as indeed the facts were to show. (43; I:2:iii)

Of course these "facts" might also be interpreted to show that Stavrogin's attacks were a supreme demonstration of will, signalling his freedom from social convention and his literal


grasp of metaphor; but the important point here is that the unanimous opinion of the doctors is accepted by the town with a second, enforced unanimity, even though it contradicts their own collective instincts. These references also anticipate the final sentence of the novel: "Following the post-mortem, our doctors absolutely and insistently rejected all idea of insanity" (516; III:8). If it was not insanity, then what was it? "Brain fever" sounds mor scientific and reassuring, and so the town jumps eagerly to accept the first plausible "explanation" of events, sharing their urge to make sense of things not only with the characters who have adopted Stavrogin's cast-off ideologies, but also with the narrator himself, who seems to share in the general satisfaction with the doctors' verdict even though, by the time he comes to write his account some three months later, he possesses, if not the "full knowledge" he claims, at least some understanding of what was to happen later.

General rumors also provide an ominously buzzing background for Julia Mikhailovna's fête, which unleashes the final sequence of catastrophes. The narrator adopts the didactic tone of an armchair philosopher to explain the impending disaster in sociopolitical terms (using here again the technique of oscillating suggestion):

In troubled times of uncertainty or transition, low characters make their appearance always and everywhere. I am not speaking now of the so-called "progressives" who are always in a hurry to be in advance of everyone else (their great worry) and who always have some more or less definite aim, though often a very stupid one. No, I am speaking only of the rabble. In every period of transition this rabble, which exists in every society, rises to the surface, and is not only without any aim but has not even a symptom of an idea, and is itself merely an expression of unrest and impatience. Moreover, this rabble, without realizing it, almost always falls under the command of the little clique of "progressives" who do act with a definite aim, and this little clique can direct all this scum as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of total idiots, which indeed also happens. (354; III:1:i)

Here the theme of evil influence is set forth in social terms: "aimless" rabble falls "without realizing it" under the control of "progressive" morons, just as these "progressives" themselves fall easy prey to the conscious wiles of flattering scoundrels like Petr Stepanovich. This hierarchy of manipulation is shown to be as hollow at its social base as Stavrogin is vacant at its peak: "What the trouble of our times was, and where we are coming from, or where we were going, I don't know, nor I think does anyone, except perhaps some of those extraneous guests" (354; III:1:i)—namely, some of those "low characters" without "even a symptom of an idea." As in the question of Stavrogin's madness, reassurance masquerades as explanation.

Rumors remain the medium through which control is exercised, and Petr Stepanovich has such confidence in his skill at this game that he even anticipate his own effects. On the morning after


the fête, he rushes in to Stavrogin and Liza to report that

"In any case, although now they are all screaming over there that Stavrogin had to burn his wife, and that's why the town was burnt, still ..." "What, are they really screaming that?" "Well, not just yet, and I confess I have really heard nothing of the sort, but what can you do with people, especially victims of a fire! Vox populi vox dei. Does it take long to spread a stupid rumor? But you really have nothing to worry about ..." (4O4; III:3:ii)

This last sentence of seeming reassurance is of course a deadly threat, as the social surface of language hides an evil and opposite meaning.

Earlier the narrator reports a rumor that Stavrogin is on a secret mission for the government (echoing the rumors surrounding Gogol's Khlestiakov and Chichikov); this rumor is made to sound extremely ominous before being dismissed as frivolous and even traceable to its source:

There were also other conversations, though not in public, but in private, on rare occasions and almost in secret, extremely strange things whose very existence I mention only to forewarn my readers in view of the later events of my story. [. . .] When certain very solid and sensible people smiled at this rumor, remarking very reasonably that a man living a life of scandal, and starting his career . among us with a black eye, did not look like a government official, they were told in a whisper that he was serving not officially, but, so to say, confidentially, and that in such cases it was essential to look as little as possible like an official. This remark produced a sensation; it was ' known among us that the Zemstvo of our province was the object of close scrutiny in the capital. I repeat, these were only flitting rumors . . . (168; II:1:i)

The narrator then hints strongly that these rumors originated with Artemii Pavlovich Gaganov, whom Stavrogin soon humiliates in a duel (in yet another act of "omission"); but identifying the source of a rumor cannot erase its permanent effect on the "public mind". A mirror image of this same rumor is later revealed by Petr Stepanovich to Stavrogin just before the name-day "meeting" at Virginskii's:

"You've no doubt represented me as a member from abroad, with ties to the Internationale?" Stavrogin asked suddenly. "No, not an inspector; you won't be an inspector; but you are one of the original members from abroad, who knows the most important secrets—that's your rôle." (299; II:6:vii)

Stavrogin indeed knows the "most important secrets," and in a


famous passage in the Notebook Dostoevsky observed that the "special tone" of his novel would depend on the mysteries enveloping Stavrogin and Petr Stepanovich: "The tone consists in not explaining Nechaev or the Prince." (15) The explanations offered by the general rumors of the town, again "doubled" with the narrator's own critical comments and explanations, also fail to arrive at a valid account of the secret forces at work in the town.

