Ideas and the Novel: Dostoevsky’s ‘The Possessed’

Mary McCarthy

You could say that Crime and Punishment was a novel about the difference between theory and practice. Well, if you were a philistine, you could. The Possessed, too, deals with ideas and their execution. It does so on a wider scale, yet without any such reassuring conclusion. In the earlier book, there was just one theory, Raskolnikov’s, which he fails to prove, owing to his own half-heartedness in applying it – an indication of a possible weakness in the theory itself. In The Possessed, there is a whole band of theorists, each possessed by a doctrinaire idea, and a whole innocent Russian town to practise on. But in the outcome there is no divergence between idea and reality: in most cases theory and practice have fused, which is what makes the novel so frightening. The exception is the superannuated old liberal, Stepan Trofimovich, an idealist in his writings and something more abject in his daily conduct, who naturally holds no terrors for his fellow citizens.
It is possible to see Crime and Punishment as a prophecy of The Possessed. There is the seed of a terrorist in Raskolnikov, which cannot come to fruit since he lacks a prime essential: organisation. He is isolated, and his having a devoted mother and sister who bring out the ‘good’ in him makes him feel all the more cut off. He appears to believe in socialism, yet his only friend, the former student Razumikhin, is a conservative and disquietingly thick with functionaries of the law. A minor figure, Lebeziatnikov, is lumped together with Raskolnikov by a spiteful person as one of a pair of ‘notorious infidels, agitators and atheists’. Lebeziatnikov, who keeps talking about a commune and regards Sonia’s being forced into prostitution as ‘a vigorous protest against the organisation of society’, is certainly a socialist, but Raskolnikov, who has no time for idiots, consistently gives him a very wide berth. He is reserved, proud and unsociable, and despite his boldness in theory, never had any plan to commit more than a single murder (the second was unplanned and regretted), obviously not a chain of crimes. A final liability is the difficulty he has in making up his mind.
In The Possessed, all these deficiencies are made up. There is determination in Pyotr Verkhovensky, an organising gift, complete absence of scruple. He thinks large, in sweeping arcs, not one faltering step at a time. He is highly sociable, almost convivial, has no pride; when we first meet him, he is described as ‘an ordinary young man, very lively and free in his manners but nothing special in him’. He is constantly paying visits in the town’s highest circles, but he has other calls to make too. At the direction of a mysterious ‘Committee’ somewhere abroad, he has set up a ‘quintet’ of inconspicuous citizens, each and all inhabited by ideas. These obscure men are chords he knows how to strike at the right moment in a revolutionary overture of his own authorship. The ideas that possess them can be turned to his purposes regardless of intellectual sympathy or pooling for a common aim. Making up the ‘quintet’ are five one-track minds bent on different versions of revolutionary doctrine, but for the purpose their divergences do not matter, any more than those between the first violin and the kettle-drum. The important thing is that each instrument know its cue. And they can function as instruments in Pyotr Verkhovensky’s diabolical concert because each has merged with an idea: they are ideas, so to speak, without ties to anything material, which might serve as a deterrent. Self-persuaded, they need no persuasion. As incarnate ideas, they have lost the power of thought, which may seem paradoxical till you reflect on it. These ordinary men, including fathers of families, have turned into syllogisms, and a syllogism cannot think but can merely go from A to B to C by a rigid track of inference.
The devils of the Russian title are not the quintet, nor Kirilov, nor the young ensign, Erkel. The devils are the ideas in possession of them that have made them into automata. The only demon is Verkhovensky, who believes in nothing, has no ideas or principles. If he is an Idea, which I wonder about, it is an idea without specific content – a principle devoted (but not dedicated) to destruction. Dedication is not his style.
He is aware of a lack in himself, which is why he turns to Stavrogin. The nucleus needs a centre, and he himself cannot be that, for he is not within but without – a manipulator and strategist. The Byronic figure of the young nobleman appeals to him. His remarkable mask-like beauty, as of Death-in-Life, almost casts him for the central role in Pyotr Stepanovich’s Apocalypse. Or, to put it in more practical terms, from what Pyotr has heard of his exploits in the town he perceives that he can find a use for him: Stavrogin may be able to supply the charisma that is wanting, the seductive spark of the inhuman. Pyotr himself is inhuman enough, but on a lower level of being, as he is aware. He is infernal but cold, sharp, precise, business-like. The very fact that he is greedy to make use of Stavrogin, once the possibility has occurred to him, is typical of the economics of his mind. ‘You will be the leader, I will be your secretary,’ he tells him at one point, showing as concise a grasp as Stalin’s of where the levers of power in revolutionary politics lie. And later, in great excitement: ‘You are the leader, you are the sun and I am your worm.’ It is no shock to see him fawning, but his excited state would be quite out of character if he were not carried away by the vision of what he cando with Stavrogin.
