Major Characters

  • Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is a refined and high-minded intellectual whose ideas and actions are nevertheless partly responsible for the development of the nihilistic forces, centering around his son Pyotr Stepanovich and Nikolai Stavrogin, that ultimately bring local society to the brink of collapse. The character is Dostoyevsky's rendering of an archetypal liberal idealist of the 1840s Russian intelligentsia, and is based partly on Timofey Granovsky and Alexander Herzen.[7]
The novel begins with the narrator's affectionate but ironic description of Stepan Trofimovich's character and early career. He has been married twice, but is a widower during the events of the novel. He has one child, Pyotr Stepanovich, from his first marriage, but he took no part in his son's upbringing, instead leaving him to be raised by aunts in a distant province. He had the beginnings of a career as a lecturer at the University, and his writings and occasional speeches argued on the Western side of the Westernizer/Slavophile debate that dominated intellectual discussion at that time in Russia. He claims that this made government officials concerned that he is a potentially dangerous thinker, forcing him out of academia and into exile in the provinces. In reality it is more likely that no one of note in the government knew who he was, much less had any concern about his spreading dangerous ideas. He nonetheless hastened to accept the proposal from Varvara Stavrogina that he should take on himself "the education and the entire intellectual development of her only son in the capacity of a superior pedagogue and friend, not to mention a generous remuneration."[8]
Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Stavrogina love each other and cannot part, but at the same time they are a source of immense frustration for each other. In a cynical but not entirely inaccurate critique of his father, Pyotr Stepanovich describes their mutual dependence thus: "she provided the capital, and you were her sentimental buffoon."[9] He is utterly dependent on her financially and she frequently rescues him from the consequences of his irresponsibility. She promotes his reputation as the town's preeminent intellectual, a reputation he happily indulges at regular meetings, often enhanced with champagne, of the local "free-thinkers". Present at these meetings are many of the individuals who go on to play a role in the chaos that follows.[10]
On his death bed at the end of the novel, Stepan Trofimovich recognizes the deceit of his life, accepts the blame, forgives others, and makes an ecstatic speech expressing his re-kindled love of God.[11]
  • Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina is a wealthy and influential landowner, residing on the magnificent estate of Skvoreshniki where much of the novel takes place.
Varvara Petrovna begins by inviting Stepan Trofimovich to become the tutor and spiritual guide of her young son Nikolai Vsevolodovich, but goes on to form an attachment to him that endures for twenty years. She supports him financially and emotionally, protects him, fusses over him, even creates a costume for him, and in the process acquires for herself an idealized romantic poet and intellectual, modelled somewhat on the writer Nestor Kukolnik.[12]
Generous, noble-minded and strong willed, Varvara Petrovna prides herself on her patronage of artistic and charitable causes. She is "a classic kind of woman, a female Maecenas, who acted strictly out of the highest considerations".[13] But she is also extremely demanding and unforgiving, and is almost terrifying to Stepan Trofimovich when he (usually out of weakness) fails her or humiliates her in some way. Pyotr Stepanovich, on his arrival in the town, is quick to take advantage of her resentment towards his father.
Varvara Petrovna almost worships her son Nikolai Vsevolodovich and has high hopes for him, but there are indications that she is aware that there is something deeply wrong. She tries to ignore this however, and Pyotr Stepanovich is able to further ingratiate himself by subtly presenting her son's inexplicable behaviour in a favourable light.
  • Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin is the central character of the novel. Though in appearance handsome, intelligent, aristocratic and refined, the narrator notes that he is a little too perfect: "you might say that he was a picture of beauty, but at the same time there was something repellent about him."[14] Socially he is self-assured and courteous, but his general demeanour is described as "stern, pensive and apparently distracted."[15]
Growing up, Stavrogin was greatly influenced by Stepan Trofimovich. The teacher "knew how to reach into his young friend's heart and pluck the deepest chords."[16] Although Varvara Petrovna herself took little part in her son's development, Nikolai Vsevolodovich was always "morbidly aware that that she was keeping a close watch on him."[17] At the age of sixteen he left Skvoreshniki to study at the Lyceum. After completing his studies he served time in the military in an elite horse regiment, then lived for a time in Petersburg before returning home, aged about twenty-five, to live with his mother. Though at first well behaved and decorous, he suddenly shocks the locals with several ridiculous but aggressively antisocial actions. These include dragging a man of high social standing by the nose at a local bar, kissing another man's wife at the couple's wedding party, and biting the governor's ear. Society is outraged, but he is partly forgiven owing to a medical diagnosis of an acute episode of brain fever.
