Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 966
The short story opens with the narrator describing himself as a ridiculous person. Everyone knows him to be ridiculous and ridicules him for it, but no one more severely than himself.
I have always been ridiculous, and I have known it, perhaps, from the hour I was born. Perhaps from the time I was seven years old I knew I was ridiculous. Afterwards I went to school, studied at the university, and, do you know, the more I learned, the more thoroughly I understood that I was ridiculous.
He states that the one thing that annoys him more than anything else is people not realizing that he understands as much as them how ridiculous he is.
Everyone always laughed at me. But not one of them knew or guessed that if there were one man on earth who knew better than anybody else that I was absurd, it was myself, and what I resented most of all was that they did not know that.
As he continues with his explanation, the reader starts to understand that he cuts a ridiculous figure because from his view life is ridiculous and he refuses to play by its rules.
. . . the conviction that had come upon me that nothing in the world mattered. I had long had an inkling of it, but the full realisation came last year almost suddenly. I suddenly felt that it was all the same to me whether the world existed or whether there had never been anything at all: I began to feel with all my being that there was nothing existing.
At this point in the story, the narrator paints himself as a nihilist.
I suddenly felt that it was all the same to me whether the world existed or whether there had never been anything at all: I began to feel with all my being that there was nothing existing. At first I fancied that many things had existed in the past, but afterwards I guessed that there never had been anything in the past either, but that it had only seemed so for some reason. Little by little I guessed that there would be nothing in the future either.
Ironically, it this realization that seems to have lead him to accept who he is as a person and given his life some sort of meaning.
Then I left off being angry with people and almost ceased to notice them . . . I gave up caring about anything, and all the problems disappeared. And it was after that that I found out the truth.
This is the first sign that he is not the uncaring person he had once presumed himself to be. After he rejects the pleas of a young girl, he starts questioning the meaning of his life.
One reflection followed another. I saw clearly that so long as I was still a human being and not nothingness, I was alive and so could suffer, be angry and feel shame at my actions.
This revelation is followed by a dream about a society where people, animals and nature live together in harmony.
Oh, everything was exactly as it is with us, only everything seemed to have a festive radiance, the splendour of some great, holy triumph attained at last. The caressing sea, green as emerald, splashed softly upon the shore and kissed it with manifest, almost conscious love. The tall, lovely trees stood in all the glory of their blossom, and their innumerable leaves greeted me, I am certain, with their soft, caressing rustle and seemed to articulate words of love. The grass glowed with bright and fragrant flowers. Birds were flying in flocks in the air, and perched fearlessly on my shoulders and arms and joyfully struck me with their darling, fluttering wings.
For the first time he feels true love.
They lived just in such a paradise as that in which, according to all the legends of mankind, our first parents lived before they sinned; the only difference was that all this earth was the same paradise. These people, laughing joyfully, thronged round me and caressed me; they took me home with them, and each of them tried to reassure me. Oh, they asked me no questions, but they seemed, I fancied, to know everything without asking, and they wanted to make haste to smooth away the signs of suffering from my face.
In the dream, the Ridiculous Man claims he is responsible for corrupting the society. As people began to form small groups and declare war on each other, the animals ran for the safety of the mountains and forests.
. . . a vile trichina, like a germ of the plague infecting whole kingdoms, so I contaminated all this earth, so happy and sinless before my coming. They learnt to lie, grew fond of lying, and discovered the charm of falsehood. Oh, at first perhaps it began innocently, with a jest, coquetry, with amorous play, perhaps indeed with a germ, but that germ of falsity made its way into their hearts and pleased them. Then sensuality was soon begotten, sensuality begot jealousy, jealousy — cruelty . . . Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember; but soon, very soon the first blood was shed.
The story ends with the Ridiculous Man deciding to preach love to others. People still view him as ridiculous, but like before he doesn't seem to care. He thinks by showing them unconditional love, he can change them for the better.
Suppose that this paradise will never come to pass (that I understand), yet I shall go on preaching it. 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 . . .