Verkhovensky can find a use for everything – not just the enigmatic vagaries of Stavrogin, but every failing, every tic, in the community. These are handles he can coolly pull to initiate action, and the ideas of the quintet, which resemble tics, are among the handles he has practised with. There is the theory of Shigalyov, a man with long ears like a donkey’s and a philosophy of despair to match: his final gloomy solution of the social question is ‘the division of mankind into two unequal parts. One-tenth enjoys absolute liberty and unbounded power over the other nine-tenths.’ There is the thought of the miserly Liputin, a domestic despot and Fourierist who believes in the ‘social harmony’ and gloats at night over visions of a future phalanstery: he has come to the conclusion that, as the necessary massacre of 100 million persons would take no less than thirty to fifty years to achieve, maybe emigration is the answer.
These two are adherents of Verkhovensky’s quintet, but he has many other instruments in the town, sometimes unknown to themselves – for example, the provincial governor’s wife, Yulia Mikhailovna, who has become so enamoured of the new ideas she imbibes from him that she has virtually converted her salon into a revolutionary cell, arousing jealousy in the other ladies. There is Kirilov, a disciple of Feuerbach and believer in a new man-god, who has resolved to commit suicide in order to free other men from the superstitious fear of death. This could not suit Pyotr’s hand better, since Kirilov gladly agrees to donate his suicide to the cause, leaving the time of it for Pyotr to fix. It will be timed just right to cover the murder of the brooding Slavophil Shatov, who has broken with the ‘Society’ and whose execution as a spy has been voted by the quintet.
Fedka, the convict, no social idealist, is another of Pyotr’s agents. His need of a passport enrolls him initially, and a gift of money assures his following through. With Stavrogin’s tacit consent, he will murder a drunkard posing as an army captain, who has got tired of distributing leaflets for the cause, and the fellow’s demented crippled sister, whom Stavrogin has secretly married. Even before this, Fedka will undertake another commission: to rob and desecrate an especially venerated icon, with a confederate – no ordinary criminal but a quintet member, who will commit the ultimate blasphemy of placing a live mouse in it. Coming on top of other indignities, this outrage leads to the district governor’s having a nervous breakdown and leaving town for Switzerland. But before his nervous illness is recognised and he is deprived of his functions, this mild bureaucrat has had some striking factory-workers flogged – an error the town will pay dear for.
The fever of organisation is such that there is no act that does not lead to something else. Sometimes the hand of Verkhovensky is discernible; sometimes not. The vanity of the writer Karmazinov leads him to pronounce an absurd farewell to his public, entitled ‘Merci’, at the benefit fête for the governesses of the province, and this oration is a contributing cause of the general disorderly uproar that evening, which leads to fires being set. We know that Pyotr did not suggest the topic of the oration – indeed, having been shown the text, he remembers the title as ‘Bonjour.’ Yet we feel that he was somehow behind the governesses’ fête – did he slyly urge the charitable idea on Yulia Mikhailovna? – and behind the invitation to Karmazinov, who has already demonstrated what a fool he will be on the platform by his excited, approving interest in the manifestos that are circulating through the town. And who was the guiding spirit in the benefit committee’s decision – catastrophic – not to serve a buffet lunch and champagne to ticket-holders?
There is a terrible sequentiality in all this as in ‘The house that Jack built’. Events pile up, and every slender straw thrown on the heap is arsonous. The town is tinder, ready to ignite at a touch. Of course this is mainly the work of Pyotr Stepanovich, who has prepared the ground. Yet there are times when the alarming incidents seem to have their source in some indefinable larger causality. Moreover, such implacable sequiturs are not usual in Dostoevsky, where normally there is room for the arbitrary, the non-sequitur. Here the only non-sequitur is the unexpected arrival of Shatov’s wife, and this is also the only episode that has no effect on things to come. It is as though the reasoning process going on in the characters’ heads had been copied by outward events, which seem to be obeying Aristotelian logic with never an undistributed middle term. The implacable sequiturs may be comical, too, since the chain of logic, inevitably, is made up of both large beads and small beads, so that if an end-result is a very small bead – the governor in a Swiss rest-home – it is grotesquely out of proportion with the horrors that had led up to it.

