Dostoyevsky’s “Fantastic stories”

I use the word “fantastic” not in the sense that it is generally used now – that is, to describe something that is spectacularly good – but in the sense that Dostoyevsky himself had used it in the subtitle of two of his late stories, The Meek One (sometimes rendered as A Gentle Creature, or A Timid Creature, or some variant thereof), and “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, both of which he subtitled A Fantastic Story. However, while “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is quite clearly a work of fantasy – the greater part of it relating a dream involving travel to another planet – the element of fantasy in The Meek One is harder to discern, as it appears to tell a realistic story, albeit from the perspective of a character whose grasp of reality may seem tenuous. That Dostoyevsky chose to explicitly describe both these stories as “fantastic” raises some not easily answered questions on what he considered to be “fantastic”, and where precisely he considered the boundaries of reality and fantasy to lie.

For while his major fiction cannot really be described as “realistic” – in the sense that we would describe the works of, say, Flaubert or of Tolstoy as “realistic” – nothing happens in any of them that is physically impossible. When the physically impossible is introduced – say, the hideous gigantic insect-like creature that Ippolit sees in The Idiot – it is made clear that it is seen in a dream. For all the strangeness of a Dostoyevsky novel, even an event such as a spontaneous combustion (which is famously accommodated in Dickens’ Bleak House) would have been grotesquely out of place. Yes, people act in his novels in very strange ways, or think very strange things; and quite frequently the action described seems to address some weird, rarely visited corners of our minds; but there is nothing that contravenes the laws of physics. Even in “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, which is explicitly described as “fantastic”, that fantasy – what we would nowadays describe as “science fiction” – takes place within a dream. But in The Meek One, there isn’t even a dream sequence. In a short preface to the story, Dostoyevsky explains why he chose to describe the story as fantastic: it refers, he says to the form: the narration itself is a fantasy. It tells us what is going on in the mind of a man whose wife has just committed suicide: his thoughts, his feelings, are utterly confused, fragmented, and often contradictory, and he tries desperately to piece them all together to arrive at what may be the truth of the matter. And the fantasy, says Dostoyevsky, lies in the piecing together of all this formless confusion into the semblance, at least, of an orderly narrative.

I can’t honestly say I am entirely convinced by this explanation, and suspect that, in this preface, he is playing games with us. In describing his story as “fantastic”, and then drawing our attention to it by giving us at the outset an explanation that clearly does not satisfy, he is challenging us, the reader, to determine for ourselves where the boundaries of reality may lie. That the narrator is unreliable goes without saying; but the subject of the story is not merely the events he describes, but also the very process of his trying to fit these events all together into some sort of coherence. And it is here, we may suspect, that the element of fantasy may enter.

The story is one of immense psychological complexity. Possibly it is a story that is not possible to narrate from an objective viewpoint – not because the objective truth does not exist, but because it is so profoundly hidden from sight, so difficult to arrive at. Nothing is as it seems: even the title deceives, since “the meek one” – or the “gentle creature”, or the “timid creature” – is neither meek, nor gentle, nor timid.

The narrator is a pawnbroker, a profession not considered honourable. And he is aware of how he is regarded. Quite apart from his profession, he has in the past been regarded with derision: when in the army, he had been insulted, and had refused to defend his honour by fighting a duel. He insists to us, the reader, that his refusal had not been out of cowardice, but we cannot be entirely sure. And neither, we suspect, can he. We suspect that he is tormented by the thought that he really is as base and as contemptible as he is perceived to be. And he needs to prove to himself that he isn’t. Whatever he is, he is not ridiculous.

This man finds himself strangely attracted to what initially seems to him a vision of purity: a very young lady, barely out of childhood, who, since the death of her parents, has been tyrannised and effectively enslaved by her aunts. She tries to pawn her meagre possessions in order to pay for an advertisement for position of governess, but to no avail. The narrator suggests an advertisement somewhat differently worded:

Young person, orphan, seeks position as governess of small children, preferably with an older widower. Can help with housework.

One need not read too closely between the lines to figure out what this is promising. The only way out for this young lady is, effectively, to sell herself sexually.

It is at this point that he proposes marriage to her. It is, on the surface, a noble, romantic action: he is the knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress. By this action, he is answering, disproving, atoning for – what you will – the contempt with which he knows he is viewed. He is proving once and for all that he is not ridiculous. But she, the rescued damsel, does not really have a choice in the matter. She can but accept.

And now begins one of the most complex depictions of any marriage in fiction. We know from the start that she had ended up committing suicide: she had jumped from a high window clutching to her breast an icon. But if we had expected from this, and from the title, a meek and gentle creature, a mere passive victim to the cruelties and injustices heaped upon her, what follows takes us by surprise. For she is a spirited creature, and, in battle, is prepared to fight. He, for his part, demands from her not merely respect, but also love: this, after all, is why he had proposed to her in the first place. He is determined that, from her at least, he will obtain that respect and that love that the rest of the world denies him. Did he not, after all, save her? But he himself has no love to give. And she cannot give love under such duress. And so begins a terrible battle between the two, literally to the death. Not even Strindberg, I think, had given us so terrifying a picture of the struggles for dominance within marriage.

At a climactic point, he awakens from a nap to see his wife standing over him, holding a loaded pistol. At last, here is his chance to exonerate himself for ever from the charge of cowardice: he pretends still to be asleep, and lets her do as she pleases. But she cannot bring herself to pull the trigger: this particular battle she loses, and once again, the balance of power shifts back to him.

