Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Fyodor Dostoevski is much better known for his lengthy novels than for his short stories. This short story contains many of the themes that Dostoevski used in his novels but in a much-reduced form. The author, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, was intrigued by the human condition and sought answers for human imperfection in traditional Christian thought, although he often imparted to it an original insight or twist.

In this particular story, Dostoevski deals with a paradox familiar to all Christian philosophers: How does one reconcile the desire for social change and the quest for perfection with the human condition of imperfection as a result of the Fall in the Garden of Eden? This central theme is placed within a secondary theme also familiar to all readers of Dostoevski’s novels, the inability of the rationalist to supply all of life’s answers. The central character in this story lives by theories and has no real communication with his fellow human beings. When he cannot find the answers to life and concludes, therefore, that life is meaningless, he decides to commit suicide.

The dream shows the ridiculous man where he has gone wrong: in his dependence on the intellect rather than the heart. In order to live meaningfully, one must live as people did before the Fall, instinctively and with love. How does one do this? The vision of the perfect society and the desire to re-create it give him the wherewithal to choose life over death, for although perfection is unattainable in this life, the quest for it makes life bearable.