An Analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "White
Fyodor Dostoevsky's "White Nights"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
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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
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
experiences -- 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.
This story is available in paperback from Amazon here:
"White Nights is available as a Kindle download from Amazon here:
and "Notes from the Underground is available as a Kindle download here:
Both stories are also available in paperback from Barnes and Noble here:
and as a Nook download here: