Hello I am reading the book "White Nights" by Fydor Dostojevski and I am trying to analyse the environmental aspect of it. I am trying to get a clear picture of how the Urbanisation of the 1800's...

Hello I am reading the book "White Nights" by Fydor Dostojevski and I am trying to analyse the environmental aspect of it. I am trying to get a clear picture of how the Urbanisation of the 1800's influenced the book in terms of environment and setting. This meaning the urbanisation is reflected by the use of environmental aspects. Quotes would be appreciated to back up any reasoning. 


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andraa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dostoevsky dedicates many lines in his short story, White Nights, to the city of Saint Petersburg. He does not just set a story in a chosen place, a background- he tells a story highly influenced by a place he knows well. (From his biography we find out that Dostoevsky has lived in Saint Petersburg for several years).

To answer your question about urbanization, I will include a little bit of history.

Mainly as a result of the industrialization, the urbanization of the 19th century emerged in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Russia was influenced, but not as much as the rest of Europe. However, an aspect that might interest you is the urbanization that took place in Russia previously to the 19th century, during czar Peter the Great, as a result of the construction of a new city, Saint Petersburg. Czar Peter the Great founded the city on 27 May 1703. From the beginning it was designed to be a city, a great urban place (although this did not happen overnight). Peter, influenced by his journeys through Europe, wanted to synchronize Russia with the more modern European trends. For this, amongst other things, he designed and built his own city, and eventually moved the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in 1712. The citizens of the new city (such as serfs, peasants, artists, noblemen, engineers, architects, scientists) were brought by the czar from Russia and from all over Europe, although not all were very pleased with the idea. It was an imposed urbanization.

Many noble families settled here during the period and their habits influenced the newly formed society.

Dostoevsky's story reflects these habits of the nobility, such as the movement of the upper class to the countryside during holidays.

I fancied that everything was astir and moving, everything was going in regular caravans to the summer villas. It seemed as though Petersburg threatened to become a wilderness, so that at last I felt ashamed, mortified and sad that I had nowhere to go for the holidays and no reason to go away."

The main character is truly a townsman, a „half sick townsman”. His relation with the city is so important that he even imagines the ideal woman in a  way influenced by the urban-nobility figure. "Somehow I cannot help being reminded of a frail, consumptive girl, at whom one sometimes looks with compassion, sometimes with sympathetic love, whom sometimes one simply does not notice; though suddenly in one instant she becomes, as though by chance, inexplicably lovely and exquisite, and, impressed and intoxicated, one cannot help asking oneself what power made those sad, pensive eyes flash with such fire? What summoned the blood to those pale, wan cheeks? What bathed with passion those soft features?"

His vision on this ideal is not precisely realistic, but a mirroring of his own sadness, intoxicated by the city and by its movement to the countryside.

In his loneliness, he is obsessed with every detail of the holiday departures, I fancied that those flowers were being bought not simply in order to enjoy the flowers and the spring in stuffy town lodgings, but because they would all be very soon moving into the country and could take the flowers with them. What is more, I made such progress in my new peculiar sort of investigation that I could distinguish correctly from the mere air of each in what summer villa he was living.”

Other aspect that reflects the city and is actually common to many urban places is the isolation of the individuals and the hard times they have in socializing, especially if they are „dreamers”, as the main character is. He lives in his apartment with only his “Matrona” and takes long walks on the streets of the city. His longing for interaction with other people is obvious, but all he gets is an unsatisfactory imitation of it.  He creates stories in his head to accompany him in his walks and ease the solitude.

I had been living almost eight years in Petersburg I had hardly an acquaintance. But what did I want with acquaintances? I was acquainted with all Petersburg as it was; that was why I felt as though they were all deserting me when all Petersburg packed up and went to its summer villa. I felt afraid of being left alone, and for three whole days I wandered about the town in profound dejection, not knowing what to do with myself.

They, of course, do not know me, but I know them. I know them intimately, I have almost made a study of their faces, and am delighted when they are gay, and downcast when they are under a cloud. I have almost struck up a friendship with one old man whom I meet every blessed day, at the same hour in Fontanka.(...). He even notices me and takes a warm interest in me. If I happen not to be at a certain time in the same spot in Fontanka, I am certain he feels disappointed. That is how it is that we almost bow to each other, especially when we are both in good humour. The other day, when we had not seen each other for two days and met on the third, we were actually touching our hats, but, realizing in time, dropped our hands and passed each other with a look of interest."

 Although the story is centered on love and its misfortunes, the perception of it and the main character’s interactions with Nastenka would not have been the same if the character was not deeply influenced by a deep solitude, an urban melancholia.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"White Nights" by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a story both impressionistic and focused upon detail, a condition reflected in the narrator's words,

...there are strange nooks in Petersburg. it seems as though the same sun shines for Petersburg people does not peep into these spots, but some other different new one, bespoken expressly for those nooks and it throws a different light on everything.

Just as the "White Nights," the extended twilight until midnight in the summer months creates an atmosphere that seems unnatural "as light is cast upon some nooks, but not others," this strange season casts an odd light upon its environment. The narrator feels that life is a mix of "something purely fantastic, fervently ideal, with something...dingily prosaic." As a "professed dreamer," he has created vignettes about the people who pass by him during his long walks because he experiences life as a raconteur. Even his relationship with Natenska is not solely personal as she includes in her involvement with the narrator her reflections upon her previous relationship--"light in some nooks, but not others."

Nevertheless, the narrator considers his nights preferable to his days--"white nights"; for in them he lives, even if vicariously. When he is finished with work, the narrator walks the streets and eagerly grasps at such moments of imagining where citizens of the upper class are going for the summer, while at the same time anticipating his rendez-vous with Natenska for whom he has become a confidant. She reveals that she is in love with a man who will not ask for her hand since he does not have the means to support her; however, he has promised to return to her when he becomes more successful, and Natenska dreams of this return. Finally, after having the narrator intercede for her, the man announces himself, claiming Natenska's love. The narrator, who has been so solicitous of Natenska, writes,

To-day was a gloomy, rainy day without a glimmer of sunlight, like the old age before me....To-day we shall not meet. Yesterday, when we said good-bye, the clouds began gathering over the sky and a mist rose.

This has been the "fourth white night" together for Natenska and the narrator. They have shared much together, even attending the opera. She tells the narrator about her lover, "He is not as good as you, though I love him more than you." When it seems as though the lodger will not return for Natenska, the narrator and she make plans for the two of them. Elated, the narrator exclaims,

"Nastenka. Look! To-morrow it will be a lovely day; what a blue sky, what a moon! Look; that yellow cloud is covering it now, look, look! No, it has passed by. Look, look!"

Soon, however, they see the landlord walking by and Natenska rushes toward him. But, having hardly greeted her lover, she quickly returns and kisses the narrator. Shortly thereafter, the girl writes to the narrator, hoping the situation will clear itself up and declaring that she does love the narrator.

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White Nights

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