a book review of White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky by Inika Harikrishnan
“My God, a moment of bliss. Why isn't that enough for a whole lifetime?”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights
White Nights is a lament of solitude narrated by a nameless man living in St. Petersburg. He is a recluse whose happiness begins and ends in his daydreams. The narrator desperately clings onto and comfortably draws his emotions from a mirage. He has no friends, but in his imagination he has been acquainted with the entire city. He desperately seeks solace in the monotony of his life, and is upset by the departure of familiar faces from the city that he has lastingly romanticised. A chance encounter with a crying girl pulls the man out of his fantasy and begins a tale of love, pursuit and tragedy.
In the beginning, the narrator mentions the cobwebs that adorn his ceilings. Reality has been stagnant for him, and the dullness of his life is reflected by Matryona, his housekeeper.
The woman is everlastingly melancholy and not all there herself, she struggles with simple tasks and stays completely out of touch with the real world.
In this tale of fleeting romance, the protagonists are united in their ostracisation and their need for ‘love’ and companionship.
But why does a man who is so content in his imaginary life burst his bubble? What is the price of love, really?
Nastenka makes it clear to the narrator that at no cost can he fall in love with her, but her connection with the man, and perhaps unintentional charm, quickly turns the friendship into unrequited love.
Unlike the narrator whose mind creates a vivid world for him each day, Nastenka isn’t well read or well spoken. Her infatuation with a man she briefly knew is her poison, like his daydreams are the narrator’s. What do they seek in each other that these obsessions don’t give them already?
Natenka and the narrator’s love for each other is impersonal. They are too deluded by the sudden shift in their lives to notice that their ‘love’ is nothing but mutual transaction. Nastenka seeks assurance and safety in case her fiance does not return, and the narrator seeks a new thrill for the town that now fails to serve this purpose.
In the four nights that they spend together the two become intimate and familiar with each other, but only when they are both sure that Nastenka’s elusive lover will not return do they profess their feelings for the other. The two had begun as mutually melancholy souls, and their brief romance had been kindled out of the same. As he steps away from his imagination, his reality begins to mirror the change. Matryona, who had struggled to even make a cup of coffee earlier, announces that the cobwebs on the narrator’s ceiling have been cleaned, and the apartment is fit to be wed in.
For the lonely man and plain woman, love and romanticism storm to the top of the hierarchy, and their sudden and desperate attachment to each other serves as a contrast to the sequestered lives they had led till their meeting.
It is hardly a surprise that this affair is short-lived and the crescendo builds up to the crushing climax, the abrupt end to their tale. Nastenka leaves the narrator to be with her fiancé and he is left with nothing. He remarks that his nights then turned into day. The glow that life had, first in his mirage and then because of his encounter with Nastenka, fades to a dejected and pale picture. While his love for the girl may have not been true, the narrator was truly besotted by his imaginary world that had now slipped away from him.
White Nights is not a love story but a melancholy trip and an interlude to the lonely life of a dreamer who seeks the commodity he labels love.