The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is a short story published in 1877 by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The book is subtitled as “A Fantastic Story”, since it is essentially a tale of the imagination.
According to Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is “practically a complete encyclopedia of Dostoevsky’s most important themes”.
Most of Dostoevsky’s major characters always have “something ridiculous” about them, but they are simultaneously highly self-conscious and capable of deep insight into themselves and the world.
The story opens with the narrator contemplating the ridiculousness of his own life, and his recent realisation that there is nothing of any value in the world, everything to him appears as indifferent.
“I suddenly felt that it made no difference to me whether the world existed or whether nothing existed anywhere at all.”
He slips into nihilism and sees no way out other than to commit suicide. As he wanders the streets in a dismal night, he looks up to the sky and becomes aware of a little star. And he made up his mind to kill himself that night.
He reveals that, two months before, he had bought a revolver with the intent of shooting himself in the head. But two months had elapsed and it was still lying in the drawer.
“I was so utterly indifferent to everything that I was anxious to wait for the moment when I would not be so indifferent and then kill myself.”
As he was looking at the sky, a little girl seizes him by the arm, distressed and seeking his help. She is poorly dressed and soaking wet and he makes out from her cry of despair that something terrible must have happened to her mother. He walks away but she insists and keeps running after him. It was then that he stamped his foot and shouted at her.
Back at his apartment he sinks into a chair and places the gun on a table next to him. However, he hesitates to shoot himself because of a nagging sense of pity that has plagued him since he shunned the little girl.
“Though nothing made any difference to me, I could feel pain, for instance, couldn’t I? If anyone had struck me, I should have felt pain. The same was true so far as my moral perceptions were concerned. If anything happened to arouse my pity, I should have felt pity, just as I used to do at the time when things did make a difference to me […] What made me angry was the conclusion I drew from the reflection that if I had really decided to do away with myself that night, everything in the world should have been more indifferent to me than ever […] I remember that I was very sorry for her […] It was clear to me that so long as I was still a human being and not a meaningless zero, and till I became a zero, I was alive, and consequently able to suffer, be angry, and feel shame at my actions. Very well. But if, on the other hand, I were going to kill myself in, say, two hours, what did that little girl matter to me and what did I care for shame or anything else in the world? I was going to turn into a zero, into an absolute zero.”
He intently ponders this and other questions growing out of it, but he still has no doubt that the suicide will happen that night. Unexpectedly, however, he falls asleep.
He dreams that he shoots himself straight at his heart and descends into a terrible darkness. All around him people were shouting and he was being carried in a closed coffin and soon after was being buried in the earth.
After some time, the grave suddenly opens and he is seized by some dark and unknown being and they find themselves in space. He can only see a little star in the darkness and finds out it was the same star he saw back on earth.
They were rapidly approaching another planet. The Ridiculous Man says that:
“On our earth we can only truly love with suffering and through suffering! We know not how to love otherwise. We know no other love. I want suffering in order to love.”
But the companion left him and he stands alone on this other earth in the bright light of a sunny day, beautiful as a paradise. The people of this blessed earth – the children of the sun – surround him and kiss him. Their faces were beautiful and their eyes of these happy people shone with a bright lustre.
This is akin to the Golden Age, which according to Greek mythology, denotes a period of peace, harmony, and prosperity.
“They desired nothing. They were at peace with themselves. They did not strive to gain knowledge of life as we strive to understand it because their lives were already full. But their knowledge was higher and deeper than the knowledge we derive from our science.”
It may have been just a dream, but for him, it does not make a difference whether it is a dream or not, because to him it revealed the Truth. It is a dream that makes life worthwhile even if it can never be realised; indeed, it makes life worthwhile just because it can never be realised. In this paradox Dostoevsky seemed to glimpse some meaning in man’s tragic story.
However, The Ridiculous Man ended up corrupting them. He accidently taught them to lie, and they grew to appreciate the beauty of a lie. It all began innocently but this germ made its way into their hearts and they liked it. Sensuality, jealousy, cruelty, and pride ensued and soon the first blood was shed and they began to separate and to shun one another.
“They only vaguely remembered what they had lost, and they would never believe that they ever were happy and innocent. They even laughed at the possibility of their former happiness and called it a dream […] we have science and with its aid we shall again discover truth, though we shall accept it only when we perceive it with our reason. Knowledge is higher than feeling, and the consciousness of life is higher than life. Science will give us wisdom. Wisdom will reveal to us the laws. And the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness.”
Leaders began to emerge and told their people how they could be reunited again:
“[…] so that everybody should, without ceasing to love himself best of all, not interfere with everybody else and so that all of them should live together in a society which would at least seem to be founded on mutual understanding. Whole wars were fought over this idea.”
Religions were founded to propagate the cult of non-existence and self-destruction for the sake of everlasting peace in nothingness. Despite all this, The Ridiculous Man loved them more than before when there was no sign of suffering in their faces and when they were innocent.
“Alas, I have always loved sorrow and affliction, but only for myself, only for myself; for them I wept now, for I pitied them. I stretched out my hands to them, accusing, cursing, and despising myself. I told them that I alone was responsible for it all – I alone; that it was I who had brought them to corruption, contamination, and lies! […] But they only laughed at me, and in the end they began looking upon me as a madman.”
Then he woke up. He jumped in great amazement and caught sight of his gun lying there ready and loaded but he pushed it away.
“Oh, how I longed for life, life! I lifted up my hands and called upon eternal Truth – no, not called upon it, but wept. Rapture, infinite, and boundless rapture intoxicated me. Yes, life and – preaching! I made up my mind to preach from that very moment and, of course, to go on preaching all my life.”
Through the dream, the Ridiculous Man sees an entirely new reality for human beings. He is alone in his knowledge of the truth and is therefore ridiculed by everyone as a madman.
“He had a dream”, they say, “a vision, a hallucination!” Oh dear, is this all they have to say? Do they really think that is very clever? And how proud they are! A dream! What is a dream? And what about our life? Is that not a dream too? I will say more: even – yes, even if this never comes to pass, even if there never is a heaven on earth, even then I shall go on preaching.”
The Ridiculous Man says that the dream is a thousand times better, brighter, and more joyful than could ever be described. The theme of a utopia is explored not as an abstract ideal but as a living vision of a living person. He saw how an earthly paradise was possible, and that vision is enough to cure his nihilism and indifference that would’ve otherwise led to suicide.
“And really how simple it all is: in one day, in one hour, everything could be arranged at once! The main thing is to love your neighbour as yourself, that is the main thing, and that is everything, for nothing else matters. And yet it is an old truth, a truth that has been told over and over again, but in spite of that it finds no place among men! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of happiness is higher than happiness – that is what we have to fight against!”
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The Dream of a Ridiculous Man | Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is a short story published in 1817 by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is practically a complete encyclopedia of Dostoevsky’s most important themes.