Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1686
Fyodor Dostoevski’s works fall into two periods that coincide with the time before his imprisonment and following it. The seven-year hiatus in his creative output between 1849 and 1857 corresponds to the four years that he spent in prison and the three subsequent years during which he was banished in Siberia. The first period produced primarily shorter novels and short stories, many of which have never been translated into English; the latter period is represented more by the great novels, the epithet denoting both significance and size, as well as by Dnevnik pisatelya, 1876-1877, 1880-1881 (2 volumes, partial translation as Pages from the Journal of an Author, 1916; complete translation as The Diary of a Writer, 1949), which also contains several new short stories.
In Dostoevski’s works, complex structures are created that introduce fundamentally antipodal constructs and that produce, among other effects, a mythologization of the antagonistic elements. Thus, the city, often the St. Petersburg of Dostoevski’s present, contrasts with the countryside. The squalor of poverty permeates St. Petersburg with sounds and smells in Dickensian realistic fashion, as opposed to the quaint, provincial quiet of the country. Usually, problems or actual troublemakers come from the city, or, if one leaves the provinces for the city, one may become “infected” with urban discontent and return to plague the countryside. In another prevalent dichotomy, the “man of the forties” (that is, the optimistic believer in the Enlightenment) often clashes with the “man of the sixties” (that is, the atheistic and/or nihilistic revolutionary). This conflict often is positioned generationally, and it is seldom clear whether the representative of either generation should prevail.
Often throughout Dostoevski’s works, men of a higher social class, although not necessarily a very high class, interact most significantly with women who are socially inferior, usually powerless or “compromised.” The relationship takes on many different attitudes in the various works, but, in almost every case, the woman turns out to be of greater virtue or higher moral and spiritual constitution than the man who, nevertheless, from his privileged position in society, usually fares better than the woman.
Perhaps most important of all the themes in his work is the belief in God versus atheism. If there is no God, many of Dostoevski’s characters realize, then either every human being is a God or every human being is nothing at all. This conflict can, and sometimes does, take place within a single person as well as between two characters. Atheism usually appears in its most extreme state—that is, in the belief that, since there is no God, the human being must be God. While Dostoevski’s proponents of atheism are strong-willed, disciplined, and morbidly dedicated, in Dostoevski’s world they need to accept the existence of God as their only chance for peace or, in the final analysis, for existing in the world at all. While free will is interpreted by these radical proponents as the ability to become gods, the submission to the will of the divine God is the only means toward happiness. Those who fail to redeem themselves through God either perish or are subject to enormous spiritual and psychological torment. Such conflict forms the crux of more than one novel in Dostoevski’s latter period, and it will be the treatment of this element in Dostoevski’s work that will earn for him recognition as the founder of existentialism in literature. Ironically from the point of view of Dostoevski’s beliefs, it is his existential writings rather than his metaphysical ones that constitute his most profound influence on world literature in the twentieth century.
Most of Dostoevski’s short stories are simpler works than the novels, both in terms of the psychology of the characters and in terms of structure.
One of his best-known short stories, “Belye nochi” (“White Nights”), is subtitled “A Sentimental Story from the Diary of a Dreamer.” The unnamed protagonist of this work meets a young woman, Nastenka, by chance one evening along the embankment. When they have the opportunity to speak to each other, they find that they have much in common: Neither of them is able to enjoy a life of his or her own, and both of them, because of varying circumstances, are confined to their own abodes, occupied most of the time in daydreaming. Nastenka is physically restrained by her grandmother by being pinned to her skirt; the male protagonist is confined by his abject poverty and the inertia of unsociability to his quarters, with the green wallpaper and the spiderwebs. At the end of the story, Nastenka, nevertheless, is able to escape her fate thanks to the offices of the young boarder, who has taken pity on her, but she has had to wait an entire year; it is precisely at the end of this year that she meets the protagonist, whom, she claims, she would certainly love, and does in fact love, but as she truly still loves the other, she must relinquish. Nastenka leaves, imploring the protagonist not to blame her, knowing that he cannot blame her because he loves her. The protagonist feels that, somehow, this “moment” that they have shared is enough love to sustain him for a lifetime of dreaming. This story, unusual in the oeuvre of Dostoevski, does not involve the motif of the abused young woman, and the rejected young man seems quite content with his fate. Unlike most of Dostoevski’s women, Nastenka has succeeded in meeting an honorable man who seemingly keeps his word, making her a singular female in the works of Dostoevski.
