Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “White Nights” is a character study of a philosophically-inclined and deeply isolated narrator who struggles to reconcile the fantastic lives he imagines for himself with the mundane reality of his current existence. He calls himself a dreamer, characterizing himself as a “creature of an intermediate sort” who lives through his imagination and rejects reality. For his entire life, the narrator has lived like this; he focuses all his energy on the pleasant fantasies his mind conjures in its loneliness. However, he feels that these dreams no longer satisfy in the way they once did. Indeed, he is growing sick of fantasy and wishes to live happily in the real world, as he explains:
One feels that this inexhaustible fancy is weary at last and worn out with continual exercise, because one is growing into manhood, outgrowing one's old ideals: they are being shattered into fragments, into dust; if there is no other life one must build one up from the fragments. And meanwhile the soul longs and craves for something else!
His lonely world is disrupted by the unexpected presence of Nastenka, a young woman he encounters on a walk. After he helps her escape a drunken man who attempts to accost her, he begins to confide in her and is pleasantly surprised when she does not spurn him—even more so when she agrees to meet him again. However, she only permits their relationship as long as he agrees to avoid falling in love with her; he agrees but cannot help but fall for the clever young woman who has so brightened his life. To ensure that he does not lose Nastenka, he keeps his feelings to himself. In turn, Nastenka only grows fonder of her new friend, ironically telling him:
"I love you so, because you haven't fallen in love with me."
Nastenka feels drawn to the lonely narrator, though she is in love with someone else. Her words are unconsciously hurtful, as the narrator has fallen in love with her. This is a painful instance of dramatic irony, as the audience understands the narrator’s feelings and accompanies him in the pain of her rejection while she is clueless about the true impact of her words. Although the relationship does not pan out as the narrator desires—Nastenka marries another man—he cannot begrudge the cheerful young woman’s happiness. Despite his sorrow, he wishes her well:
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?
Although the story ends tragically for the narrator, who returns to his state of lonely stagnation, he retains his dreams. However, his imaginative spirit is overshadowed by the reality of his life, and he must ask himself how long dreams alone can sustain him. The story ends on a pessimistic note; Nastenka has achieved happiness, but the narrator wonders if the fleeting joy of their four nights together is all the happiness he might achieve in his lifetime. If so, will the memory be enough? He writes:
My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?
The question remains unanswered; as the narrator imagines the next fifteen years spent in fantasy and memory, readers must consider it for themselves.