Much of this appearance of logic is due to the device of the supposedly objective narrator used here by Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment, the reader was mostly inside Raskolnikov, listening to his thoughts. In The Possessed – with the exception of the suppressed chapter, ‘Stavrogin’s Confession’ – everything is told from the outside, by a gossipy young friend of Stepan Trofimovich’s, who enjoys his confidence as well as that of the governor’s wife, so that he is well placed to tell what went on. He draws no moral conclusions, not being qualified to serve as the author’s representative: he simply and somewhat excitedly reports, as though ‘filling in’ some visitor who had missed out on that momentous period ‘among us’. The events are related from hindsight, as he has pieced them together looking back and verifying where he can. And, like anything seen from hindsight, they fit into a clear sequence of cause and effect – the opposite of what we experience with Raskolnikov, whose perspective is toward the future, hence still open-ended. Moreover, the narrator of The Possessed, in the interests of historical accuracy, feels obliged not to leave out any detail that might complete the picture. Since he is not quite confident, even looking backward, of being able to distinguish what was important from what was unimportant, we get that comical mixture, typical of gossip, of the relevant and the irrelevant. The mountains are confused with the valleys; the whole moral landscape is obligingly flattened for our inspection.
This unconsciousness of scale on the part of the narrator is one of the delights of the novel. We understand that we can trust his veracity but not always his judgment; some of the opinions he utters echo in our minds more loudly than he seems to expect. For instance, the well-known passage in the introductory chapter: ‘At one time it was reported about the town that our little circle was a hotbed of nihilism, profligacy and godlessness, and the rumour gained more and more strength. And yet we did nothing but engage in the most harmless, agreeable, typically Russian, light-hearted liberal chatter.’ He is referring to the circle around old Stepan Trofimovich and is saying considerably more than he is aware of saying. To Dostoevsky’s mind, the little circle, in the last analysis, has been pretty much what rumour said, while maintaining a double screen of illusion about itself. Its members are less dangerous than they generally like to think (here the narrator is right), but more dangerous in their frivolity than he is capable of knowing. In lightly dismissing their talk as harmless, he shows an obliviousness of real consequences that marks him for Dostoevsky as a typical unthinking liberal. The circle of idle chatterers around Stepan Trofimovich was dangerous because it prepared the way for the hyperactive circles that sprang up on the cleared ground.
There is no doubt that Dostoevsky meant to pass a stern judgment when he made the ‘harmless’ old liberal the father of Pyotr Stepanovich and the former tutor of Stavrogin. The devils that were loosed on the community were incubated in that muddled, innocent brain, which when put the question cannot even say unequivocally whether or not it believes in God: ‘I can’t understand why they make me out an infidel here. I believe in God, mais distinguons. I believe in Him as a Being who is conscious of Himself in me only ... As for Christianity, for all my genuine respect for it ... I am more of an antique pagan, like the great Goethe ... ’ Liberalism is the father of nihilism; it is only a step to Kirilov and his ruling idea of the man-god, and Kirilov at least has the manhood – or godhood – to act on his crazed conviction.
The town was ‘ready’ for Pyotr Stepanovich and his quintet, which was only the inner circle of activists. There was a less clearly defined outer circle – possibly there were several concentric ones – of adherents to a secret organisation referred to as ‘the Society’. And a proof of the town’s ‘readiness’ to catch fire was that there were people in it who did not know whether they were members or not. Long after the scare had died down, an elderly Councillor, wearing the decoration of the Stanislas Order, came forward and confessed that for three months he had been under the influence of the International: unable to produce evidence for the claim, he insisted that ‘he had felt it in all his feelings.’ Earlier, at the height of the strange affair, the quaking Stepan Trofimovich, who has undergone a police search of his rooms, is queried suddenly by the narrator: ‘Stepan Trofimovich, tell me as a friend ... do you belong to some secret society or not?’... ‘That depends, voyez-vous.’ ‘How do you mean, “it depends”?’ ‘When with one’s whole heart one is an adherent of progress ... who can answer it? You may suppose that you don’t belong, and suddenly it turns out that you do ... ’ In his uncertainty, which fear and pompous vanity make a half-certainty, he is convinced that he is going to be taken ‘in a cart’ to Siberia. The chosen few of the nihilist inner circle are, on the whole, uncompromising in their positions, but those who are outside and somewhat envious (i.e. virtually the entire educated population) behave vis-à-vis the terrorists with the wildest inconsistency. Stepan Trofimovich professes to abhor his son’s activities – and maybe he does – yet the narrator learns that on his premises the police have found two manifestos. ‘Manifestos!’ cries the narrator. ‘Do you mean to say you ...’ ‘Oh, ten were left here,’ the old man answers with vexation.
