Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1877)

The Dream of the Ridiculous Man is what modern readers of Dostoyevsky crave.  Forget mysteries or thrillers.  They want something they can speak of while using the word “metaphysical”.  If they can say that to their friends while describing the inner meanings of this story, it’s a winner.

So here we have a short story that is a thin allegory of Dostoyevsky’s thoughts on the meaning of life.  I warn you now, if you want a fun story, an entertaining plot with whacky characters, you’re looking in the wrong place.  Dostoyevsky uses a very brief tale of a suicidal man to do nothing more than describe a journey for meaning.  This was his last short story, written just a few years before his death.  There are obvious Christian elements in the symbolism.

What I find interesting is how the main character described himself.  I think a lot of people at one time or another have thought of themselves as ridiculous, filled with self doubt.  But he goes beyond that, wondering if perhaps everything he sees around him is imaginary, that it exists only in his mind.  Certainly, I can relate to that.  I can remember coming up with the idea that I am nothing more than a figment in the imagination of some greater being.  I'm sure I'm not the only one.  But our character comes to believe that in a way so real to him, that he thinks nothing at all matters.  He talks about bumping into people on the street, it would seem rude.  But he realizes they are not real.  Nothing matters.  He is going to kill himself.

The thing that saved him was a small girl asking for help.  He brushed her off - of course, she's not real.  But he thought of her, and delayed his own suicide.  Then he fell asleep and dreamed of his suicide and of being taken to a distant planet exactly like earth.

Here is where things get interesting.

I would like to understand how he was relating himself to this other world, because this other world was perfect and without sin.  He lived there for what felt like ages.  And then he corrupted it.  So the question is, did he imagine it an allegory of the Garden of Eden?  It's on a much more vast scale.  And who was he supposed to be?  Satan?  It doesn't seem so, because he didn't intend to corrupt them.  There is a long description of how they became corrupt and the things they did, and how he wanted them to go back to their perfect state but they refused.  All you really need to know is they became like us, like the world he left.  So was he granting himself that much power in the dream?  So much that he was capable of corrupting the entire world?  Or was he himself a representation of sin?  Interesting discussion.  Interesting thoughts.

In the end he turned good and everything was all mellow.  He preached about...something.  I suppose he preached that man should go back to being good and sinless.  I find the ending much less interesting than his dream.

There were other characters in the story.  I wondered about them.  What was their purpose?  What was the point of describing the woman and her three sick children, why did Dostoyevsky have them be sick?  Why did he mention them at all?  It seems that if you want to write a philosophical story you could leave out unnecessary and mundane information.  Then I thought, maybe their purpose is only to show the main character’s reaction to them.  They are a plot device.  That he described them as “cringing” and “sick” shows what that character is interested in.  He didn’t describe the woman’s looks or dress or wealth.  Or maybe I’m digging way too deep as well, just like many other readers of Dostoyevsky.

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