“A Christmas Tree and a Wedding”
More in keeping with Dostoevski’s image of the abused, victimized woman is the young girl in “Elka i svad’ba” (“A Christmas Tree and a Wedding”). The first-person narrator relates how he notices the indecent attention of a “great man” of society toward an eleven-year-old girl playing with dolls, who has been promised a huge dowry during one family’s Christmas party. The “great man” is interested only in the fabulous dowry and bides his time. Five years later, the narrator notices a wedding taking place in the church and focuses on the face of the very young bride, “pale and melancholy,” her eyes perhaps even red from “recent weeping” and her look of “childish innocence,” where could be detected “something indescribably naive mutely begging for mercy.” He recognizes the young girl of a few years before and also the “great man,” who is now the groom. The narrator concludes that it was a “good stroke of business.” In this story, the theme of the helpless woman completely at the mercy of rapacious, evil men plays a major role, and the fate of the young girl in “A Christmas Tree and a Wedding,” for all her money, bodes much worse than that of the impoverished Nastenka.
“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”
Perhaps Dostoevski’s best-known short story, “Son smeshnogo cheloveha” (“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”) presents more of the most typical Dostoevskian philosophy of any short story. In it, a petty clerk who has realized that he has no reason to live believes that he should commit suicide to put an end to his ridiculous existence. Just when he decides to do so, a young girl accosts him and seemingly tries to engage his assistance. He pushes her aside, but his action causes him great shame, and he feels deep pity for the young girl. The experience of these two emotions causes him to postpone his suicide, if only for a few hours. Meanwhile, he falls asleep, and in his dream he shoots himself. Then, after he is dead and buried, he is transported to an Earth-like planet inhabited by people who only love. Unfortunately, he corrupts the entire population, causing wars, antipathies, and alienation. Upon awakening, the man feels that he has undergone a revelation and must preach his new religion, trying to convince people that it is possible to live in harmony together and to love sincerely people other than oneself.
In “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” many themes from Dostoevski’s mature novels appear: whether one is a zero or a human, whether there is an afterlife, suffering as the only condition for the possibility of love, and suicide as a means of investing significance to human action, as well as many more. It is in the great novels that the complex world wherein the actions of all Dostoevski’s creations take place, including the short works. To read a short story without a fundamental background in other seminal works—for example Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1918)—would very likely lead to a trap that could trivialize what are, by themselves, minor works such as the short stories. If, however, the short stories are contextualized within the entire oeuvre of Dostoevski over both his major periods, they form several interesting transitional points between many of his philosophical designs.
The young girls, usually victimized by poverty and evil men, seem to be an outgrowth of an early novel, Poor Folk, and a continuing motif throughout the later period. Here, an orphan serf girl is pressured into a marriage that will doubtless cause her endless degradation and possibly physical harm. The paradoxical “spiteful man” of Notes from the Underground is the model of the “little clerk” who, nevertheless, has been influenced by German romantic philosophy and against logical positivism. His voice and “spite” reverberate almost palpably in the short stories as well as in the great novels. The theme of life as suffering and love or compassion as life’s greatest suffering is developed throughout the great novels, which, when used as a backdrop for the short works, provides a glimpse into the motivations of many of the protagonists.
Dostoevski’s short stories clearly have a place of their own in Russian literature. Together, they form a miniature portrait of the most compelling people in Dostoevski’s world. Reading them, along with the longer works, gives the discriminating reader an insight into one of the most powerful and intricate minds of the nineteenth century.
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