Rumour and imagination, naturally, add fuel to the fire that the devils have set. In fact, it is a question whether Pyotr’s vast organisation is not largely imaginary, an idea in his mind. This is Stavrogin’s suspicion. It has occurred to him more than once that Pyotr is mad, and Pyotr’s worship of him, which he finds repulsive, seems to decide the issue. That happens at a peculiar moment, when Verkhovensky finally articulates a credo. He has been saying that he is a scoundrel and not a socialist. ‘But the people must believe that we know what we are after ... We will proclaim destruction ... Well, and there will be an upheaval! There’s going to be such an upset as the world has never seen before ... the earth will weep for its old gods .... Well, then we shall bring forward ... whom? ... Ivan the Tsarevich. You! You!’ After a minute, Stavrogin understands: ‘A pretender? ... So that’s your plan at last!’ He himself is slated to be the pretender. ‘In this we have a force, and what a force! ... the whole gimcrack show will fall to the ground, and then we shall consider how to build up an edifice of stone. For the first time! We are going to build it, we, and only we!’ ‘Madness,’ answers Stavrogin. A few minutes later, Verkhovensky, pretty much back to normal, is offering to have Stavrogin’s wife murdered free of charge. This comes as a relief. It had been almost a disappointment to find that he had a ‘positive’ side, a ‘constructive’ side, after all.
I am willing to accept that Verkhovensky is mad, Stavrogin, the child-violator, is mad, the quintet is mad, Kirilov is mad, and that among the founding members of the local ‘Society’ not even Shatov is sane. A clinical finding to that effect would not greatly alter our understanding of the novel. Possession by an idea is a common form of insanity. But did the entire community go temporarily mad – the governor’s wife, the governor, Stepan Trofimovich’s protectress, who broke with him because he had not kept her abreast of the new ideas, the old gentleman who was sure that he had been under the influence of the Socialist International for ‘fully’ three months? That, too, is not out of harmony, I think, with the impression Dostoevsky wanted to make. The fact that the whole pathological episode, if that is what it was, is viewed from the outside, as though offered to a clinician for judgment, is surely meant to suggest that. As is known, the story was originally planned as a satire on liberal and nihilist ideas, and much that is satirical survives in the final version: the grotesque members of the ‘quintet’, the governor and his wife, Stepan Trofimovich and his domineering sympathiser, the landowner Varvara Petrovna, ‘a tall, yellow bony woman with an extremely long face, suggestive of a horse’. To picture the new ideas as a virulent illness attacking a body politic is a classical strategy on the part of a satirist, and the course of the disease is represented here in what often seems a dry, mock-medical vein: predisposing conditions, first symptoms, onset (Stavrogin biting the governor’s ear), temporary remission, aggravated symptoms, spread to other parts of the body, subsidence, final recovery.
Once the figures of Stavrogin, Kirilov and Shatov were developed – they must have been present in germ from the outset – a gloomy religious element began to suffuse the novel, which up to then one could imagine as a sort of Russian Headlong Hall, with perfectibilians, deteriorationists, status-quo-ites contentedly discoursing while Squire Headlong-Stavrogin set a charge of dynamite to his property. Stavrogin, Kirilov and Shatov brought suffering – unacceptable to satire – into the tale. Not a ray of comedy falls on them, and yet by a miracle, which I think is effected through the ‘redemption’ of Stepan Trofimovich, the antagonistic elements are able to co-exist, the satiric metaphor and something like a Slavophil myth of the Passion.
The loosing of the devils yielded a total of five murders, two suicides, one death-by-manslaughter, one death as a result of exposure (Stepan Trofimovich), two other related deaths, the burning-down of a considerable area of the town, general damage to property. Pyotr Stepanovich, the author of it all, escapes as though in a cloud of brimstone, by taking the train to Petersburg.