And yet, he cannot win, for she refuses to see him as he would like to be seen – as the noble and generous soul, the rescuer, the man who pardons all wrongs with a saintly magnanimity. What he likes to imagine is timidity on her part is really no more than an aversion – an aversion for his moral cowardice, if nothing else. And the end, when it comes, is shocking – even though we have known all along that it would come. For he had wanted love: he had desperately needed it. And, also in his own way, he had loved her. It was admittedly a very twisted kind of love, but it was the only kind of love he could offer. And at the end, the tragedy is his as well: his world now is one of utter desolation, where even Christ’s commandment of loving each other can mean little when we are incapable of such love:

They say the sun gives life to the universe. Let the sun rise and – look at it, isn’t it dead? Everything is dead, and the dead are everywhere. Only people, and around them silence – that’s the earth! “People, love one another” – who said that? whose testament is it? The pendulum ticks insensibly, disgustingly. It’s two o’clock in the morning. Her little boots are standing by the bed, just as if they were waiting for her … No, seriously, when she is taken from me tomorrow, what about me then?

Even here, we cannot be quite sure whether those last words indicate tragic despair, or mere solipsism and self-pity.

For all the glinting hard edges, these final pages are tremendously moving. We are moved not merely on behalf of the dead wife, but also of the living husband, who, in having driven his wife to suicide, should really have been the villain of the piece.

All this is told from the husband’s confused perspective, and, whether or not he finally sees the truth of the matter – insofar, that is, that the truth of the matter can be seen at all – we, the readers, are left with a sense the tremendous pity of it all. The narrator is, in a sense, a monster, and the dead woman is clearly his victim, but Dostoyevsky’s compassion, never mawkish or sentimental, encompasses both monster and victim. It is a quite extraordinary piece of writing, and one I felt compelled to re-read as soon as I had finished. I suspect this will not be the last time I read it.

“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (which I put in quotes rather than in italics as it is clearly a short story rather than a novella, and convention requires quotes for the former, and italics for the latter) is, more obviously, a “fantastic” story. The principal character, like the protagonist of The Meek One, is “ridiculous”, and he is aware of how ridiculous he is, of how much he is looked down upon by the world. The fantastic element of the story is narrated as a dream, but it is, in effect, science fiction: he finds himself transported to another planet in which all is perfect, but his human presence in this utopia corrupts the perfection. I am afraid I had the same problem with this story as I have with much of science fiction: it is too obviously written to make a point. And the point here is actually quite a straightforward one: human beings, by their very nature, are unsuited to utopia, and may find what salvation there is in individual acts of kindness. Perhaps those more in sympathy with the science fiction genre would get more out of this story, but I must confess that it was the realistic rather than the fantastic aspect of this story I enjoyed more: the dream of another planet seemed to me far less interesting than the reality of this man’s initial despair, his indifference to human suffering, and the subsequent awakening of his humanity. I realise, though, that in saying this, I am reporting on my own perceptions (or, rather, the shortcomings of my perceptions) rather than on the work itself.

There is another short story written in the last years of Dostoyevsky’s life that deserves the subtitle “A Fantastic Story” – although Dostoyevsky himself did not call it such. This is “Bobok”, a quite delicious piece of Gogolian grotesquerie. Here, the narrator finds himself in a graveyard, and hears the recently deceased and not yet decomposed corpses speaking to each other, bringing into their dead states the spiritual deadness they had carried even when they had been alive. Once again, the “fantastic” elements are most likely the hallucinations of a mad narrator: Dostoyevsky did invest his fiction with a sense of heightened awareness, but those things that are physically impossible he almost invariably cast as dreams, or as hallucinations. Nonetheless, he gives us here a dark and gruesome satire that, one suspects, Gogol would have relished.

But it is The Meek One, in which there is nothing that is physically impossible, that seems to me the greatest and most fantastic of his “fantastic stories”. For there is nothing, after all, quite so fantastic as the lives we strange creatures live in this real world.
[ All excerpts taken from the translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, published 1997 by Random House. ]

3 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for reminding me of “The Meek One,” It’s been some time since I last read it and it’s time for another visit. I find it to be an extraordinary accounting of the narrator’s mind. I don’t know whether he is lying to us for obvious reasons, lying to himself, again for obvious reasons, a mix of the two, or constitutionally unable to see himself and others beyond the surface level.

    Dream of a Ridiculous Man: I agree with your POV. I see this as reversal of the Genesis tale in which Satan tempts humans and brings on the Fall from grace. Here, the human plays the role of Satan, and shows the Gates to Eden to be closed forever while still alive.

    My only quibble is that I would call it a fantasy, since it is a dream. But, overall, I would agree that much SF or Fantasy tends to be point oriented.

    It has been so long since I last read Bobok, I only have the faintest impression of a conversation in a graveyard, and that only because you reminded me of it.

    Reply

    • Hello Fred, and thank you for that. Despite counting myself a fan of Dostoyevsky, this is actually the first time I read “The Meek One”, and am astonished that i had never read it before. It’s a quite extraordinary work, and seems to me to give the lie to the popular conception about Dostoyevsky that he was a slapdash writer, making it up as he was going along. This work seemed to me tremendously refined.

      There are many other shorter works by Dostoyevsky I haven’t yet read. I don’t think I’ll be running out of books to read too soon!

      Reply

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