“It was a wonderful night, such a night as is only possible when we are young, dear reader. The sky was so starry, so bright that, looking at it, one could not help asking oneself whether ill-humoured and capricious people could live under such a sky. That is a youthful question too, dear reader, very youthful, but may the Lord put it more frequently into your heart!”
What was I thinking, picking up a Fyodor Dostoevsky book when I’ve lately been feeling all out of sorts?
The brief story begins with a verse from “The Flower” by Ivan Turgenev:
“And was it his destined part
Only one moment in his life
To be close to your heart?
Or was he fated from the start
to live for just one fleeting instant,
within the purlieus of your heart.”
Our nameless narrator, the Dreamer (with a capital D because he really is a dreamer. Far worse than me, in fact), wanders about St. Petersburg in a daze born of loneliness and estrangement from his surroundings. He’s most comfortable during his evening strolls, but one night he meets a young woman sobbing alone in the darkness. Ordinarily he would keep walking, but something in her demeanor made him turn back. As she begins to walk away, she’s accosted by another shadowy figure, and our Dreamer rushes to her side, frightening the other away.
Thus begins the relationship between the Dreamer and the girl. Over the course of four nights, they grow to care deeply for one another, finding in each other kindred spirits. Both are lonely, living their lives away from the rest of society. He begins to realize his feelings for her go beyond the platonic, but she is in love with someone else. Selflessly, he endeavors to help her reunite with this phantom lover, and cheers her up when it seems impossible. But in her despair, he can’t help but share his true feelings for her, to which she responds she loves him dearly and hopes she can grow to love him the way she feels he deserves.
But as they begin to walk away arm-in-arm, another young man walks by and utters her name. She throws herself into his arms and disappears, but not before kissing our Dreamer.
The next morning, he receives a letter from her, in which she apologizes profusely and tells him her plans to marry within the week. And although he bursts into tears, he can’t wish ill on her for he still loves her and is grateful she sparked such grand feelings in him once in his life.
Briefly, I thought maybe Dostoevsky planned a somewhat happy ending for this nameless narrator. Clearly, I was naive. Definitely should have known better.
While the love story (if you want to call it that) was a little depressing in itself because it was about unrequited love and all that, I was more fascinated by the voice of the narrator. How I identify so much with a 26-year-old hermitic Russian man, I will never quite understand. But I do. This dreamer is a precursor to Dostoevsky’s later and more mature, disillusioned dreamers from “Notes from Underground” and other stories.
I often wonder if that will be me some day. The Dreamer in this story goes into these long tirades about living in dreams and fancies, only to feel irrevocably removed from reality:
“Because it begins to seem to me at such times that I am incapable of beginning a life in real life, because it has seemed to me that I have lost all touch, all instinct for the actual, the real; because at last I have cursed myself; because after my fantastic nights I have moments of returning sobriety, which are awful! Meanwhile, you hear the whirl and roar of the crowd in the vortex of life around you; you hear, you see, men living in reality; you see that life for them is not forbidden, that their life does not float away like a dream, like a vision; that their life is being eternally renewed, eternally youthful, and not one hour of it is the same as another…”
This is getting convoluted and I’m not explaining myself well.
“White Nights” is available via Project Gutenberg here.
Anyway, it was an interesting short read. In fact, the first Dostoevsky short story I’ve ever read. I’ve tackled his larger, later works: “Notes,” “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov,” to name a few of the more obvious ones.
“The Brothers Karamazov” is one of my favorites. It took me a while to get through it, but when I finally finished I felt like a completely different person. I literally sighed. I should read it again, but it’s such a heavy book in every possible sense. I’m not sure I could handle it right now, also in every possible sense.
I’ve also been trying to read more works from writers of color. I sort of grew up on more classical literature, aka books written by old dead white guys, and stuff one wouldn’t immediately think I would/could internalize. But I suppose that’s the wonderful thing about the written word. Done well, and it can transcend so many societal boundaries.
All right, I’m obviously getting away from myself again. I’m going to do something entirely opposite and play Destiny on my Xbox. I’m a woman of varied tastes.