Suicide in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed

The search to explain suicide becomes necessary when the issue is presented not as a general query, but as the pressing question: Why did John or Jane, whom I loved, take their lives? A way to better understand suicide may be found in the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, particularly in the life of Nikolay Stavrogin, the antihero of The Possessed.

The Possessed: a complicated chronology, reconstructed

Details of Nikolay Stavrogin’s life, before the action of the novel occurs, are not abundant. After attending a lyceum, he entered the army and went to a regiment in Petersburg. He was degraded and later regained his status of officer, but soon afterwards he quit the army and continued living in Petersburg. A veil of mystery always follows Stavrogin’s path, but it is never a complete lack of information: rumors of his misconduct reach far, but only wrapped up in ambiguity.

At a certain point during those Petersburg years, Stavrogin’s mother succeeds in convincing him to return to his hometown, where he remains for six months. He then begins to show appallingly bad-mannered behavior and, although it is explained that he had been in a delirious state during those days, he had given the impression of being in full command of his senses. He then begins a four-year-long voyage through all of Europe. Near the end of this period, he seems to have established an intimate relationship with Lizaveta Nikolaevna. However, some amorous advances of Stavrogin’s regarding other girls shakes the liaison. It is after this four-year period that Stavrogin returns to his hometown and the present action of the novel takes place.

Throughout the book we perceive Nikolay’s soul under a shade of perverseness, which in some passages seems to grow lighter, but which, most of the times, is only confirmed by his actions and reactions. There is an incident in Stavrogin’s life that plays a central part in the novel and seems to have determined his final decision. The incident is explained, however, in a chapter that was not included in the original edition of the novel. As is well known, Dostoevsky intended to publish a chapter in which Stavrogin confesses an abominable sin. That chapter, entitled “At Tikhon’s,” has come to be known as “Stavrogin’s Confession.” The editor decided not to include it, in spite of Dostoevsky’s insistence and notwithstanding his efforts to change the text in order to make it acceptable.

The chapter, comprising three sections, was in the end published much later and translated into English by Virginia Woolf and Samuel Solomonovitch Koteliansky in 1922, fifty years after the novel had originally appeared. There is another translation to English, by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, which appeared in Broom magazine in October, November, and December 1922.

Stavrogin’s confession, dissected

“At Tikhon’s” describes Nikolay’s visit to the monk Tikhon, to whom he hands some printed sheets, written in first person, in which Stavrogin relates his Petersburg years. We learn through Tikhon’s reading —it would seem that the author of the pamphlet could not pluck up courage to read it himself— that Nikolay had rented a room in the city, adjacent to the one where the owners lived with their eleven-year-old daughter, Matryosha. Some incidents take place which show Stavrogin’s inclination to relish in other people’s sufferings: a knife of his is lost and the girl’s mother blames the disappearance on the child. When the woman was about to punish her daughter physically, Stavrogin finds the object but conceals it so that she would be punished, as he himself recognizes.

The key incident was the abuse of the eleven-year-old girl, not through violence but as a result of an approach from Nikolay towards Matryosha: sitting close to her, taking her hand, and kissing it quietly, looking into her eyes, putting her on his knee. All this produced the most astonishing reaction on the girl’s part: she put her arms around Stavrogin’s neck and began kissing him passionately. The narration of the facts ends there. We only realize what has happened by the way Stavrogin describes the subsequent state of the girl: she was paralyzed with confusion and horror.

A couple of days later, the girl was alone in her room in a feverish state. Although Stavrogin pretended not to have seen her, she suddenly shook her head reproachfully and raised her fist threateningly towards him. Having seen the girl enter a tiny room, he waited for thirty-five minutes without Matryosha coming out. At last, peering through the chink of the little room, Stavrogin, as he himself recounts, saw what he wanted. He then left the apartment.

Later on, a message reached Stavrogin that the girl had committed suicide, by hanging herself. The event produces in Stavrogin’s heart an anger that materializes in the idea of shooting himself. Once again, however, in his own words, “something better presented itself.” He decides to marry Marya Timofyevna, a crippled and mentally unstable woman. The reasons for his decision are abominable: a bet made after a certain dinner, but also the fact that the idea of marrying a cripple excited Stavrogin’s nerves. He does marry the poor woman, but subsequently leaves her and returns alone to his hometown. In this way, through Nikolay’s account of his actions (in his confession), the reader can understand the situation in which he had arrived in his town after the four-year long absence we mentioned above.

After Stavrogin’s confession, the novel continues with the narration of various events, in many of which Stavrogin does not take part as the main protagonist. At the very end of the novel, there is still “one very gloomy story to tell” by the narrator. The reader has not heard from Nikolay for a long time. Some incidents had taken place: there was arson in one part of the town, and Marya (Stavrogin’s wife) and her brother had been murdered that same night. In the next morning, Stavrogin meets with Lizaevneta and declares that, although he did not kill Marya and her brother, he knew they were going to be killed and did not stop the murderers. Later, he writes to Darya Pavlovna, his mother’s protegée, and invites her to escape with him to Switzerland. Nevertheless, he says that the country is a very dull and gloomy place, and she would better not go with him.

