The first chapter of Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s short story opens with the narrator describing a fear all too familiar to many who go on to study at university. From an early age, he discovers a paradox that the more he learns, the more there is that becomes unknown to him. It leaves him with a feeling of ridiculousness that grows as he learns more and more. When he graduates from university he is feeling utterly ridiculous, and fears being revealed as such.
Many academics confess to experiencing something similar, called “imposter syndrome“. Maturity and further study typically tends to dissipate this feeling over time, as happens with our narrator.
From the “imposter syndrome”, our narrator veers into describing his own exploration of a kind of Metaphysical Solipsism, where he questions the existence of anything but himself. Over his life, he rationalizes that if nothing else exists, then nothing else matters. At first it solves a host of problems for him. He stops being angry with people, and eventually ceases caring about them.
The narrator descends into a rather bleak world view. If the past didn’t really exist, then surely neither does the future. If there is no future then what is the purpose of optimism? What is the purpose of anything? The narrator reveals that his detachment and uncaring demeanour have led some to consider him to be quite mad.
Two months earlier, he had concluded that if nothing else mattered, then his life didn’t matter either, and he decided he would kill himself. He had bought a revolver then, and on this night he intends to put a bullet in his own head.
While the narrator reveals all this to us, he is walking the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia. It is a fittingly cold and rainy late night in November. As he stares through the rain and clouds at a lone star, a little girl catches his attention. Clearly terrified, she struggles to speak between sobs. There’s something wrong with her mother, and she is seeking his help. He refuses, despite her insistent pleading, and a stranger appears. She and this stranger head off immediately.
The narrator goes home to his lodging room, sits in a favourite chair and thinks. He pulls out the revolver and places it on the table, still convinced he will shoot himself this night. Before he does, however, he must resolve something stirred up by his encounter with the little girl. Even if he didn’t act on it, he had felt pity for the girl. This confused him. If nothing really mattered, and he truly didn’t care about anyone, then what was with the familiar pang of pity? Where did that come from, and for what purpose?
These thoughts shake his conviction to kill himself. He could not die now, not with these questions unreconciled. He falls asleep in his chair and dreams.
In his vivid dream, he sits contemplating the same subjects, but picks up the gun and shoots himself in the heart (there is a significance to this). He notes that he feels no pain. The dream jumps forward, he witnesses the discovery of his own body, then he is enclosed in the casket, unable to move. The casket is buried and the mourners leave.
After an undetermined amount of time, water begins to drip on him in the coffin, and he begins feeling the pain of the gunshot wound. As feels increasingly wet, cold, and in more and more pain, he cries out to the universe for it to stop.
After a moment’s pause, the lid tears off the coffin and he finds himself in the grasp of a dark being, flying through space, and away from the Earth. The being reveals that they are headed for the star our story-teller was staring at earlier in the night. The star is very similar to our sun, and orbiting it is a planet which from a distance appears identical to Earth.
In their brief sojourn through the cosmos, our narrator has already come to miss Earth. Missing Earth? But that would mean he cared about that, too. This is another complication he must work out.
This new Earth presents itself as a paradise. Not Heaven, but rather an idyllic Earth. It is Eden – Earth before The Fall. An unblemished world of perfection and without sin, full of a radiance that was in complete opposition with our chronicler’s reasoned and fatalistic philosophy on his previous Earth.
Our narrator loses himself in the dream, now not certain that it is still a dream. He lives for many years with the people of this “Eden” Earth, marvelling at the purity and innocence of their life, the openness of their love, their harmonious coexistence, the limitless caring they exhibit for the planet and for each other. He has a sense that all this has lasted for thousands of years.
All this is shattered, however, when he introduces sin to their world. Quite accidentally, he showed them deception with “an innocent jest”. The people embraced this new thing, and liked it. They learned to lie, and thus began The Fall.
In order to discover how the story concludes, you will have to read it yourself!
The story moves rapidly through some very heavy concepts, and as you can see, contains elements of Christian mythos. Christianity figures prominently in many of Dostoyevsky’s works. At 28 pages, it is already a short story of good length, but I found it best to read it with some pauses for thought. Allow your imagination the opportunity to explore things along with the narrator. It is not a piece to be rushed through. Dostoyevsky is not known for light reading material.
Published in April of 1877 in “A Writer’s Diary”, a 1,455-page collection of the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is in the Public Domain. You can download the short story in various formats at Feedbooks.