It is clear that Dostoevsky stood in awe of the power of ideas. The most fearful, evidently, in his eyes were socialistic ideas with their humanitarian tinge. And here at any rate he could speak from experience: his having belonged to a group – the Petrashevsky circle – that engaged in discussions of utopian socialism had taken him to Siberia and nearly to the firing-squad. Yet this experience, he believed, had not only taught him a lesson in the ordinary sense (‘Stay out of discussion groups’), but had brought about a spiritual rebirth. His dread of the power of ideas combined with a fatal attraction to them; like so many Russian writers then and now, he was drawn to ideas as if to a potent drug. In Geneva, long after he had returned, a new man, from Siberia, he could not resist going to hear Bakunin expound his theories, and he expressed disappointment that Bakunin was not more constructive. In Dostoevsky, ideas may lead those they fasten on to extreme suffering, but they can also be bringers of redemption, the one in fact leading to the other, as had happened in his own case.
Moreover, once an idea has possessed Dostoevsky, he seldom lets it drop but continues to examine it from all sides, at the risk of a certain monotony. Thus Raskolnikov’s All-is-permitted theory peeps through at intervals in The Possessed: it is Stavrogin who expounds it in his atrocious practice but also in words. As a ‘prince’, he has given the ‘No barriers’ concept an aesthetic twist, almost a cool-headed twirl. ‘Is it true,’ Shatov asks him, seemingly much worried, ‘that you declared you saw no distinction in beauty between some brutal obscene action and any great exploit, even the sacrifice of life for the good of humanity?’ Stavrogin does not reply.
It is curious to turn from all this dark questioning to the homely English novel of the same time. George Eliot was a great moral writer, but no character in her novels, however thoughtful, would be asking a question like that of another character. It is not that she would have shrunk from such a phrase as ‘for the good of humanity’: she thought a great deal about our suffering race and clearly felt that it was her duty to devote her professional life to serving it. Besides, she had an interest in theories of socialism and was perfectly familiar with abstract thought. With her competence in French and German, she must have read many of the same books that Dostoevsky read. But the kind of questions her characters put to themselves and to each other, though sometimes lofty, never cast doubt on basic principles such as the notion of betterment or the inviolability of the moral law. Unlike the great novels of the Continent, the English novel is seldom searching, at any rate not on the plane of articulated thought.
I doubt, for instance, that it could ever have occurred to George Eliot to wonder about the validity of mental activity in itself. She could not have pictured ideas as baleful or at best equivocal forces. About the worst ideas can do, in her view, is to encourage a tendency towards headstrongness in a heroine. We see this in Middlemarch with Dorothea Brooke, whose determination to be the helpmeet of Mr Casaubon springs from a fixed longing of her brain. ‘It would be like marrying Pascal,’ she says to herself. ‘I should learn to see the truth by the same light as great men have seen it by.’ But it is all a mistake, as with Emma’s obstinate plans for Harriet in Jane Austen’s novel. Mr Casaubon is no Pascal; his ‘Key to All Mythologies’, to which Dorothea plans to devote her young energies, is a figment of his fussy, elderly brain, an ‘idea’ he once had for a multi-volume work which is simply gathering dust in his head. In a sense, this, likeEmma, is an education novel: Dorothea has finally grown up when she learns to stop asking her husband about the progress he is making on his master work.
Among George Eliot’s novels, the best place to look for an examination of ideas and their influence might be Felix Holt, the Radical. On the surface, this short novel has quite a lot in common with the novels I have been discussing in these lectures, especially Crime and Punishment and The Red and the Black. The hero is a Radical of independent mind. He comes from the lower middle class, is poor, indifferent to his dress, often proudly contemptuous in his manner, and ambitious, not for himself but for humanity or, more accurately, for the small part of it he knows. He wants them all and particularly Esther Lyon to be better than they are. He is angered by her reading-matter – Byron and Chateaubriand – by her ladylike ways and taste for fine gloves, all of which are proofs of shallowness. He is a reformer in the public sphere, too, who earnestly desires to improve the lot of working men and believes that the first step must be to win them from the slavery of drink through night and Sunday classes: without education, the working man cannot advance his cause. When we meet Felix, on the eve of a parliamentary election, he is deeply troubled by corrupt electoral practices: above all, the habit of treating in public houses. In short, he is a man of the Left with a number of stubborn ideas that unfit him for practical politics.
