White Nights (Belye Nochi) by Fedor Dostoevskii, 1848

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WHITE NIGHTS (Belye nochi)
by Fedor Dostoevskii, 1848

Preeminent among the world's novelists, Fedor Dostoevskii was also the author of short fiction, especially during the years before his exile in Siberia. The better known among the early stories are "The Double" (1846), "The Landlady" (1847), "An Honest Thief" (1848), and "White Nights," all of which appeared in Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes from the Fatherland), an influential Saint Petersburg journal. As one would expect, the stories are primarily character studies revealing Dostoevskii's usual psychological insights and his compassion for obscure and lonely misfits incapable of coping with the circumstances of their lives.

These forlorn people frequently retreat from reality into a world of dreams, which is the case in "White Nights" ("Belye nochi"). The narrator-protagonist, who divulges neither his name nor the nature of his employment, is a young man of 26 years who has been in Saint Petersburg for eight years. He has been living in a room with "grimy green walls, its "ceiling covered with cobwebs" that the slatternly landlady neglects to sweep away. After eight years in the city he has "hardly an acquaintance," and he asks, "What did I want with acquaintances? I was acquainted with all Petersburg as it was." The city, in fact, has become a substitute for human relationships. Constantly walking its streets, he has developed an attachment to it as to a person, even to the extent of feeling deep distress when he discovers that one of his favorite houses that was pink in color has been painted yellow. On his rambles, however, he does notice people, sometimes "almost bowing" to an old man whom he habitually meets at a certain hour and certain spot. This is the limit of his social life.

The story is set in late spring, a time when nights in the latitude of Petersburg do not fully darken but remain "white." Many families have been leaving the city for their country villas, and the city "threatens to become a wilderness." On his outings the narrator consequently goes outside the city and into the loveliness of the springtime countryside, which seems to have a liberating influence on his deeply suppressed capacity for relating to other human beings. Returning from the country late one evening, he sees a young woman leaning on the railing above a canal, sobbing softly and staring down at the water. The narrator is about to accost her, but, seeing him, she walks away. A drunkard across the street sees and pursues her. The narrator intervenes and thus begins his first real involvement with another person. That night he and the girl, whose name is Nastenka, talk at length. The youth reveals himself as having lived entirely in dreams, especially in dreams of meeting and being in love with an idealized woman. He has thought at times of approaching a respectable woman in the street, telling her of his isolation and his difficulty in becoming acquainted with any woman, and begging her to say two or three sisterly words to him. He has never done this, of course. Nastenka laughs at him and tells him that he is his own enemy. She offers her friendship provided he promises not to fall in love with her. With this the first of the "white nights" ends, but they agree to meet in the same place the following night.

That night Nastenka demands to know the narrator's "history." He protests that he has none, but he goes on to reveal the core of his existence, which turns out to be the core, or the theme, of the story. "There are strange nooks in Petersburg," he begins. "It seems that the same sun as shines for all Petersburg people does not peek into those spots." These nooks, "painted green, grimy, dismal," resemble the room in which he lives. Those who inhabit them are friendless, but they are endowed with limitless powers of fantasy with which they create dream lives infinitely more desirable to them than anything offered by real life. Yet in that life of fantasy is "something … dingily prosaic and ordinary, not to say incredibly vulgar." The narrator has lived just such a life, considering any other life to be drab and pitiful. He does not foresee that sometime for him "the mournful hour may strike, when for one day of that pitiful life he would give all his years of fantasy, and would give them not only for joy and for happiness, but without caring to make distinctions in that hour of sadness, remorse, and unchecked grief." For the narrator that hour is about to strike.

When the narrator has finished his history, Nastenka tells him hers. She was brought up by a blind grandmother, and her life was narrowly restricted until a young man boarding in the house befriended both the girl and the old woman, bringing them books to read and escorting them to the opera and theater. He and Nastenka fall in love, but he has had to be away in Moscow for at least a year. On his return he will marry her, though he will not bind her by a promise. When he returns, he will meet her at the spot where the narrator and she have been meeting. She has learned that he has at last returned, but he has not appeared. The narrator offers to try to establish contact with the lover, for whom he has been thinking up excuses. But despite his efforts the lover does not appear the next night, the third. Nastenka, thinking herself jilted, now realizes that the narrator is in love with her, and she does not seem displeased.

On the fourth and last night the lover still does not appear. Nastenka states that she no longer loves the man and declares her love for the narrator. At once they begin to make somewhat frenzied plans for their married life.

But as they talk, Nastenka's first lover arrives. She rushes into his arms, turns back to give the narrator a kiss, and then walks away with the other man. The next morning the narrator receives a letter from Nastenka describing her ecstasy at being reunited with her lover and her remorse for hurting the narrator, whose memory she vows to treasure. The narrator has had his moment of reality. Sitting once more in his room with the cobwebs, he exclaims to himself, "My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man's life?"

—Perry D. Westbrook