Dostoevsky’s White Nights.

I finally finished Veltman’s Salomea (which was probably longer than it needed to be but was still great fun), read a few of the early Turgenev stories that became Zapiski okhotnika (A Sportsman’s Sketches, also translated as Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, The Hunting Sketches, and Russian Life in the Interior; or, The Experiences of a Sportsman), and returned to Dostoevsky, last seen here with Хозяйка [The Landlady] in November. This time I read Белые ночи [White nights], which is much better — not great, greatness would come after mock-execution and exile, but a very enjoyable little exercise in narration, trying out his new hero, the Dreamer (as opposed to his earlier hero, the Petty Clerk). The plot is trivial — boy meets girl, boy moons over girl, boy loses girl — but the way it’s told is so fresh, and the promissory echoes of future Dostoevsky are so interesting, that it justifies my desire to read everything he wrote, however minor.

Its opening is startling, if you’ve just been reading a more traditional storyteller like Turgenev:

It was a magical night, such a night as can perhaps only exist when we are young, dear reader. The sky was such a starry, such a bright sky that looking at it you involuntarily had to ask yourself: under such a sky, can there really live various sorts of angry and cranky people?

Была чудная ночь, такая ночь, которая разве только и может быть тогда, когда мы молоды, любезный читатель. Небо было такое звездное, такое светлое небо, что взглянув на него, невольно нужно было спросить себя неужели же могут жить под таким небом разные сердитые и капризные люди?

It reminded me of the famous opening of Записки из подполья [Notes from Underground: “Я человек больной… Я злой человек. Непривлекательный я человек.” [I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man.] It’s in a major rather than a minor key, but the effect of someone buttonholing you to tell you what’s on their mind is similar (and the final phrase could be referring to the Underground Man himself — if he’d come out from underground and stand under such a starry sky, he wouldn’t be so cranky!). And I learn from Joseph Frank’s wonderful Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time that the approach comes from an unexpected source; in chapter 10 he says that Dostoevsky, like other up-and-coming writers of the 1840s, wrote feuilletons for newspapers (an import from France, as the name suggests), and in a footnote on p. 105 he says:

Dostoevsky evidently found that the easy, casual manner of the feuilletonist fitted him like a glove; and one never finds him later, even when presumably expounding ideas, writing anything that can be considered ordinary expository prose. His stance is always personal and intimate; his points are made not by logical persuasion but through sketching character types, dramatizing attitudes, narrating experiences and observations. The whimsical tone of the feuilletonist of the 1840s, though never abandoned completely, is replaced by that of the serious and sometimes choleric social observer, but his use of irony and persiflage remains the same, and so does the identification with the reader, who becomes the implicit partner in a dialogue. From this point of view, Dostoevsky’s five-finger exercises in the 1840s mark the début of an essential aspect of his career. Among the most striking features of Notes from Underground is its artistic singularity; it seems to come, formally speaking, from nowhere, but it probably comes from the feuilleton. Such an origin would account for all of the formal features of the novella, which are so baffling otherwise—the first-person narrator who takes us into his confidence to the point of embarrassment; the direct address to the reader, who is treated as an interlocutor; the apparent fortuitousness and haphazardness of the narrative sequence; the blend of irony and pathos.

And this brief bit of dialogue spoken by Nastenka (the teenage female protagonist) breathes the air of later, weightier philosophical laments:

Listen, why aren’t we all like brothers with brothers? Why is the best person always somehow hiding something from another, keeping silent? Why not say, right now, what is in your heart, if you know that you’re not speaking your word to the wind? But each person gives the appearance of being sterner than they are in reality, as if everyone was afraid of offending their feelings if they speak them out hastily..

