In the Devils, Dostoevsky adapts the idea of a revolutionary group from a case that occurred in 1869. He combines the Nechayev case and his own beliefs in order to create the central plot of the Devils. Dostoevsky depicts a radical group that desires to overthrow the government and undermine the Russian church. The extremists hope to replace themselves at the helm of the country by displacing those who are currently in power. The strength of the group is their ability to remain clandestine, their intelligence, and their ability to commit horrific crimes with little remorse. However, the entire group crumbles at the pinnacle of their actions.
The entire novel takes place in a small town outside of Petersberg and is narrated by Mr. Govorov. Dostoevsky does not hold him accountable to witness every conversation first hand, but nonetheless the narrator describes the story as if he partook in every situation or as a chronicler, who had the events described to him. All that is accounted for is that Mr. Govorov and Stephan Trofimovich are close friends.
Book I is a basic introduction to the characters and provides insight to their backgrounds and personalities. Dostoevsky takes the time to describe events that occurred thirty years ago in order to better understand their present situations. Book I has little action, but begins to develop the characters that are essential later in the novel. (Refer to "Character Analysis" for more details).
Liza and Stravrogin begin to spend time with one another and inevitably the issue of marriage arises. Varvara learns of her son's interest in Liza and believes that marriage may be beneficial for him. However, when Varvara, accompanied by her servant Dasha, visits Liza the arrangement becomes uncertain. Liza believes that Stavrogin is attracted to Dasha because of their behavior around one another. Consequently Varvara, after returning home, decides to arrange a marriage between Dasha and Stephan. This arrangement is made in order to guarantee that Dasha will no longer be a threat to Stavrogin's and Liza's intention to marry. Both Stephan and Dasha accept Varvara's proposal because of their subordinate relationship to her. Stephan becomes extremely nervous and agitated with Varvara for not confirming the plans for marriage. He spends much of his time tormenting the narrator, Mr. Govorov, with foolish demands.
The climax of book one occurs in the time span of one day at Varvara's house. Varvara leaves church and is approached by the cripple, Marya, asking for money. Out of guilt and pity, Varvara takes Marya home with her and Liza joins them as well. When they arrive at Varvara's home Stephan, Shatov, and the narrator are waiting. The presence of the cripple disrupts their conversation and creates a feeling of awkwardness in the room. Liza's mother, Varvara Perovna appears on the scene and soon after, Dasha joins them. Captain Lebyadkin arrives to pursue his previous desires to marry Liza. The Captain attempts to impress Liza and the rest of the crowd, but ends up making a fool of himself. Stavrogin, preceded by Peter Stepanovich, enters the scene after having been away from home for quite some time. He denies his marriage to Marya, but calls her his good friend and then escorts her home. Peter remains to unveil the truth of the actual marriage, explains why Stavrogin denies the marriage, and disgraces his father Stephan. Varvara leaves to take Stephan home and in the her absence: Shatov strikes Stavrogin in the face, Stavrogin intentionally restrains himself, Shatov slips away, and Liza begins having fits.
Book I ends with all of the major characters accounted for, but little resolved. Dostoevsky uses this tension and confusion to build upon in Book II. Book I is typical of Dostoevsky in that he focuses on the character development, which is then incorporated to produce a scandalous climactic scene. He also creates a sense of disarray that sets the scene for the chaos that is to follow.
Book II contains two contrasting conversations about the concept of God. Kirillov announces to Stavrogin his intention to kill himself in an attempt to become God by eternalizing the moment of his suicide. On the other hand, Shatov confesses his desire to believe in God, but feels unworthy because of his lack of faith. His hostility towards Stavrogin is due to the secret marriage between Stavrogin and Marya, and also because of the alleged affair between Stavrogin and Shatov's wife.
While departing Shatov's residence to go to Captain Lebyadkin's apartment, Stavrogin encounters Fedka, a former serf of Peter's. Fedka solicits money, but Stavrogin treats him rudely and continues on his way. After arriving at the apartment, Lebyadkin threatens to expose the group. Stavrogin leaves hastily in order to speak to Marya. He admits to Marya that he wants to publicly announce their wedding, but Marya becomes upset and Stavrogin leaves in a rage. On his way home, Fedka approaches Stavrogin again. Stavrogin releases his anger on Fedka by physically harming him and in a fit of madness throws money in the air as he leaves.
The next day Stavrogin is forced to partake in a duel because of his uncivil conduct toward the man in the bar. He intentionally shoots in the air to avoid his opponent, but that only angers his opponent more. The duel ends with Stavrogin gaining a new perspective on life, while his opponent is still angry. Stavrogin then returns home to Dasha, who contends that she will forgive him for any past and future transgressions. Dostoevsky then shifts the central focus from Stavrogin to Peter.
Peter begins by ridiculing the governor, while maintaining a friendly relationship with the governor's wife. The feté becomes a major concern for the Governor's wife, thus gives Peter ample time to devote to his personal business. He holds the first group meeting at Virginsky's house. The meeting reflects the inability of the group to accomplish anything constructive. Stavrogin arrives late to the meeting and leaves shortly afterwards, much to the distress of Peter, refusing to agree that he would keep the conversation at the meeting a secret. The scene provides a setting for Dostoevsky's political satire and contempt for the revolutionary movement. After catching up with Stavrogin, Peter reveals his intention to make Stavrogin the leader of the group. Stavrogin leaves Peter without saying a word.
