A Self in Despair: Part Two of Nikolai Stavrogin’s story

October 24, 2011

In a previous post, I introduced Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s character Nikolai Stavrogin (from Devils) and how he is an "empty self" seeking consolation for the despair that is within him. He longs for mercy and consolation. How will he find it?

So Nikolai visits Father Tikhon, a monk, to get help.  He reads his confession to him and says that he’s going to publish it as a way of seeking forgiveness.  Father Tikhon, after patiently and carefully listening to his very long confession, gently points out that while it could be true that a natural need for repentance and forgiveness has compelled him to want to publish his confession, there is something else going on.

He points out that Stavrogin, through his confession, seems to be inviting others to see him as extraordinarily malicious.  In other words, he seems to be dramatizing his situation, essentially assigning himself a role that portrays him as so malicious that no one’s, not even God’s love can be sufficient to forgive and heal him (and later Stavrogin confesses that indeed this is the case.)This, Tikhon points out, means he’s too preoccupied with how he wants to be viewed by others.  And he wants to be viewed as irredeemable and therefore condemned.

Then Tikhon puts his finger on the heart of the matter--If he’s truly contrite and wants repentance and forgiveness, he should not publish his confession but go, in silence and secrecy, into a monastery and become a monastic novice under a spiritual director.  No drama, no false humility; but surrender and true openness.

Stavrogin is stunned by this.

Rowan Williams, in his profoundly insightful book on Dostoyevsky, writes the following about confession: “Confession reaches out to an imagined listener; but it can only bring absolution--that is, some sort of altered relational world--if it is at some level open to its listener, working for recognition.” This is not the case with Stavrogin’s confession.  Williams goes on to say that Stavrogin’s confession is diabolical because “it moves toward silence, not a listening silence but that of incommunicable self-enclosedness, death.”  This is because, ultimately, he’s not really interested in repentance and forgiveness.

Stavrogin is stunned because he realizes that Tikhon is right.  Now he sees more clearly.  What he really wants is to prove to himself that there is only one possibility, one future for him--spite and hatred from others and condemnation for himself.  So he rejects Father Tikhon’s offer of help and chooses to condemn himself (he hangs himself.)

In part I and part II I have given a very brief description of Stavrogin and what’s going on with him.  In the next post I’ll go into more detail about how he is a self in despair and what that means exactly.  For those who are interested in further study of Dostoyevsky’s fiction I highly recommend Rowan Williams’ Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.

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2 Responses to 'A Self in Despair: Part Two of Nikolai Stavrogin’s story'

  1. […] the exchange between Father Tikhon and Stavrogin about the latter’s true intentions (see my second post) regarding the publication of his confessions, we, the readers, are reminded of and confronted with […]

  2. […] us understand Dostoveysky’s Nikolai Stavrogin better (for prior to this series, see part one, two and […]