Story Club #7: Perchance to Dream

Welcome to another round of the Story Club. As announced earlier, story for this month is “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s not too late. Read it here and join the discussion.

Sandeep, who had suggested the story and was supposed to host it is unable to join us due to unforeseen circumstances. I will try to do my best to make up for his much felt absence but I must confess I feel quite out of my depth with Dostoevsky. Hopefully some of you will chime in and complete the picture.

First a few words about the much acclaimed Russian novelist, journalist and short story writer Fyodor Dostovevsky (1821- 1881). Although a military engineer by profession he resigned in 1844 so that he could focus on writing. He published his first novel Poor Folk soon after in 1846. This was followed by The Double.

Dostoevsky was a member of the Petrashevsky Circle who were socialist radical thinkers opposing tsarist autocracy and Russian serfdom. He and other members of this group were arrested and sentenced to death in 1849. Apparently they had all been taken to the square and were waiting to be shot when a messenger arrived with a reprieve. The death sentence was commuted to incarceration and he spent four years in Siberia and four years as a soldier in Semipalatinsk. His later works were influenced by his experiences in Siberia.

Although Dostoevsky was impoverished most of his life due to familial debts (worsened by his habit of gambling) he was lucky enough to be recognized as one of the greatest writers of his country during his lifetime.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

Power is given only to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up. Only one thing matters, one thing; to be able to dare!

But how could you live and have no story to tell?

To go wrong in one’s own way is better then to go right in someone else’s.

The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.

The best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful.

Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.

The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he is in prison.

Everybody wants to change the world but nobody thinks about changing himself.

Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering.

I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.

Awesome quotes aren’t they? Any favorites?

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man published in 1877 is a fascinating read. Written in the first person, the story is about a (ridiculous) man who has lost the will to live and is determined to take his own life. Yet a dream changes everything.

Presuming, that you have read this (longer than our usual) short story, I will touch upon just a couple of points that I found of particular interest.

The narrator who is disillusioned with the world cannot find the meaning or the point of his life. With an intention to end his meaningless existence, he buys a revolver yet he cannot gather the will or the gumption to take the final irrevocable step. Then, one day, he decides that tonight was the night.

Hurrying home to undertake the final step, he is accosted by a little girl, demanding, pleading for help but he spurns her. His life is going to end in a couple of hours – what did it matter? Yet he cannot quite shrug of the burden of guilt that nags him. He sits contemplating his actions “I stamped and shouted at the unhappy child as though to say–not only I feel no pity, but even if I behave inhumanly and contemptibly, I am free to, for in another two hours everything will be extinguished.”

For instance, a strange reflection suddenly occurred to me, that if I had lived before on the moon or on Mars and there had committed the most disgraceful and dishonourable action and had there been put to such shame and ignominy as one can only conceive and realise in dreams, in nightmares, and if, finding myself afterwards on earth, I were able to retain the memory of what I had done on the other planet and at the same time knew that I should never, under any circumstances, return there, then looking from the earth to the moon–should I care or not? Should I feel shame for that action or not?”

The above paragraph caught my attention for another reason – it is such a long sentence. Today, writers are exhorted to write short sentences – a sign of our (impatient) times? Or just that not everyone is Dostoevsky and long involved sentences are bound to confuse the reader? But then again, this a translated work – I wonder how it was written in the original.

Coming back to the story – the narrator is so overwhelmed by the questions that arise in his mind that he puts of dying (once again) so that he could find answers to his questions.

Decision taken, he seems to be relieved of guilt as he promptly falls asleep sitting in the armchair, something he has never done before. Perhaps out of sheer relief of having evaded death?

As the narrator falls asleep, he has a vivid detailed dream – and I just loved his description of a dream:

Dreams, as we all know, are very queer things: some parts are presented with appalling vividness, with details worked up with the elaborate finish of jewellery, while others one gallops through, as it were, without noticing them at all, as, for instance, through space and time. Dreams seem to be spurred on not by reason but by desire, not by the head but by the heart, and yet what complicated tricks my reason has played sometimes in dreams, what utterly incomprehensible things happen to it! My brother died five years ago, for instance. I sometimes dream of him; he takes part in my affairs, we are very much interested, and yet all through my dream I quite know and remember that my brother is dead and buried. How is it that I am not surprised that, though he is dead, he is here beside me and working with me? Why is it that my reason fully accepts it?”

Again some very long sentences but nevertheless compelling, don’t you think?

The dream itself is believed to refer to the original sin and the narrator a ridiculous man who has deteriorated to madness. It is believed that Dostoevsky had temporal epilepsy and had several hallucinatory dreams which forms the basis of his story.

But I somehow couldn’t quite accept that this is his ‘madness’ speaking. While reading the story, right from the start I couldn’t help but find parallels with the story of Lord Buddha – not the bit about wanting to end his life of course. But his mental state of the utter meaninglessness of life, seeing no point of it all, introspection via his dream, a churning of his mind of all the knowledge and information he has within his subconscious mind followed by enlightment and clarity of thought culminating in a deep love for his fellow companions and an overwhelming desire to save them and show them the path to eternal bliss.

What do you think? No, I wasn’t talking about the long sentence! Jokes apart, I do feel as if I haven’t managed to do justice to this Story Club. But I still have hope. Perhaps, one of you could chime in!

Thanks for reading. If anyone wishes to join the Story Club (including this one) most welcome. Just post a review and link back to this post. Or you could host the next month’s Story Club.

Rules are simple:

  1. Advance announcement of name of short story, one that is freely available on the net.
  1. Story maybe a folktale or in the local language. But an English translation should be freely available on the net. Or participant could post the translated version along with his or her review.
  1. Bloggers should post on their blog while non-bloggers may email me –
  1. The basic idea is to gain from each others rich heritage of literature and be able to understand a little bit more than before.
  1. And of course have fun!