As promised to the governor, Peter brings forth evidence to the police of a revolutionary group. Anonymously, he frames his father as a leader of the group. The police search Stephan's house and confiscate his books. Peter did this out of hatred for his father, effectively taking revenge against him and isolating Stephan from society.
Part III begins with the fete, planned for the enjoyment of the governess. From the beginning, the feté is a catastrophe that Dostoevsky constructs in his typical dramatic fashion. The feté consists of two parts: the speakers during the day and the party in the evening. The speakers are: Captain Lebyadkin, Karamazinov, Stephan, and an unknown maniac. All of the speakers are a complete failure. Captain Lebyadkin begins the charade by appearing drunk on stage, Liputin reads the offensive poem that was originally prepared for Lebyadkin, Karamazinov bores the crowd to tears with his self-righteous reading of "Merci", Stephan's speech reflects his obvious self-demise, and the final speech by the maniac is the last blow to the crowd. The entire crowd rushes out in a frenzy.
Despite the disastrous morning, Peter convinces Varvara to proceed with the ball as planned. The ball fairs no better, with many uninvited guests appearing and few members of high standing present. The feté is ended by the announcement that there is a fire on the river bank. The fire is intentionally set, though the guilty are unknown, and Marya and Captain Lebyadkin are found murdered in their hut, which was rented by Stavrogin.
Following the fire, Stavrogin goes to Liza's house in an attempt to persuade her to leave town with him. Stavrogin tells Liza that he had the ability to stop the murder, but took no action. Liza leaves madly dragging her suitor, Maurice Nikolaevich, behind her. They arrive at the sight of the murder and encounter a mob. Liza is identified as "Stavrogin's woman," whacked in the head, and then carried off in a bloody mess.
The next meeting of the group then occurs. The group is worried that the murder of Lebyadkin will be traced to them, but Peter eases their minds by persuading them that the evidence cannot be traced to them. Peter does express his fear that Shatov will betray them because of his desire to leave the group. Shatov is in possession of the group's printing press and is capable of proving their existence. Therefore, Peter convinces the organization that they need to murder Shatov for their own security. They plan to ask him to bring the printing press to a designated location where they all plan to partake in his murder. The blame will then be placed on Kirillov, who has agreed to kill himself and sign any document that Peter presents to him. The group is nervous about being involved with more murders, but agree to do so out of submission to Peter and in order to preserve the group's secret identity. Liputin is particularly nervous about the affair and plans on leaving the country immediately following the murder.
In the following section Dostoevsky creates the character of Marya Shatova. She represents the contrasting images of birth and death. The introduction of her character is unnecessary to the plot of the novel, but it provides a number of possible themes that Dostoevsky is trying to present in the novel. Marya is Shatov's ex-wife who he has not seen for three years. She arrives pregnant and wanting to establish herself in a new town. On her first night in town she goes into labor with Stavrogin's baby. Shatov becomes frantic and chases all over town searching for a midwife. He convinces Virginsky's wife to assist in the birth which is successful. Marya expresses her need for Shatov and they appear to be in love again.
Shatov leaves his wife to expose the location of the printing press as planned. The group's plan is not adhered to, but the murder is successfully committed. They dispose of the body in a nearby lake and disperse agreeing not to mention a word of their action. One of the group's members, Lyamshin, is in a terrible state and another member, Tolkachenko, is assigned by Peter to take care of him. Peter then goes directly to Kirillov's apartment to complete the plan. After a great deal of discussion, Kirillov signs the note, taking full responsibility for the murder of Shatov, and then commits suicide. Peter goes to Petersburg to remove himself from everything that had transpired and in pursuit of Stavrogin, who departed after his conversation with Liza.
Stephan embarks on a journey to escape his surroundings in town. He accepts a ride from strangers and stops at a hut for food on his way to Spasov. He meets a peasant, Sofya Mateevna, who is selling gospels in the hut. He offers her a ride to catch the ferry to Spasov. They stay in a hut to wait for the day when the ferry will arrive, but Stephan falls very ill. She stays with him because of his insistence and because she is unable to leave a dying man. Stephan turns to God in his final days, praying for his forgiveness and realizing the joy in life. Varvara arrives and initially treats Sofya very rudely, but later apologizes for her behavior. She calls for a doctor, but it is to no avail. Stephan dies peacefully in bed with the firm conviction that God would ease his suffering.
The conclusion of the novel is brief, but tragic. Marya Shatova wakes to find her husband not by her side and runs into the streets with her baby searching for him. She falls unconscious and dies three days later. Her baby catches a cold and dies before she does. Tolkachenko abandons Lyamshin to try to escape. Lyamshin goes to the police and confesses everything about the group. He, Virginsky, Erkel, Liputin, Tolkachenko, and Peter are all arrested for their involvement in the recent crimes. Stavrogin sends word to Darya, asking her to come live with him. She plans to accept his offer and Varvara declares that she will join them. Upon hearing of his return, Darya and Varvara go in search of Stavrogin, but instead find that he has hanged himself. A note of explanation is left: "No one is to blame, I did it myself."
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