4. Omniscient speculation. The narrator's "impossible" omniscience is frequently cited as a reason for disregarding the significance of his perspective altogether: G----v is considered merely a narrative convenience which Dostoevsky discard as soon as it became cumbersome to introduce him into all the situations required by his story. (16) However, this "sometime narrator" never disappears for good; he is present at the end as at the beginning of his chronicle, and the only excuse he offers for his occasional omniscience is based on the hindsight he claims to share with others:

And now, having described our enigmatic situation throughout these eight days during which we still knew nothing, I shall pass on to the description of the succeeding events of my chronicle, writing, so to speak, with full knowledge of the affair, as everything has come to be revealed and explained by now. (173; II:1: iii)

He then proceeds to describe in full detail conversations between characters who either commit suicide or are murdered within the next few days, conversations which are crucial to the story, yet about which he cannot possibly have any direct knowledge. (He even somehow knows, for example, that Shatov's death was "almost instantaneous"--surely one of the most terrible "almosts" in all of literature!)

The Notebooks contain an interesting reference to this problem of the impossibly omniscient narrator:

And altogether, whenever I am giving an account of conversations between just two persons—don't pay any attention to this: either I have positive facts, or I am, perhaps, inventing them myself—but I assure you that everything is true. (17)

The narrative analog of. Ivan Karamazov's recognition that "if there is no God, everything is permitted" is that if there is no finally valid truth, all suggestions and inventions are partially true. It is in the realm of such half-truths, rumors, and competing versions of the truth that the political lessons of the novel are to be found. Whether Petr Stepanovich's revolutionary quintets "really" exist does not matter; what matters is only that they be thought to exist. Similarly, as Dostoevsky notes, it does not matter if the narrator provides information he cannot possess, what matters is only that, like Petr Stepanovich, he should seem to possess it. Moreover, even if the "real truth" could be identified, Stepan Trofimovich suggests that no one would understand it; as he says to the narrator, "My dear, the real truth always sounds improbable, do you know that? To make truth sound probable you must always mix in some falsehood with it. Men have always done so" (172; II:1:ii). (18) The formal falsehood of the narrator's unjustified omniscience


serves in this way the "real truth" of the story he is attempting to tell, at the expense of the narrator's credibility according to the normal conventions of realistic time and space. (19)

The narrator records these impossible conversations verbatim, but even their literal detail is no final guarantee of accuracy. On the single occasion when Stavrogin visits Shatov, Shatov quotes Stavrogin's "leading idea" back to him and concludes with an original observation about what he calls "semi-science" (polunauka): (20)

"Semi-science is a despot such as has never been in the world before. A despot that has its priests and its slaves, a despot before whom all have bowed down with love and superstition hitherto unthinkable, before whom science itself trembles, indulging it shamefully. These are your very own words, Stavrogin, all except for the bit about semi-science; that's my own because I am myself a case of semi-science, and that's why I hate it particularly. I haven't altered anything of your ideas or even of your words, not a single word." "I don't agree that you've not altered anything," Stavrogin observed cautiously. "You accepted them with ardor, and in your ardor you have transformed them without noticing it." (199, II:1:vii)

According to Stavrogin, a direct quotation may thus be altered and transformed even when it is literally accurate. In his own right, Shatov, answering Liza's request that he help her to edit a review, observes that it would be difficult to edit a magazine without a political tendency, since "in the very selection of facts there will be an indication of how to understand them" (104; I:4:iii). Both the selection and the "transforming ardor" of Shatov's understanding of Stavrogin's ideals-doubled by the narrator who, even when absent as a witness, is still the ardent and selective voice of his own invention-once again deny the possibility of an accurate and stable version of the truth.

In summary, then, at each of these four levels of epistemological validity, ranging from immediate eyewitness testimony to the dubious prerogatives of omniscient speculation, the narrator of The Possessed faces again and again the impossibility of discovering the "real truth" or establishing a logically consistent and ultimately valid version of events. This longing for a true story is largely the urge behind the susceptibility of all the characters to false political prophets and rumor-masters like Petr Stepanovich; and to replace G----v as omniscient narrator with Dostoevsky as omniscient author is to miss the important point that the narrator himself, in his medium as well as his message, shares his characters desperate demand for truth and participates in their frustrating saturation in half-truths, lies, and delusions.