Though he is not a religious believer and despises ordinary conventions, he differs from a Raskolnikov in that he would not consider for an instant violating the moral law in order to benefit humanity. In fact, this is precisely what estranges him from the Radical politicians he encounters, who have easy consciences in such matters, accepting with a wink the prospect of violence – a little rough-and-tumble – for the ultimate good of defeating the Tory. Felix would never commit a murder, even in the abstract, turning it over in his mind as a theory. Yet in reality it happens to him to kill a man and to be tried and sentenced for it, though his intention was to halt a riot and the blow he struck was not meant to be mortal. Thus he joins the ranks of principled heroes of 19th-century fiction who end up on the wrong side of the law: Jean Valjean, Julien Sorel, Raskolnikov, Nekhludov in Resurrection, who joins the woman he has wronged – the prostitute Maslova – in the convict gang travelling to Siberia. No reflection, however, precedes the decision that leads Felix unintentionally to take a man’s life: an impulse, rather, rooted in his nature sends him to try to head off the riotous working men who will only damage their cause and other people’s property by a drunken spree of violence. In the style of so many other 19th-century ‘new men’, he has proudly announced, ‘I am a man of this generation,’ but what we find in his actions is a simple old-fashioned boy any mother could be proud of – a testimonial to right training.
‘If there’s anything our people want convincing of,’ he tells Esther Lyon when she comes to see him in prison, ‘it is, that there’s some dignity and happiness for a man other than changing his station.’ (By ‘our people’ he means his own class, the working people, not the English nation, I assume.) Of course, there is some truth in what he says, but it is a truth that discourages political action. Felix seems to be totally immune to his century, as though he had been vaccinated against the bug of equality. The novel, which ends with him out of jail and happily married (there is even a little Felix), has a lengthy appendix called ‘Address to Working Men’. There the author imagines Felix expounding his political philosophy to a working-class audience: ‘Now the only safe way by which society can be steadily improved ... is not by any attempt to do away directly with existing class distinctions and advantages, as if everybody would have the same sort of work, or lead the same sort of life ... but by the turning of Class Interests into Class Functions or duties.’ One is grateful for the knowledge that the address isimaginary, with the audience’s reaction mercifully unimagined.
Despite all her learning and her capacious intelligence, ideas for George Eliot are wholesome moral reflections: she does not seem to have suspected that they could possibly be anything but ‘improving’. Tolerance was her great virtue as a novelist: she always seeks to widen, to make common to all, emotions in her characters’ bosoms that the reader might be inclined to spurn any intimacy with. I take an example at random from Middlemarch, where the pious banker, Bulstrode, obliged to face his conscience, at once begins to dodge. ‘If this be hypocrisy,’ the author writes, ‘it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all.’ The effect of such reminders, page after page, is broadening: we are all made of the same stuff, we have to acknowledge. And, side by side with the injunction to look in the mirror, a general cure is suggested whose name is unselfishness. This is the single thought urged on us by her novels. It is stated explicitly over and over and driven home by telling examples. Mr Casaubon is selfish, Rosamond Vincy is selfish, her brother Fred is selfish, Tom Tulliver is selfish, Harold Transome is selfish, Esther Lyon starts out to be selfish but is saved in time by Felix Holt. On the other side of the ledger, Maggie Tulliver is unselfish, Mary Garth is unselfish, the Dissenting minister Rufus Lyon is a pillar of unselfishness, Dorothea Brooke is headstrong yet capable of self-sacrifice.
The limitations of this urgent central idea may explain why George Eliot’s ‘good’ characters are so unconvincing, even when she tries, as with Felix Holt and Will Ladislaw, to give them a rough edge that might make them complicated to know socially. Her selfish characters are far more persuasive since we are forced to recognise ourselves – or part of ourselves – in them. Thus the virtue of tolerance we are called on to exercise by this writer at her fullest and best has no work to do with the characters we are instructed to admire and to imitate. If George Eliot fails, even inMiddlemarch, to be a very great writer, this is, I think, because of an intellectual deficiency. The division of central characters into self-seeking and non-self-seeking is inadequate as a key to understanding. In Felix Holt, for example, it tells us nothing about the Radicalism that is presumably the subject of the story, and what we get is something strangely like a less ponderous, more charming Romola, in costumes of the post-Reform Bill period.
