31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 29: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

May 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Although Dostoevsky’s story begins with a typically bleak existentialism, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is in fact one of the author’s most hopeful works. The unnamed narrator, having succumbed to the anxiety of meaninglessness that characterizes his life, decides to kill himself, but a chance encounter with a young girl gives him second thoughts. In his apartment, with his gun by his side, he falls asleep and has an extended dream that thoroughly changes his outlook on life.

A bare-bones summary of the story’s plot belies its philosophical heft and its nuanced thought; far from being a simple redemption story, it is instead a reckoning with human weakness and fallibility, and an extended meditation on the nature of suffering. This being Dostoevsky, things are not all sweetness and light.

The story’s opening section finds the narrator in a state of existential crisis. He has determined that the universe is indifferent and that nothing matters: “I was becoming terribly disheartened owing to one circumstance which was beyond my power to control, namely, the conviction which was gaining upon me that nothing in the whole world made any difference.” Worse than experiencing anger at the rampant corruption and venality of society is the narrator’s lack of any kind of feeling at all:

I suddenly ceased to be angry with people and almost stopped noticing them. This indeed disclosed itself in the smallest trifles. For instance, I would knock against people while walking in the street. And not because I was lost in thought – I had nothing to think about –  I had stopped thinking about anything at that time: it made no difference to me. Oh, I had not settled a single question, and there were thousands of them! But it made no difference to me, and all the questions disappeared.

The narrator’s indifference is so pervasive that although he has made up his mind to kill himself, he cannot work up the energy to follow through. Even the elements conspire to exaggerate the narrator’s malaise: the night he finally decides to take decisive action is “as dismal an evening as could be imagined … it had been pouring all day, and the rain too was the coldest and most dismal rain that ever was, a sort of menacing rain – I remember that – a rain with a distinct animosity towards people.” The pathetic fallacy continues as the narrator looks up a the night sky, which is “awfully dark,” with “torn wisps of cloud and between them fathomless dark patches.” In an ironic moment, what finally convinces the narrator to take action to end his life is a star that he glimpses between the clouds. The star, symbolic of light and hope, prompts the narrator to finally pick up his revolver and shoot himself.

However, on his way home to do the deed, the narrator encounters a little girl in the street calling for help:

I turned around to look at her, but did not utter a word and kept on walking. But she ran after me and kept tugging at my clothes, and there was a sound in her voice which in very frightened children signifies despair. I know that sound. Though her words sounded like they were choking her, I realised that her mother must be dying somewhere very near, or that something similar was happening to her, and that she had run out to call someone, to find someone who would help her mother. But I did not go with her; on the contrary, something made me drive her away. At first I told her to go and find a policeman. But she suddenly clasped her hands and, whimpering and gasping for breath, kept running at my side and would not leave me. It was then that I stamped my foot and shouted at her.

This is the pivotal scene in the story, for it is the narrator’s encounter with the little girl that jostles him out of his existential torpor. His initial reaction to the encounter is anger, because he feels pity for the lost little girl, yet he thinks to himself, if he has decided to commit suicide, should he not be indifferent to the world’s suffering? If, by ending his life, he also severs his conscious connection with the outside world, what difference should it make to him that there is a young girl in distress? Despite these rationalizations, like the guilt-plagued Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, the narrator discovers that he cannot quell his feelings of sympathy for the girl.

It is this contradiction that leads to the narrator’s dream, an extended expressionistic journey through a land that resembles Earth as an Edenic paradise, prior to the fall of mankind. The people who live in this alternate world do not suffer or succumb to anger or jealousy; although they die, their earthly unions survive death; they have no religions, but are stamped with “a certain awareness of a constant, uninterrupted, and living union with the Universe at large.” And how does the narrator’s presence influence these prelapsarian souls? In one of the story’s most savagely ironic twists, the narrator confesses: “I – corrupted them all!”

Indeed, the presence of the narrator among the innocent denizens of his dreamworld incites a recognition of human frailties and states that had previously gone unremarked upon: selfishness, jealousy, shame. They begin to eschew their communal existence, and “progress” in a specifically human fashion:

A struggle began for separation, for isolation, for personality, for mine and thine. They began talking in different languages. They came to know sorrow, and they loved sorrow. They thirsted for suffering, and they said that Truth could only be attained through suffering. It was then that science made its appearance among them. When they became wicked, they began talking about brotherhood and humanity and understood the meaning of those ideas. When they became guilty of crimes, they invented justice, and drew up whole codes of law, and to ensure the carrying out of their laws they erected a guillotine. They only vaguely remembered what they had lost, and they would not believe that they ever were happy or innocent.

Here, Dostoevsky distills human nature to its essence: the thirst for suffering, the use of science to explain away an incomprehensible existence, the conviction that justice is appropriate, but only because we have accepted the reasonableness of crime in the first place. When the narrator confronts the dream figures about what they have sacrificed to achieve this new world order, the response he receives is tantamount to a philosophical rationalization for mankind’s dissolution:

“What if we are dishonest, cruel, and unjust? We know it and we are sorry for it, and we torment ourselves for it, and inflict pain upon ourselves, and punish ourselves more perhaps than the merciful Judge who will judge us and whose name we do not know. But we have science and with its aid we shall again discover truth, though we shall accept it only when we perceive it with our reason. Knowledge is higher than feeling, and the consciousness of life is higher than life. Science will give us wisdom. Wisdom will reveal to us the laws. And the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness.” That is what they said to me, and having uttered those words, each of them began to love himself better than anyone else, and indeed they could not do otherwise.

With these words, penned in 1877, Dostoevsky provides as good a diagnosis of modernity and its attendant crises of conscience and meaning as exists in literature. It is this understanding that prevents the story’s narrator from making good on his promise to kill himself. Instead, he awakes from his dream a changed man, and determines to spend the rest of his days preaching. He espouses a Christian philosophy of brotherly love: “The main thing is to love your neighbour as yourself – that is the main thing, and that is everything, for nothing else matters. Once you do that, you will discover at once how everything can be arranged.” For his troubles, he is branded a madman. And yet, Dostoevsky’s story has a happy ending, one of the few in the author’s canon of works. The narrator does track down the tormented little girl, and his final words are not words of despair, but words of defiant hope in the face of a fallen world: “I shall go on! I shall go on!”

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