When Darya and Stavrogin’s mother, after reading his letter, decide to agree to go to Switzerland with Stavrogin, news reach them that Nikolay has suddenly arrived in Skvoreshniki. They head to that house but Stavrogin is nowhere to be found. Finally, followed by several servants, the two women climb up to the loft. Up there, they find Stavrogin dead, hanging behind the door, with a written recognition of having committed suicide.   

The reason of Stavrogin’s suicide and the morals of The Possessed

Suicide plays an important role in the book: In addition to three suicides that actually take place, the matter is considered in many dialogues. The question why people commit suicide then arises. In one character’s view (Kirilov) the problem is not why people kill themselves; rather he seeks to understand why people do not kill themselves. In his view, the fear of pain and the belief in the existence of the other world are the only reasons that prevent people from taking their lives and, thus, from being authentically free. True freedom implies that a person must not prefer living to dying. Through this detachment from the inclination to survive, a person becomes a complete owner of herself, because she conquers the ultimate terror and surpasses the definitive pain.

Opposite to Kirilov’s conception of suicide as a philosophical and even theological goal (requiring no reason), we find a different view in Pyotr Stepanovich’s consideration: for him, suicide only makes sense as a means for another purpose. In the story, he relies on Kirilov’s promised suicide as a way of covering up a murder and stirring up the revolution.  

But, why does the main character, Stavogrin, commit suicide? Does he share Kirilov’s opinion? Is he willing to show the world that he fears nothing; that no one stands above his own self? Or is he on Pyotr’s line of thinking and sees in his suicidal action the only way of attaining a goal for another cause?

As it has been stated, ambiguity is always present when we consider Stavogrin’s decisions and actions. On two occasions the reader has the opportunity of diving into Nikolay’s soul: through his letter to Darya at the end of the novel, and more importantly, through his confession to Tikhon with the ensuing dialogue.

After Tikhon finishes reading the printed sheets, he makes very interesting remarks about Stavrogin’s intention of publishing his confession. Although making public those evil actions might show a disposition to seek forgiveness, the monk detects that Stavrogin is afraid of repentance and that he has described his crimes in such a way as to produce more rejection than forgiveness. The aim of Stavrogin’s appears to be to elicit hatred in the ones who will read his confession, as if he could not bear compassion and forgiveness.

Tikhon tries to provoke in Stavrogin true repentance, which requires the capacity of accepting other people’s compassion or, if such were the case, their scorn. Nevertheless, the monk perceives that Nikolay lacks the fortitude of soul needed to attain true repentance. A flickering hope lights up when Stavrogin insists that he aims to forgive himself through suffering. Tikhon reacts to this apparently sincere declaration by considering that if such goal really existed in Stavrogin, then he has some sort of faith. The monk even asks him: “Why did you say, then, that you did not believe in God?” But the light soon dies away, because Stavrogin first remains silent and after a brief moment smiles wryly and adopts a tone of irony, mixed with anger and fear. With these feelings he ends his dialogue with Tikhon.

We thus arrive at the core question, which is in fact a combination of various questions. It would seem that the capacity of admitting other people’s compassion and forgiveness relates closely to the possibility of forgiving oneself. At the same time, such dispositions require an implied capacity of enduring criticism and laughter. Forgiveness is, in this way, a path paved with humility and oriented towards God. Only through pain, suffering and the disposition of being humiliated can a person be united to God.

Suicide (or at least some instances of suicide) are related to a state of mind where all these dispositions —humility, acceptance of inner and outer compassion and forgiveness, belief in God—are absent or greatly diminished. Instead, sometimes (as in the case we are commenting on) there is a grave past sin and an overwhelming sense of guilt or, rather, of shame. Kirilov expresses well part of this idea, albeit seen from the opposite point of view: “I can’t understand how an atheist could know that there is no God and not kill himself on the spot.”

In Nikolay Stavrogin’s case, suicide is the only possible end, once he has closed the door to the path of humility and forgiveness. For him, as once was the case for Judas, the only way out is to kill himself and escape other people’s scorn for his misdeeds.

In the last sentence of the novel, a particular stress is laid upon a circumstance of Stavrogin’s suicide: “[a]t the inquest our doctors absolutely and emphatically rejected all idea of insanity.” All throughout the book, the question whether Stavrogin is out of his mind hovers like one of the many mysteries around his personality. Yet, his suicide must be considered as a perfectly conscious act, of which Tikhon had an intuition during his dialogue with him: “you, poor, lost youth, have never been so near another and still greater crime … [A] day, an hour, perhaps the great step, you will throw yourself on a new crime, as a way out.” In Stavrogin’s reply to these words, in his angry and fearful phrase, “You cursed psychologist!” we may find the assurance that Tikhon’s intuition was an accurate perception of Nikolay’s decision to follow the suicidal end.  

Often when someone commits suicide, people ask: “Was he depressed?” Or they even tend to straightforwardly affirm or concede the existence of that debilitating circumstance. The case of Nikolay Stavrogin, as well as many suicides in real lives, proves that depression sometimes is not crucial (and of course, there always remains the question, “Why is this person depressed?”, when this occurs). His story has a powerful moral: he takes his life because he cannot stand his shame. Sincerity, repentance, confession (everything he refused to do at Thikon’s) are at the heart of the prevention and the cure of this terrible act.

Santiago Legarre is a Professor of Law at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica Argentina and a visiting professor at Notre Dame Law School. Juan José Salinas is a Doctor in Philosophy at the Universidad de Navarra.