Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights1
‘Forgive me if I again say something not quite… But here it is: I can’t help coming here tomorrow. I’m a dreamer; I have so little real life that I regard such moments as this one, now, to be so rare that I can’t help repeating these moments in my dreams. I will dream of you all night, for an entire week, all year long. I will come here tomorrow without fail, exactly here, to this very spot, exactly at this time, and I’ll be happy as I recall what happened yesterday.’
I owe it to myself to sit down one day and figure out exactly why I keep coming back to the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but suffice it to say that I’m very very fond of them.
White Nights bears many family resemblances with other members of the Dostoevsky oeuvre: grandiose speech, unrequited love, someone retreating from the world in shame, and dreams. (I ask that you refrain from psychoanalysing me for the moment.)
The narrative involves our hero “the dreamer” who, while terribly alone in Petersburg one night, rescues a young woman named Nastenka from an unsavoury encounter with a potential attacker. Their initial conversation that night leads to more conversations in the subsequent nights, which in turn leads them quite naturally to love, or at least something very much like it. As it turns out, Nastenka has another love interest, who was expected to return to propose to her by now but hasn’t. The dreamer daren’t hope for much from this woman of his dreams, but finds that he cannot but fall for her.
The major theme of the novel is, if I may be so bold, dreams. These dreams are not only an escape from reality for the dreamer, but a necessary part of how he processes that reality. The dreamer describes himself seeing Petersburg by “another, different new sun […] and it shines on everything with a different, special light”.
Without the light that these dreams bring for him, the world (and the future in particular) promises only inescapable loneliness. In the dreamer’s discourse about himself to Nastenka, it is suggested that he was deeply humiliated and hurt in some previous attempt to connect another person.2 As a result, he has disengaged as much as he can from the real world, sealing himself up from the inevitable loneliness. When Nastenka asks about his life, he goes so far as to say that he is “absolutely without stories of any kind”. He has no meaningful engagement with reality; only the dreams are real for him.
Nonetheless, as he watches others live successfully in reality, the dreamer has some sense that he is supposed to leave dreams behind. Indeed, the dreams themselves are “finally growing tired”, and the dreamer is outgrowing them. So not only is reality unbearable, but his dreams are also fading, leaving him with nowhere safe to hide:
‘Sometimes I am overcome by moments of such anguish, such anguish […] Because at those moments it begins to seem that I will never be able to begin living a real life; because it already seems that I have lost all sense, all feeling for the genuine, the real; because, in the end, I curse myself; because after my fantastic nights I am visited by sobering moments that are horrible!’
The arrival of Nastenka, then, has “pierced his breast with all its wearisome torments”: she holds out (intentionally or not) the possibility that he can come out from his white nights to reality. Nastenka is, so to speak, a dream come true. She is something real to cling to that will rescue him both from these fading dreams on one hand and horrible loneliness on the other. She is, indeed, better than his dreams: “What will there be for me to dream about when I have already been so happy in real life beside you!”
Of course, the dreamer cannot cling to Nastenka in the end; she also fades, like all the other dreams. Nastenka’s vanishing is not merely a withholding of love from the dreamer; rather, the entire frame through which he can live in the world is crushed and he has nothing left.
The tragedy of this story surrounds the decisive exit from the world of dreams for “one whole minute of bliss” in the real world, only for the dreamer to find himself suddenly abandoned, and everything he feared most becomes his eternal and very real fate.
The dreamer can no longer retreat to his dreams, which were already beginning to die out. At the same time, neither can he live in reality. The awful loneliness he so deeply feared is now what he must live with for the rest of his life in exchange for this fleeting moment of real happiness:
‘He thinks that this is a poor, pitiful life, not anticipating that perhaps some day the sad hour will strike for him as well, when for a single day of this pitiful life, he would give up all of his fantastic years, and give them up not for joy, or for happiness, and without wishing to choose in this hour of sadness, repentance and boundless sorrow.’
White Nights is all at once surreal, beautiful and sad, and I must say that I really loved it.
Perhaps this is what I love about Dostoevsky: In his best moments, he plunges you down to the bottom of the ocean of another’s suffering until you start to taste the water in your mouth. I have found often that his characters, in their bold declarations of their own suffering, have even expressed to me what I feel, with words that I likely wouldn’t have had the genius to put together nor the courage to say, even to myself:
‘You shake your head and say: How quickly do the years fly by! And again you ask yourself: What have you done with your years? Where have you buried your best days? Did you live or not? Look, you say to yourself, look how cold the world is becoming. More years will pass, followed by gloomy solitude, and then doddering old age will come on a walking-stick, to be followed by anguish and despondency. Your fantastic world will grow pale, your dreams will wither, die and scatter like yellow leaves from the trees… Oh Nastenka! It will be sad, you know, to be left alone, quite alone, and not even have something to regret – nothing, absolutely nothing… because all that I have lost, all this, it was all nothing, a stupid, round zero – it was merely a dream!’
- Or “Dostoyevsky”, if you prefer.
- In any case, I read the translation by Ronald Meyer. ↩One can see strong parallels to the mental breakdown of Golyadkin in The Double, and the Underground Man’s decisive descent into self-loathing in Notes from Underground.
- (The dreamer, in telling his own story here, refers to himself as “our hero”, which is also the narrator’s ironic nickname for Golyadkin in The Double.) ↩