Of all the abject women in The Possessed, the most wretched was, surely, Maria Lebyadkina. Some people have seen her as a holy fool, but I imagine that most readers today would find her more foolish than holy. She lives with her brother who, we learn, beats her regularly. She is described as a strange, crippled woman, her face powdered and rouged, with an artificial rose in her hair. She spends her days telling fortunes from playing cards, looking at herself in a mirror (which I imagine to be broken), and nibbling pieces of dry bread. She has a fantasy about her lost prince, perhaps inspired by the children’s books of chivalric tales lying on her table. On the one occasion when she appears in public she behaves erratically and what she says doesn’t make any sense. Yet she is, as it turns out, the unacknowledged wife of Stavrogin, the arch-demon of the novel, regarded by a group of mostly fairly mad would-be revolutionaries as a kind of Messiah-in-waiting. In true Byronic fashion, the aristocratic Stavrogin seems to be capable of just about any crime or outrage, including the rape of a twelve-year old girl, Matryona. Later, he sits silently in the next room while she hangs herself. He even gives his consent to the murder of the wretched Maria. Although many of the details remain hazy, it emerges that Stavrogin had probably only married this sad, mentally unbalanced woman as a kind of provocation to society—and then abandoned her. It is characteristic that despite being extraordinarily, even irresistibly, attractive to women, he chooses to marry someone whose only qualification is her abjection.
From Maria’s ramblings, we do learn that she spent some time in a convent, which was also home to an ascetic woman, Lizaveta the Blessed, who lived in a cage that was seven foot long by five-foot and fixed in the monastery wall, where (we’re told) she spent seventeen years, never speaking or washing and living only on bread and water. Although an object of wonder to credulous pilgrims she even outdoes Maria as an image of abjection. Returning to Maria, we hear her speak of a baby that she may have drowned, but whether this is true or not, we don’t really know. We do learn of her constant tears, watering the earth, which she believes to be the Mother of God. Along with Lizaveta the Blessed, she is a kind of anti-icon of female abjectness, subjected to a progressive social, physical , and psychological degradation that she has no resources to resist.
And yet (isn’t there always an ‘and yet’ with Dostoevsky)—and yet, despite all this, Dostoevsky lets her speak a decisive word about Stavrogin who is not only lionized by most of the other characters in the novel but seems to have exerted a similar spell over several generations of critics who write about Dostoevsky. When he comes to her, she says that she had expected a falcon but saw only an owl and a shopkeeper; he is, as she now sees him, not her prince at all—just a bad actor. And, I also have to say (though this only makes it worse) that none of the other women (most of whom seem also to be infatuated with Stavrogin) come out very well either. His mother is an embittered and angry widow, very much what my parents’ generation would have called a battleaxe. The others are either meek and submissive, reckless and hysterical, or manically ideological, de-feminized by their nihilist principles. Even the Provincial Governor’s wife, a pillar of society, makes herself ridiculous by believing that she can charm Stavrogin’s madcap followers into giving up their wilder caprices and escapades and returning to the bosom of society.
All in all, then, not a very proto-feminist text. I have to admit I didn’t really know what to make of it myself—and even started to wonder whether Laura might not be right. In a way, it wouldn’t be surprising. Even novels, films, and academic studies from the last twenty years show an extraordinary blind spot with regard to the representation of women. What can we expect from a man—a Russian man—of the nineteenth century? Perhaps we just have to leave that aspect to one side. But doesn’t that then devalue the rest of what he says? If what he has to say about half the human race isn’t worth taking seriously, why should we bother with the rest?
Meanwhile, Laura had been encouraged by the others to carry on and do a similar hatchet job on The Idiot. Listening to her, I suspected that she was maybe less scandalized by this but was now in role and enjoying herself. I’m not sure. Even when you’ve lived with someone for thirty years, you’re not always sure.
As she explained it, the figure around whom the novel turns is a woman, Nastasia Phillipovna, who has been sexually exploited since early adolescence by her guardian and who, at the start of the novel, is about to be conveniently married off (with a generous fee to the prospective husband) so that the guardian can make a respectable society match. She is, we are told, exceptionally beautiful and Prince Myshkin himself goes into raptures when he accidentally sees a photograph of her. It is this beauty that makes her the target of the uncontrolled lust of the violent Rogozhin and an object of pity to the prince himself, who (perhaps) imagines that his pure love will save her, like Christ saved the fallen woman ‘who loved much’.
