White Nights, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is the third character sketch by Dostoevsky that I’m reading. His characters practice solipsism, which is the theory that one can only know oneself. Solipsism is the idea that a person can only know his own mind, and everything else is unknown. Dostoevsky’s characters are immortalized, because they are relatable. At moments, we all have wisps of solipsism, where we question reality and our surroundings. Dostoevsky is able to articulate these feelings through stories, and because of his ability to explore concepts such as shame and solipsism through writing, his stories are immortalized and serve as a foundation for other character sketches. The three stories that I’ve read so far have been centered around the theme of shame, and in each story, the hero isolates himself because of his shame and guilt. I look forward to reading the more popular Dostoevsky stories in the future, such as Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov.
The main character is introduced but not given a name. He is simply the narrator. He is an isolated man who has no friends and nobody to share his experiences with. In his community, his feeling of isolation is heightened during the holiday as he watches all his neighbors leaving town to visit family and friends. During one of his neighborhood walks, the narrator observes a woman who is weeping. He approaches the woman, but she runs away. Across the street, a man begins to pursue her. Realizing the evil intentions of the pursuer, the narrator comes to the woman’s rescue by confronting the unseemly gentleman. The woman is very thankful, and she begins having a conversation with the narrator. During the conversation, the narrator reveals that he is 26 years old and never truly spoke with a woman. He admits that he is timid and does not know how to speak appropriately to her. Despite his timidity, he is able to have an engaging conversation, because he is speaking from the heart. I think that appropriate words will always manifest when we listen to our emotions. The narrator is a good example of this concept in action. The woman and narrator agree to meet at this same location on the following morning.
The narrator and the woman meet again at the bridge, and they share their stories with one another. The narrator shares his story first. He considers himself to be a “dreamer.” When he returns to sobriety after a dream, it is an awful feeling. In his dreams, he is fully satisfied. The dreamer will sit in his corner and dream fantastic fantasies, worlds full of heroics and love. In a dream, all is satisfied and all is well. But when one wakes from a dream, reality is terrible. In a dream, the dreamer will love a woman, but when he wakes, he knows only isolation, and he is heart-broken. Reality crushes him like a wave. His life has reached the point where the does not celebrate “real” anniversaries. Instead, he celebrates the anniversaries of especially pleasant dreams. Reflecting on his life, the dreamer states that he has accomplished nothing. What did he spend his years doing? Only dreaming. The only thing he has to show for his life is a dream. He does not live in reality, and therefore he has no real accomplishments to show. The narrator tells his story to Nastenka, and she listens intently, only interrupting once to say that he “speaks like a book.” At the end of the dreamer monologue, the narrator expects Nastenka to laugh at his foolishness. Her response is quite the opposite. Impressed by his openness, she tells her story in response. This connection between a man and a woman is special, that is, the connection where the man speaks openly and frankly about his weaknesses, and where the woman responds with compassion. I think this is part of the bond between a man and woman. It is difficult to explain, but I think that stories like “White Nights” articulate the concept well.
Next, Nastenka shares her story. She lives with her grandmother and is continually pinned to her grandmother’s dress. Nastenka is not allowed to leave the house nor have any friends. She is isolated, and she has only her grandmother for company. One day, a man comes to live with them, paying board for one of the rooms. He is young and good-looking. The man takes Nastenka to an opera. Afterwards, he takes her for a walk, and they discuss the performance. The man takes Nastenka to a few more theater event, but there are always significant breaks of time between his visits. Nastenka looks forward to his dates. She falls in love with the man. Eventually, the man states that he must move on, and Nastenka is heart-broken. The man says that he will return in one year, and if she still loves him, then they will be married. This brings Nastenka to present day, and to her weeping on the bridge. One year has passed, and her lover did not show up. She is devastated, and her heart is shattered. At the conclusion of her story, Nastenka and the narrator agree to meet again tomorrow.
The narrator reflects on the joy and happiness that Nastenka inflames. It was a tremendously pleasant feeling to spill out his whole heart and to have her respond with tenderness. He is eager to see her again and to feel her love. Her love makes him feel happy and giddy. When they meet, Nastenka expresses her excitement and anticipation about meeting her lover. She says that she loves the man, and she is thankful that the narrator is such a good friend. She is thankful that the narrator did not fall in love with her. She is not aware of how the narrator truly feels. He loves her, and he is devastated that her heart belongs to another man. At the end of the third night, Nastenka’s lover still does not show. The narrator and Nastenka agree to meet again tomorrow.
The narrator’s predicament with Nastenka is a common love story. Here’s the outline of the love story. Boy loves girl. Boy is inflamed with positive emotions when in girl’s presence. Girl is not aware of the boy’s feelings. Boy is patient and their friendship blossoms. Eventually, the boy musters enough courage to share his feelings with girl. How does girl respond?
On their last meeting night, Nastenka concludes that her lover will never return. She is devastated and weeps bitterly. Feeling compassion for her, the narrator comforts her and proclaims his love. At first, Nastenka does not accept the narrator’s feelings, but eventually she concludes that he is an acceptable man to love. It appears that the narrator has won the girl. And then a man approaches, Nastenka recognizes the man as her lover, and she immediately tears herself from the narrator’s arms and flings herself into her lover’s arms. The narrator watches, heart-broken, as the two lovers walk away. In the last scene of the book, the narrator receives a letter from Nastenka. In her letter, she apologizes and says that she wishes it were possible to love two men at once. The narrator wishes only happiness for the woman.