Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story “White Nights,” his unnamed protagonist is a sensitive, poetic resident of the very Westernized St. Petersburg of the mid-nineteenth century. He defines himself as a “dreamer”, and Dostoevsky did not have to dig too far into his own psyche to create this character. In fact, looking just a few years back into Dostoevsky’s personal history, we discover a source for much of the material which went into “White Nights”—a series of newspaper columns Dostoevsky wrote incorporating his own meditations and observations about city life, which were eventually published as The Petersburg Chronicle.
But first, we should explain a bit about the background of Dostoevsky’s life. He was born in Moscow in 1821. When Fyodor was seventeen, his father sent him away to school in St. Petersburg to become a military engineer. After graduation and a brief career in engineering, he decided to take up writing instead, claiming the romantic, misty city as his own. Although Dostoevsky had an aversion to doing hack writing for money—he thought he ought to be able to make a decent living writing great literature right off the bat—he was, at the age of 26, offered a job at the Saint-Petersburg Gazette writing what were known as “feuilletons” —short, topical pieces such as character sketches of well-known people, theater and book reviews, and personal observations on current events.
On the surface this might seem to have little to do with the dark, brooding precursor of existentialism which Dostoevsky would become. Yet Dostoevsky would utilize much of this material in the composition of later stories such as “White Nights.” For example, these stories first sparked the self-persona which Dostoevsky would later flesh out in that story: that of the narrator as ‘a dreamer.’
Later, Dostoevsky would take up this same persona in the character of the protagonist of “White Nights.” The original subtitle of the story was “A Sentimental Novel (From the Recollections of a Dreamer)”, and its style closely resembles that of the feuilleton. There are even places where Dostoevsky has lifted whole passages from his original column and transplanted them into his story.
The narrator’s “dreamer” motif works itself into the story as well, not only in the literal words but in the whole ambiance with which the story is soaked. The title, “White Nights,” refers to the fact that St. Petersburg is so far north that there are short seasons in which it never gets totally dark at night; these are seen as magical, romantic times, and this romanticism is masterfully conveyed in Dostoevsky’s prose.
The narrator comes to Nastenka crazed with the hypersensitivity that characterizes the lonely, bookish young. He is itching with restlessness and has no idea what he is restless for; he is overwrought with longing and has no idea why. We might dismiss it as “spring fever,” but in the young it seems to go much deeper than that. With this particular “dreamer” his malady occurs all year round; it is more hormonal or spiritual than seasonal. He would be of much greater practical use if he could settle his mind down enough to attend to the actual living of life, and yet his emotional turmoil is in itself providing him with life experiences he will never taste again and which, in the artist, prove a magnificent wellspring of inspiration.
The mere act of meeting and speaking with Nastenka, pouring out his soul at her feet, pulls in the narrator’s passion from a sort of diffuse excitability to a focused and steady love. In this way she “saves” him from the worst excesses of himself. As she tells him, “See now, all that you told me about your dreamer then is completely untrue, that is—I want to say, it has no relation to you at all. You are returning to health; you are, in fact, a completely different person than you described yourself. If some time you fall in love, then God give you happiness with her! And for her I don’t wish anything, because she will be happy with you.”
In the Dostoevsky canon, “White Nights” is unusual in its evocation of romanticism and even joy. Yet the story also shows that Doetoevsky was aware that a total flight from the concerns of the real world could be dangerous. Through his relationship with Nastenka, the narrator becomes a person who is not driven by his fantasies but knows how to harness them to make him a better person. From the historical evidence, we can assume that Dostoevsky was going through the same kind of struggle in his own life as he adjusted to the literary world, and that he used his struggles—first in the Petersburg Chronicle feuilletons, and later in “White Nights” —to ease him into maturity. Although Dostoevsky never again sought to capture the lyrical mood he depicts here in “White Nights,” the tension between creative expression and decadent illusion is a theme which would feature prominently in all his works.
“White Nights” can be found in The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Modern Library) available from Amazon here.
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