The ominous, oppressive atmosphere of the novel is insinuated into the reader's mind through this impenetrable network of contradictory rumors until the situation virtually "reeks with the air of evil," as Henry James said of The Turn of the Screw:

Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough [....] and his own experience, his own imagination,


his own sympathy (for the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. (21)

Despite the difference in style, there is a striking similarity between James' remark and the following passage from The Possessed:

So that they may believe you, you must say it as obscurely as possible, just like that, just a few hints. You need only show them a little corner of the truth, just enough to tease them. They'll always tell themselves better lies than we could, and then of course they'll believe themselves more than they would us; and you know, it's better than anything—better than anything! (473; III:6:ii)

Petr Stepanovich is here exhorting Kirillov to make his last note short and obscure, rushing him into a death he intends to misrepresent and use as an alibi for his own murder of Shatov. In effect, the theory of rumor expounded here by Petr Stepanovich is difficult to distinguish from the one practised by the narrator throughout the novel.

The politics of The Possessed is not only a question of varieties of god-seeking lunatics, or of revolutionary demons possessing a group of weak-willed provincial fools; it is also a matter regarding the uses of language and the manner in which the story is told. Uniting Shigalovism, Shatov's dreams of a national god, Stavrogin's radical guilt, and Petr Stepanovich's manipulations is the language of a narrator who himself participates in the seductions of rumor and the wavering urge to maintain a tenable fiction, a true and stable version of events. What he provides instead is an account of what people say, and of what people say people say, in an endless labyrinth of speculation and hearsay.

This narrative indeterminacy is an important element not only in The Possessed, but in other of Dostoevsky's works as well. In Crime and Punishment, Marmeladov explains that Sonia was forced to take a prostitute's yellow ticket because of "reports by disloyal persons" (II,2); while Raskol'nikov's mother's account of the local lecture tours of Marfa Petrovna Svidrigailova remains a classic (Gogolian) account of the social mileage that can be gained from a good rumor. The narrator of The Brothers Karamazov leaves open the possibility that the convict Karp, and not old Karamazov, is the real father of Smerdjakov; and the town's shifting attitudes about Dmitrii's guilt bear comparison with the changing moods of the townsfolk of The Possessed. In general, an examination of the manifold voices of Legion may contribute not only to a deeper understanding of Dostoevsky's craft, but perhaps also to an increased awareness of the political dimensions of narrative perspective.



  1. Page references are to the standard Russian edition of Besy published as volume 10 of F.M. Dostoevskij, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij v tridcati tomakh (Leningrad: "Nauka," 1974), followed by a more "universal" reference to the part, chapter, and section in question. Quotations in English are based on the Constance Garnett translation, occasionally modified for accuracy.  
  2. Horst-Jürgen Gerigk, Versuch über Dostoevskij's 'Jüngling': Ein Beitrag zur Theorie des Romans, Forum Slavicum, ed. Dmitrij Chizhevskij, Band 4 (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1965), p. 37; Wolf Schmid, Der Textaufbau in den Erzählungen Dostoevskijs, Beiheft zu Poetica, ed. Karl Maurer, Heft 10 (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1973), p. 81.  
  3. M. Bakhtin, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo, 3rd. ed. (Moscow: "Khudozhestvennaja literatura," 1972), pp. 387-88; in English as Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and tr. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 225. Bakhtin goes on to note that the basic "documentary style" of the narrator is modified "ideologically" with respect to Stepan Trofimovich: "even in the latest works individual heroes are illuminated by a style that directly parodies and taunts them, a style that sounds like an exaggerated rejoinder from their own interior dialogue. Thus, for example, is the narrative of The Possessed constructed in relation to Stepan Trofimovich, but only in relation to him" (Problemy, p. 391; Problems, p. 227).  
  4. Slobodanka B. Vladiv, Narrative Principles in Dostoevskij's Besy: A Structural Analysis, European University Papers, Series XVI, Vol. 10 (Berne etc.: Peter Lang, 1979), pp. 84, 48.  
  5. For example, Irving Howe, in "Dostoevsky: The Politics of Salvation" (still perhaps the best-known English essay on The Possessed) makes no mention of the narrator. Similarly, in a recent article entitled "La représentation par l'absence: Statut narratif des personnages chez Dostoevskij" (in Revue de Littérature Comparée, Tome LV, No. 3-4, juil.-déc. 1981, pp. 465-79), Hana Jechova discusses The Possessed in terms of Ingarden's Unbestimmtheitsstellen without once mentioning the existence of the narrator.  
  6. Michael Holquist, Dostoevsky and the Novel (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), p. 132.  
  7. Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: . Basic Books, 1975), p. 149.  
  8. Vladiv proposes a comparable set of distinctions in her discussion of the narrator's "information apparatus," but she rejects the idea that the narrator is "omniscient" on the grounds that his knowledge is not superior to that of the other characters in the novel: "there is no central authoritative source which disposes over superior knowledge, be-