Dickens knew that an idea can be dangerous. Unlike George Eliot, he was familiar with the hold of abstractions on human flesh and blood; it is not surprising that Dostoevsky read him with eagerness and perhaps learned from him. Still, the incubus or succuba preying on Dickens’s people is usually nothing as clearly identifiable as a theory or concise programme. The great case to the contrary is Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times. From almost the first page, we see how the Utilitarian doctrines that have taken possession of his brain are blighting the natural life of his family, how they wither any hope of instruction in the model school he has set up in Coketown. Here he is in the schoolroom, lecturing the schoolmaster:
Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts ... Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle upon which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!
Then: ‘Girl number twenty ... Give me your definition of a horse.’ Sissy Jupe is too frightened to say anything. ‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’
Mr Gradgrind’s close friend and business associate is Mr Bounderby, who has his ownidée fixe and global explanation: ‘The turtle soup and the gold spoon. And the venison.’ It is apparent that these two upholders of the social order are mad, just as mad as the terrorists of The Possessed. The reader is meant to understand that Gradgrind and Bounderby are dangerously insane and that at the same time they are perfectly normal – that is, that many other people share the maniacal ideas they express. Bounderby is a wicked bounder, but Gradgrind is not altogether a bad man: a philanthropist, even, according to his lights – he actually has girls in his school.
It seems odd at first glance that the idea that has got hold of Mr Gradgrind should be named by him ‘Facts’. The nature of an idea, surely, it to be abstract: i.e. the polar opposite of the concrete, of the plurality of facts, living and dead, each different from the next, that the world consists of. But we soon understand that Mr Gradgrind’s facts are peculiar, not like the ones we know. Here is a definition of a horse, given by a boy pupil, that he is able to commend: ‘Quadruped, Gramnivorous. Forty teeth, namely 24 grinders, four eye-teeth, and 12 incisors. Sheds coat in the spring, in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in the mouth.’ This sounds like the idea of a horse rather than the fact of a horse. It is as though a drawer labeled ‘Horse’ containing miscellaneous pieces of information, dried and filleted for better storage, had been obediently opened in the filing-cabinet that constitutes the star pupil’s mind. The dehydrated facts Mr Gradgrind favours add up to a fleshless abstraction – horse in general.

The reason for this curious taste of his is evident in his character: he insists on being in control. And here something of importance for my subject emerges. Ideas are utilitarian. They have a purpose. They are formed in consciousness with a regulatory aim, which is to gain control of the swarming minutiae of experience, give them order and direction. That is Mr Gradgrind to a T. He believes in education and the extension of knowledge. He wants to see laws formulated for every department of life that will push back the ever shrinking areas of ignorance, light up dark corners with modern illumination, keep the streets of the mind patrolled. In the interests of thoroughgoing enlightenment, he has forbidden the reading of ‘idle story-books’ in his house. ‘Idle imagination’, he and Bounderby have concluded, is the chief obstacle to the establishment of reason’s rule in the young.
Well, it is natural that he should be hostile to novels and natural, in turn, that the novel should be hostile to him, even when it happens that he is not a bad man and means well. If we take Mr Gradgrind as representing in caricatural form, not just his own Utilitarian school of thinking (based, after all, on the greatest good of the greatest number), but the mental faculty that is continuously active in formulating ideas, laws, generalisations, then we can look on the novel, which is wedded to minutiae, as his sworn enemy. All art, of course, objects to the continuously active Mr Gradgrind: but the novel is best armed to do battle with him, in that it appears to have one foot in his camp because of the mass of particulars, resembling his ‘Facts’, that it mobilises for its own purposes.
But it is a strange conflict, with long truces, and often looks like a mere family quarrel. I mean that the novelist’s effort – any artist’s effort – to impose shape and form on that mass of particulars while maintaining their distinctness has something in common with the mind’s will to absolute rule through the synthesising process. They are similar, but they are not the same. The artist’s concern (especially, I should say, the novelist’s) must be to save the particulars at all costs, even at the sacrifice of the perfection of the design. An idea cannot have loose ends, but a novel, I almost think, needs them. Nevertheless, there is enough in common for the novelist to feel, like Dostoevsky, the attraction of ideas while taking up arms against them – most often with the weapons of mockery.