“Obviously,” Laura was saying, “she’s murdered and, obviously, it’s her own fault because she chooses to run from the altar into the arms of Rogozhin despite knowing exactly the kind of man he is and what will happen—just like victims of domestic abuse usually get most of the blame for not leaving. You know, ‘whatever they say, it’s what they want’. I’d even say that, for Dostoevsky, the only good woman is a dead woman.”
As she was speaking, I pictured the final, unforgettable scene in which Rogozhin and Myshkin keep vigil over her body. Rogozhin has stabbed in the heart in such a way that very little blood has flowed onto the wedding dress that she is still wearing and that has become her shroud. It is a kind of perverse Pietà: dead woman as object of veneration. A copy of Madame Bovary is lying on the table, hinting that even if Rogozhin wielded the knife, it was really a kind of suicide—like Madame Bovary herself, like Ophelia, like Cleopatra, like so many passionate and, in men’s eyes, dangerous women. And not only in literature.
“Now, now,” said Martin chidingly, “she’s not the only woman in the novel and, as far as I can remember, quite a lot of the others are really quite normal. Aren’t the Epanchin girls nice, solid, bright young middle-class women? I seem to remember something about them having good appetites. I see them as ready to live life on their own terms, not as victims at all. Much as I approve of victims.”
“Their mother’s a sweetie,” contributed Tamsin. “I mean, she’s touchy about social etiquette and a bit whacky, but she’s a really good woman, and kind, very kind.”
“OK, there are some ‘normal’ women in it, whatever ‘normal’ is,” retorted Laura, thinking it over. “But Aglaya, who’s meant to be everybody’s darling, is just a conceited airhead, as everybody’s darling often is.”
“Emma,” volunteered Martin.
“Jane Austen’s Emma.”
“Oh, that Emma. Maybe—and, yes, Aglaya too thinks she can twist everybody round her little finger. But, when you come down to it, I just don’t see what she’s got going for her apart from youthful charm.”
As I say, I felt that Laura was starting to play to the gallery, even if there was a serious point behind what she was saying. Anyway, I felt it time to lighten the mood.
“And there’s me thinking she reminded me of you,” I said, probably rather ineptly.
“You mean I’m a manipulative airhead?” she replied archly, but with a twinkle in her eye.
“It’s the charm he meant,” said Martin.
“The charm—and, in any case, I’m not accepting that she is an airhead. I see her as someone who’s very intelligent, who’s prepared to challenge the social conventions governing how a young woman should behave, and really quite brave in confronting the difficult situations and extremely difficult personalities she gets involved with.”
“Only ‘quite’ brave?”
“Really brave, then. She takes big chances. With Myshkin. With Nastasia. It ends badly, but, as we tell our kids ‘it’s not about winning or losing’ …”
“Doesn’t she become a Catholic?” asked Martin. “I suppose that for Dostoevsky that’s about the worst thing that could happen to her!”
“She does,” said Laura, “and not just a Catholic but a Polish insurrectionist who turns her against her family, against Russia …. You see, that’s her punishment for trying to live life on her own terms.”
“Well, maybe that’s how it is at the end of the novel,” I suggested, “but we don’t know what happens to her in the end. I imagine that she’ll pick herself up, find a way through, and ‘make it’, whatever making it means.”
“But on that basis,” said Carl rather sarcastically, “just about any character in just about any novel could end up as a good guy.”
“Maybe,” I acknowledged, “but I think Dostoevsky gives us the clues.”
“I suppose you were in love with Myshkin?” Martin said, turning fondly to Tamsin.
“Oh no! Rogozhin every time. Those saturnine good looks. The danger. Much more my type.”
We all laughed.
“Come on, Martin,” she added, “we must let these people get to bed.”
“Just when it was getting interesting,” he complained.
“He means, ‘thank you for an interesting evening from start to finish’”, Tamsin explained.
“Yes, it really was,” added Carl, also starting to get up.
Of course, it took another quarter of an hour before everyone had left.
“So,” I said to Laura as we began clearing the table, having brushed away the ritual offers of help. “I’d no idea you didn’t like Dostoevsky that much.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like him. I just think he’s bought in to some of the worst myths about women there are. As did most male writers then. As they still do more often than not. If he’s ‘worse’ it’s only because he’s more consistent. He goes all the way.”
We could agree on that.
“But,” I said, gathering the wine glasses onto a tray, “I thought you yourself identified with Aglaya when we both first read The Idiot twenty or whenever years ago?”
She smiled. One could say enigmatically, but it was late, we were tired, and maybe she just smiled.
“Probably I did—but luckily for me you’re neither a Myshkin nor a Rogozhin.”
I laughed, almost losing the balance of the tray.