      cause every character of the novel is a potential source of the same type of knowledge" (p. 76). She describes the omniscient scenes of my fourth category in terms of "reconstructions" or "guesses," but concedes elsewhere that the narrator is "omniscient [. . .] only in a spatial sense" (p. 113).  
  9. In this passage and elsewhere, Dostoevsky uses the word vprochem in precisely the same manner that Nabokov has described in connection with Gogol: "Gogol's trick consists in using as a link the word 'vprochem ' ('for the rest,' 'otherwise,' 'd'ailleurs') which is a connection only in the grammatical sense but mimics a logical link"; see Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 20. Garnett also translates vprochem as "indeed" or "in fact." The choice of words used to describe Karmazinov's object is also significant in another way: the korobochka ("little box") is doubtless what Bakhtin would call a "sidelong glance" at Gogol, whose Madame Box is elsewhere mentioned explicitly (97; I:3:x); while a ridikjul'chik ("reticule") also suggests something small and ridicule.  
  10. Nabokov has eloquently described the "secondary world" of Gogol's "peripheral characters" who are "engendered by the subordinate clauses of [. . .] various metaphors, comparisons and lyrical outbursts"; see Nikolai Gogol (New York: New Directions, 1944), p. 78. Here the narrator employs a similar device in reverse, creating a "real" character who is then dissolved back into a metaphorical attribute of Stepan Trofimovich.  
  11. It is curious that the relation between the narrator and Stepan Trofimovich should be described as "mutual solitude" (vzaimnoe uedinenie) , and this raises yet another issue: all the main characters in the novel, with the sole and important exception of Stavrogin, are irrevocably and unbearably chaste. This chastity can be programmatic (Virginskij, whose name is no accident); tyrannical, hysterical, and arbitrary (Varvara Petrovna); pathetic (Marja Timofeevna, who imagines that her imaginary baby has drowned, foreshadowing the fate of "Shatushka's" body); or modest and savage (Shatov).  
  12. To say that "all of them write" is no exaggeration: Lembke is a novelist, Lebjadkin a romantic poet, Shigalov a ponderous graphomaniac, Liza wants to publish a book, Varvara Petrovna once tried to found a magazine, etc.  
  13. As Henry James masterfully demonstrated in his story "The Liar," lies rarely shock when they are whitewashed with a plausible justification; it is not the untruth per se, but its arbitrary brutality, that offends.  
  14. Polnoe sobranie sochinenij, Vol. 11, p. 266. An English translation of an earlier Russian edition is available as The Notebooks for The Possessed, ed. Edward Wasiolek, tr. Victor Terras (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 369. Future references will be to these editions.  
  15. 65

  16. Polnoe sobranie, p. 261; Notebooks, p. 335.  
  17. E.H. Carr's comments are typical of this view: "the fiction is maintained of a narrator who, though not himself an important actor in the story, is well acquainted with the principal personages and only relates what he has seen or heard. In later sections, this fiction altogether disappears and the story is related frankly and directly by the omniscient author" (Dostoevsky, 1821-1881, London, 1931, rpt. Unwin Books, 1962, p. 171).  
  18. Polnoe sobranie , p. 92; Notebooks, p. 121.  
  19. Stepan Trofimovich comes close to defining the essence of literary fiction in this passage; and the salvation of his "last wandering" is developed in similar language: "J'ai menti toute ma vie, all, all my life!" (506; III: 7:iii).  
  20. The inconsistencies in the narrator's account are indeed temporal as well as logical. For example, when Stavrogin warns Shatov that "they may murder you," Shatov answers, "that fellow's run here four times to tell me it was possible" (191; II:1:vi). "That fellow" is never identified explicitly, but refers most likely to Petr Stepanovich. Later in the same conversation, Stavrogin explains to Shatov that "one of the things Petr Verkhovenskij came here for was to settle your business once and for all" (192; II:1:vi). Yet it is not until a full week later, on the evening of Virginskij's name-day "meeting," that Stavrogin suggests directly to Petr Stepanovich that the murder of an alleged traitor would effectively cement together the members of the quintet. Is Stavrogin guilty of more than passive acquiescence in the murder of Shatov? Does he "use" Petr Stepanovich for his own vengeance or sport, as Petr Stepanovich uses Fedja the Convict?  
  21. It should be noted that neither "half-truth" (Garnett) nor "half-science" (Magarshack) nor "semi-science" fully captures the meaning of Shatov's neologism.  
  22. Henry James, The Art of the Novel (New York: Scribners, 1934) , p. 176.  
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