Послушайте, зачем мы все не так, как бы братья с братьями? Зачем самый лучший человек всегда как будто что-то таит от другого и молчит от него? Зачем прямо, сейчас, не сказать что есть на сердце, коли знаешь, что не на ветер свое слово скажешь? А то всякий так смотрит, как будто он суровее, чем он есть на самом деле, как будто все боятся оскорбить свои чувства, коли очень скоро выкажут их…

Addendum. I see I’m not the only one to see a link with the Underground Man; William J. Leatherbarrow, in his little book on Dostoevsky, writes:

It is not a large step from the self-understanding and philosophic detachment of this hero to the self-analytical inertia of that grotesquely disillusioned dreamer, the Underground Man. […] The tragedy of the Underground Man lies partly in the conflict between a Romantic, imaginative nature and an acute analytical consciousness which exposes the futility of dreaming but which is unable to deny its esthetic superiority and reconcile the dreamer with reality. In the final scene of “White Nights,” where the dreamer anticipates the drabness of his future, we already discern suppressed despair and the specter of the Underground.


  1. I wonder (out of ignorance, of course: it must have been noted and commented upon before somewhere) whether the “starry sky” is also a Kantian reference. If so, it seems to state that the starry sky is there all right but the moral law is nowhere to be found.

  2. An interesting thought. Dostoevsky discovered Kant via Karamzin’s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler], which had a huge influence on him as a young man.

  3. Have you seen this late Soviet animation using Dostoyevsky’s texts?
    Nina Shorina’s “The Dream”

  4. Very nice, thanks! (Not only Dostoyevsky’s but Goncharov’s and Turgenev’s, according to the end-credits.)

  5. I jotted down a few bits and looked them up; “Скажу вам торжественно, что я много раз хотел сделаться насекомым” and “Мне теперь сорок лет, а ведь сорок лет — это вся жизнь” are from Записки из подполья; “Вера, Вера! — воскликнул я, — ты ли это зовешь меня?” is from Turgenev’s Фауст

  6. I’ve always wondered about the song in the background. I’ve never heard of any Russian faery tale or folk story which talks about a regal pike which makes you rich etc. There’s the one about Yemelya who catches the talking pike which grants him wishes, but that seems different…

  7. Is that The Fisherman and his Wife, or something like it?

  8. @John Cowan,
    I don’t think it’s that… That motif seems to be more related to granting of wishes in return for releasing the fish…

  9. I assume that “white nights” refers to summer nights in St. Petersburg where the sun sets late and the sky stays bright even after the sun has set. But a bright sky is exactly where you would see the fewest stars, contradicting the opening of the story as quoted above. Can any northern folk explain?

  10. There’s no indication that the story is set in such a period, and a clear indication (the stars) that it’s not; the title appears to borrow the phrase as an allusion rather than a chronological indication. (The nights are “white” because of joy, not sunlight.)

  11. The narrator does mention that all of Petersburg has just left for their dachas, so I think it must be some time in the summer. Anyway, I just finished reading the story (after being enchanted by reading the opening in this post), and I basically agreed with your assessment above, so I didn’t have anything else to say besides the thing about the stars.

  12. “White nights” for me evokes cramming for exams — when you don’t turn out the lights before the sun comes up.

    Or maybe because you’re so happy that you don’t want to go to bed…

  13. I just finished reading the story (after being enchanted by reading the opening in this post)

    Great! I’m always deeply pleased when anything I’ve written gets someone to read something.

  14. Perhaps “светлое” refers not so much to the sky’s being bright from starlight as to its being light-colored, as in light blue vs. dark blue. Dusk-like, perhaps. I have not seen a white night in St. Petersburg, but I was once in Helsinki about June 20 and once in the north of Komi in late June. I don’t remember seeing stars – the sky was probably overcast – but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them.


  1. […] Languagehat on Dostoevskii’s “White Nights” (Белые ночи, 1848) and the feuilleton, and how its opening lines are like those of “Notes from Underground”: “It’s in a major rather than a minor key, but the effect of someone buttonholing you to tell you what’s on their mind is similar.” […]

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