When in Petersburg Stavrogin had secretly married the mentally and physically disabled Marya. He shows signs of caring for her, but ultimately he becomes complicit in her murder. At the end of the chapter "Night (Continuation)" he throws a number of banknotes at Fedka the Convict, apparently as a down payment to kill his wife and brother in law.[18] The extent to which he fully understands what will happen when he does this is unclear, but he is aware that the murder is being plotted and does nothing to prevent it. In a letter to Darya Pavlovna, not long before his eventual suicide, he affirms that he is guilty in his own conscience for the murder of his wife.[19]
Other characters are fascinated by Stavrogin, especially the younger Verkhovensky, who envisions him as the figurehead of the revolution he is attempting to spark. Shatov once looked up to him as a potentially great figure who could inspire Russia to a Christian regeneration. Disillusioned, he now sees him as "an idle, footloose son of a landowner", a man who has lost the distinction between good and evil. Stavrogin, according to Shatov, is driven by "a passion for inflicting torment", not simply for the pleasure of harming others, but to torment his own conscience, to wallow in the sensation of "moral carnality".[20]
In an originally censored section (included as the chapter "At Tikhon's" in modern editions), Stavrogin confesses to, among other things, raping and driving to suicide a girl of only 12 years. In his written confession he describes in detail the profound inner pleasure he experiences when he becomes conscious of himself in shameful situations, particularly in moments of committing a crime. He notes that the pleasure is always accompanied by an equally powerful anger, but that the pleasure is heightened immeasurably by suppressing the anger.[21]
  • Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky is the son of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky and the principal driving force of the mayhem that ultimately engulfs the town. The father and son are a representation of the aetiological connection Dostoyevsky perceived between the liberal idealists of the 1840s and the nihilistic revolutionaries of the 1860s.[22]
Pyotr Stepanovich claims to be at the center of a vast, organized conspiracy to overthrow the government and establish socialism. He manages to convince his small group of co-conspirators that they are just one revolutionary cell among many, and that their part in the scheme will help set off a nationwide revolt. His ambitious scheme requires Stavrogin as the figurehead, and he tries desperately, through a combination of ensnarement and persuasion, to recruit him. The revolution he envisages will ultimately require a despotic leader, and he thinks that Stavrogin's strong will, personal charisma and "unusual aptitude for crime"[23] are the necessary qualities for such a leader.
Never at a loss for words, Pyotr Stepanovich is very adept at flattery and saying what people want to hear. He uses these abilities to sow discord and manipulate people for his own political ends. He begins with Varvara Stavrogina, but his greatest success is with the Governor's wife, Yulia von Lembke, and he manages to gain an extraordinary influence over her and her social circle. This influence, in conjunction with constant undermining of authority figures like his father and the Governor, is ruthlessly exploited to bring about a breakdown of standards in society.
The character of Pyotr Stepanovich was inspired by the revolutionary Sergey Nechayev, in particular the methods described in his manifesto Catechism of a Revolutionary.[24] In the Catechism revolutionaries are encouraged to "aid the growth of calamity and every evil, which must at last exhaust the patience of the people and force them into a general uprising."[25] Verkhovensky's murder of Shatov in the novel was based on Nechayev's actual murder of a former revolutionary associate.[26]
  • Ivan Pavlovich Shatov is the son of Varvara Stavrogina's deceased valet. When he was a child she took him and his sister Darya Pavlovna under her protection, and they received tutoring from Stepan Trofimovich. At university Shatov had socialist convictions and was expelled following an incident. He travelled abroad as a tutor with a merchant's family, but the employment came to an end when he married the family's governess who had been dismissed for 'freethinking'. Having no money and not recognizing the ties of marriage, they parted almost immediately. He wandered Europe alone before eventually returning to Russia.
By the time of the events in the novel Shatov has completely rejected his former convictions and become a passionate defender of Russia's Orthodox Christian heritage and destiny. In general Shatov is awkward, gloomy and taciturn, but when aroused by a perceived affront to his Russian nationalist convictions he becomes unrestrained and loquacious.[27] This is seen most vividly in the chapter 'Night' where he engages in a heated discussion with Stavrogin about God, Russia and morality. As a younger man Shatov had idolized Stavrogin, but now, having seen through him and guessed the secret of his marriage, he seeks to tear down the idol in a withering critique.[28] But Stavrogin, though affected, is certainly not withered, and answers by drawing attention to the inadequacy of Shatov's own faith, something Shatov himself recognizes.[29] As they part, Shatov advises Stavrogin to go and see the holy man Tikhon.
Shatov's relationship with Pyotr Verkhovensky is one of mutual hatred. Verkhovensky conceives the idea of having the group murder him as a traitor to the cause, thereby binding them closer together by the blood they have shed. The murder occurs shortly after Shatov's estranged wife Marie suddenly reappears in the town, pregnant with Stavrogin's child. Shatov is overjoyed to reunite with her and is planning to be the father to the illegitimate child.
  • Alexei Nilych Kirillov is an engineer who lives in the same house at Bogoyavlenskaya Street as Shatov and Lebyadkin. He has a connection to Verkhovensky's revolutionary movement but of a very unusual kind: he is determined to kill himself and has agreed to do it at a time when it can be of use to the movement's aims.
Kirillov, like Shatov, has been deeply influenced by Stavrogin, but in a diametrically opposed way. While inspiring Shatov with the ecstatic image of the Russian Christ, Stavrogin was simultaneously encouraging Kirillov toward the logical extremes of atheism - the absolute supremacy of the human will.[30] "If God does not exist" according to Kirillov, "then all will is mine, and I am obliged to proclaim self-will."[31] This proclamation, for Kirillov, must take the form of the act of killing himself with the sole motive being annihilation of mankind's fear of pain and death, so that the new era of the Man-God, where there is no God other than the human will, can begin.
That such a proclamation must take the form of suicide is a reflection of Kirillov himself. Despite the apparent grandiosity of the idea, Kirillov himself is a reclusive, deeply humble, almost selfless person who has become obsessed by the idea of making himself a sacrifice for the greater good of humanity.[32] Pyotr Stepanovich tells him: "You haven't consumed the idea but you... have been consumed by the idea, and so you won't be able to relinquish it."[33] The motives are of no interest to Pyotr Stepanovich, but he has latched on to the sincerity of Kirillov's intention and seeks to use it to deflect attention from his own crimes. Kirillov, despite his friendship with Shatov and contempt for Pyotr Stepanovich, does actually end by writing a suicide note falsely taking responsibility for the murder of Shatov, and in the presence of Pyotr Stepanovich, kills himself.

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