Book: A Gentle Creature & Other Stories
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Original Language/Translation: Russian, tr. by Alan Myers
Genre: Literary Fiction, Russian Literature
Page Count:160 pgs
Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The streets are empty; with not a soul in sight. A slow, steady wave of snowfall embraces the lonely streets, draping the dark horizon in a vision of white. The stillness of the night echoes throughout the map of this Great Russian City; St. Petersburg is silent. Yet, among the dimly-lit, solitary paths walks a love-starved man against the White Night; in an equally empty apartment a man ruminates over the sudden suicide of his young wife; and lastly, wrapped within the confines of nocturnal haze, dwells a man with a Ridiculous Dream who seeks reality within a reverie.
And so flutter the desolate hearts of Dostoevsky’s three solemn characters that are divided by narrative but bound by theme.
The common theme pertains to isolated dreamers and their constant struggle with reality. These dreamers grapple to find individual meaning and absolve the existential dread/despair that haunts them. The dream is as important as reality because it’s through these latent projections and ideas does meaning bear fruit. Furthermore, there is a keen focus on human nature/ psyche and its capacity to transcend even with the nihilistic undertones and bleak circumstances induced by reality.
In essence, this collection offers three different stories that internalize thematic profundity and character complexity while exposing the soul of the dreamer, the essence of dreams, and the reality that contains them both. The reality extracts the dreamer and introduces him to seemingly coincidental meetings/choices that in a way tests him, but indefinitely transforms him. The simplest coincidences or events (or dreams) can change the course of one’s life and this is where these dreamers blossom and wither; finding and losing themselves – for better or for worse, and it’s this reconciliation (or lack of) that is splurged within the following stories.
1st Published: 1848
Story Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The first story “White Nights” follows a closeted romantic roaming the streets of St. Petersburg on a cold winter’s night. He aches to find a familiar face so he can feel familiar emotions that now seems so distant to him. The heart of the story centers around the coincidental meeting of the narrator and a young girl named Nastenka, whom he saves from distress. This incites nights of conversation between the two and slowly, the sublime dream of the romantic and the reality of his relationship and predicament starts to unfurl.
“I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can’t help re-living such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experienced. I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.”
The undeniable strength of “White Nights” is in its ability to reconcile the idealist or the dreamer against the harsh backdrop of realism. The narrator is initially introduced as a brooding, sentimental man who seems to be at the brink of collapse. His anecdotes and digressions add padding to his incremental sadness, even though he subconsciously avoids it and acts in contradiction to his own impositions. Yet, what is truly noteworthy here is how well an apparent dichotomy is resolved. Often times, these characters find themselves within a paradox and the way that Dostoevsky riddles and then resolves is truly an indication of his understanding of the human condition and psyche. This to me, is proven by the fact that the “solution” which is generally completely self-contained still manages to blows with an air of universality. “White Nights” poignantly illustrates that despite the circumstances and outcomes – which are often irreversible – that the dream still lives on with the choice of the dreamer, even if reality seems to have strangled it mercilessly. And, through the narrator, Dostoevsky shows us a dreamer who eternalizes his dream in a simple moment and attains meaning he (and we) never thought could have been possible.
“May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be for ever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness which you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of one’s life?”
1st Published: 1876
Story Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
The second story titled “A Gentle Creature” is drenched in the unforgiving realism that Dostoevsky is known for. “A Gentle Creature” tells a tale about a 40-something pawnbroker who tries to make sense of the suicide of his 16 year old wife. This narrative reads like a diary (entirely confessional in nature) and is completely enraptured with the psyche of the narrator. In short, this story isn’t about the narrator cluing himself (and us) about the death of his wife, but more to expose the psychological breakdown of a man consumed by a dream of farce and the implications such a dream has for the dreamer (and those around him).
Thus, “A Gentle Creature” is absolutely heartbreaking. If there are a group of redeemed, then there also exists the fallen and forgotten, and it’s the latter which gets highlighted here. This is a story that is set in hindsight; therefore the intrigue doesn’t lie in the “climatic” height, but the justification, evaluation, and judgments surrounding it. As the narrator sifts through his life – meeting the young girl, “admiring” her, marrying her, and then life after marriage – he begins to rationalize himself, his philosophies, and ambitions and desires. Eventually the pawnbroker – similar to the many anti-heroes of Dostoevsky – finds himself wavering between his self-absorbed musings and the spirit of his wife (it is truly remarkable how he’s able to create two distinct consciousness’ through one character). Once he’s able to step out of the materialistic, self-consumed whims – his loss, alienation, and devastation becomes extremely visceral and the [dream of material]-ism that once excited him turns into a Nihilistic Nightmare as he yearns for the companionship and love he once mocked.
“Oh, blind force! Oh, nature! Men are alone on earth — that is what is dreadful! “Is there a living man in the country?” cried the Russian hero. I cry the same, though I am not a hero, and no one answers my cry. They say the sun gives life to the universe. The sun is rising and — look at it, is it not dead? Everything is dead and everywhere there are dead. Men are alone — around them is silence — that is the earth! “Men, love one another” — who said that? Whose commandment is that? The pendulum ticks callously, heartlessly.”
1st Published: 1877
Story Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The last addition to this collection is in a way, the perfect closure to a chapter (or chapters) of dreamers. “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” starts off with a dejected man roaming the nightly streets, complaining about the world being void of value and meaning. He wants to kill himself and has prepared for it by already buying a gun. While walking home, he meets a young girl who asks for his help. He denies her and continues onwards. Finding himself in front of his revolver, he sinks deep into thought; thinking back on helpless girl and guilt begins to consume him. He shortly falls asleep.
What ensues from that point onwards is an extremely elaborate and vivid dream that eventually changes the man’s perspective on life, humanity, and the world.
This story is absolutely amazing, regardless of what one thinks of Dostoevsky’s criticisms (of science, rationalism, and all the other –isms that are blatant in this). The story examines the possibility of man being intrinsically good and the possibility of materializing it through love, brotherhood, and extending our inherent capacity for kindness.
“And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted — you will find out at once how to arrange it all.”
The manner in which it is executed is through both the fantastic and the realistic, and what it says is far grander than how it says it. What the Ridiculous Man manifests through his dream is perhaps a dream we all dream: one consisting of utopian properties, but not necessarily of a utopia in and of itself. We are humans after all; utopia implies “a perfect society”, and that is not what our dreams or our realities can fathom or desire. What the Ridiculous Man dreams of is something that he can translate over to into his character; his design; his code to change the world from inside and create meaning in a world that often seems devoid of it. And as he foretells, many people will call him Mad, or Ridiculous, but he will love them anyway.
“I am a ridiculous man. They call me mad now. That would be a step up in rank, if I did not still remain as ridiculous to them as before. But now I’m no longer angry, now they are all dear to me, and even when they laugh at me – then, too, they are even somehow especially dear to me. I would laugh with them – not really at myself, but for love of them”
Overall, this collection is an absolute marvel and a perfect introduction to the works of Dostoevsky. It sets the stage for his later, more monumental works but is no less impressive in feat. Not only does it offer unmatched psychological and humanistic profundity, but it’s rich in language – allowing the reader to envision the physical while simultaneously allowing them to step into each of the respective narrator’s head. Truly stepping beyond the “beautiful and the sublime” this collection of short stories ingeniously transpires human momentum, psychological complexity, and palpable passion that will transform any reader – for better or for worse.