Book Review: “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1848

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: Project Gutenberg

Genre: Fiction

Sub-genres: Novella

Find the e-book on Project Gutenberg or the paperback on the Book Depository. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.)

Warning! Spoilers!

“White nights” referring, of course, to the few weeks in summer when the sun never completely sets, meaning that even at the dead of night, the sky still looks like this. // Image by Philipp Hienstorfer and licensed under CC BY 3.0

For a while now, I’ve been looking for a jumping-off point into the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, that lovable little existential novelist that is the pride and joy of Russia’s literary canon. After trying some of his longer works, I decided I’d ease my way in with some of his short fiction instead. “White Nights,” one of Dostoevsky’s early novellas, seemed like just the thing.

The story follows a young, unnamed narrator who loves to daydream. He lives alone in a flat in St. Petersburg. He has no friends or family (that we know of): just his maid Matrona and a few passersby to whom he occasionally tips his hat while on his way to work. One night, he meets a beautiful young lady named Nastenka. Having been orphaned and sent to live with her domineering grandmother, Nastenka is every bit as lonely as the narrator is. They quickly become friends and, on the narrator’s part, that friendship quickly turns to love. Little does our hero know that Nastenka is already engaged to another man.

As another blogger pointed out, this story is quite out of type for Dostoevsky: for starters, its main character is a generally happy person, which, as anyone who is even passingly familiar with the plots of most of his major works knows, is not Dostoevsky’s usual M.O. Also, being such an early story inevitably means that it won’t be as mature or as polished as his later work. Nevertheless, I don’t think I could have found a better introduction to the man or his writing: “White Nights” is certainly one of Dostoevsky’s more accessible pieces, and I think it provided me a good base from which to start reading his other work.

Besides that, it’s just a good story. True, it ends sadly, with Nastenka choosing her fiancé over the narrator, but that unhappy conclusion is, for me, part of what gives this story its impact. Because, you see, when it becomes apparent that Nastenka is unwilling to leave her fiancé, the narrator simply lets her go. He lets her go because he understands that he can’t make her as happy as this other man apparently does. I found this type of love story rather refreshing, in that it depicts a hero who truly is in love with the woman herself and not with the idea of love, or with some kind of idealized vision of what their life together could be like.

Of course, the story is not without flaws. The briefness of the narrator’s relationship with Nastenka (A whole week!) will likely smack of the dreaded Insta-LoveTM to some readers. The story ends with a moral that, while it is profound, might seem a little tacked-on. And, as you will quickly notice if you do decide to read this story, our narrator can be kind of a chatterbox. Part 2, for instance, contains a long monologue from him in which he outlines, in minute detail, a few of his preferred daydreams. This will likely put some readers off, but for me, it was worthwhile to stick it out till the end.

Those faults aside, I loved this story so much that it spurred me on to read some of Dostoevsky’s other novellas and short stories. And while I doubt if I’ll be attempting The Brothers Karamazov again any time soon, nevertheless I do think I’ve been able to gain a better appreciation for and a better understanding of Dostoevsky than I had before. So, I’m glad this book was there to make Dostoevsky seem a little less daunting.

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