We tend to suppose that most novelists take the field against particular ideas, like Dickens in Hard Times, that only a few – say, Tolstoy and Lawrence – show an innate angry suspicion of ideas per se, as though the tender living tissue in their care needed protection from the rampaging will to abstraction. Yet even in celebrated victories over specific sets of ideas (Voltaire’s disposal of Leibnitz in the person of Dr Pangloss – ‘If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?’; Orwell’s disposal of Stalinism – ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others’), there is a certain overkill, as though the work were being enjoyed for its own sake. I believe this is always the case, that the tension is always there, except where the novelist has never felt the fascination of ideas, and this, until our own time, has been rare.
I said just now that the novelist’s concern must be to save the particulars, and perhaps this needs a little explanation. Even when he shows vast social forces in motion (like Victor Hugo or Manzoni or Tolstoy), the novelist’s care is for individual destinies, and it seems to be proper to the novel that they should be small destinies. Not the kings and noblemen of the tragic theatre or the witty bloods of comedy but Renzo and Lucia, Tess, Jude, Stephen Blackpool, Felix and Esther, Cosette. None of these poor sparrows ‘fits’ into the overall social framework, and if they have a place in a larger scheme, it can only be God’s, which is unknowable: ‘The President of the Immortals had finished his sport with Tess.’ Now the habit of concern for the small predisposes the novelist to distrust generalisation – to champion Dobbin against the gramnivorous quadruped. The position, however, is not simple. As we have seen, there appears to be an affinity between ideas and facts, both Mr Gradgrind’s kind and the other – that is, between the lofty and the very small – as though in the novel they grew together, like the red rose and the green briar in the ballad.
Besides, in the past, if the novelist’s mission to teach and improve inclined him to Mr Gradgrind’s side, his common sense – a highly necessary faculty for the novelist, which I have neglected to mention until now – and his powers of observation led him to despair of any recipes for improvement or else to fall back, like George Eliot, on simple housewifely stand-bys: Forget Self and Think of Others.
Today there is no longer a dilemma. Ideas are held not to belong in the novel: in the art of fiction we have progressed beyond such simplicities. The doctrine of progress in the arts is a hard doctrine, imposing itself even on those who are fervent non-believers. The artist is an imitative beast, and, being of my place and time, I cannot philosophise in a novel in the good old way, any more than I can write ‘We mortals’. A novel that has ideas in it stamps itself as dated: there is no escape from that law.
For a time, about twenty years ago, it looked as if there could be a compromise. Though an author of standing knew better than to put explicit ideas in his novels, they could be there implicitly, and the reader was allowed – as a student, even encouraged – to take them out. ‘What are Golding’s ideas in Lord of the Flies?’ ‘Is there a Manichean split in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms?’ Today all that is quite impermissible. What the author may not put in, the reader may not take out. There must be nothing said or hinted that is remotely subject to paraphrase. In the place of ideas, images still rule the roost, and Balzac’s distinction between the roman idéé and the roman imagé appears to have been prophetic, though his order of preference is reversed.

Nevertheless, there are a few back doors left through which ideas may be spirited in, and some talented authors have found them. One brilliant example was furnished by J.G. Farrell in The Siege of Krishnapur, a novel teeming with ideas that is set in India at the time of the Sepoy Mutiny and has an exciting plot as well. Farrell’s motto might have been stated thus: If because of ideas and other unfashionable components your novel is going to seem dated, don’t be alarmed – date it. The Singapore Grip – Farrell’s last novel, he was drowned this past summer – carries the principle on to the fall of Singapore in the Second World War: ideas, characters and setting have a distinct period flavour – that is, they are as solid as furniture and without any touch of camp. A more recent novel, John Updike’s The Coup, performs a rather similar feat, moving back, as it were, in time via geography: a ‘developing’ African country bristles with ideas, mainly in the head of its hero, a Western-educated native dictator who finishes, still reflective, in exile in the South of France. There was also Alison Lurie’s Only Children, set in the late Thirties with the ideas and life-styles of the period. In the USA, a special licence has always been granted to the Jewish novel, which is free to juggle ideas in full view of the public: Bellow, Malamud, Philip Roth still avail themselves of the right, which is never, never conceded to us goys. In concluding, I might mention an unnsual solution to the problem. This was Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an American story of a cross-country trip with philosophical interludes – one of the chief characters was named Phaedrus. Pirsig’s device was simple: he refrained, probably at a financial sacrifice, from calling his book a novel, and it was listed as a non-fiction title. If the novel is going to be revitalised, maybe more such emergency strategies will have to be employed to disarm and disorient reviewers and teachers of literature, who, as always, are the reader’s main foe.