A review of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”

by Father Michael Hickin

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“Any devotee of Our Lady’s plea and promise at Fatima may wish to join prayers for Russia’s ongoing conversion to the literature of Russia.” – Father Michael Hickin

Between Our Lady of Fatima and the FBI, Russia has our attention these days. This faraway place with the funny alphabet has a soul. One way to get at the soul of Russia is to move beyond the headlines and find a cultural icon. It should be someone who has withstood the test of time while remaining relevant.

In the 19th century, as atheism began to find a foothold in politics, eventually claiming its first banner state in Russia, an edgy Christian writer raised a voice of protest. Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1821-81, found a way to capture the breadth of Russia’s pain and promise.

An easily accessible example of Dostoevsky’s art is his last short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877). The work economically illustrates major themes of the author: despair, suicide, poverty, personal responsibility, and a uniquely Christian hope. He peppered his writings with faint echoes of the verse from Saint Paul, if one member suffers all suffer, if one member rejoices all rejoice, (1 Cor 12:26).

Have you ever wondered whether life might be nothing more than a mega-dream? If you’ve ever toyed with the idea, even for a moment, it could likely fall out in one of two ways: a paralyzing discouragement or an energizing giddiness. Dostoevsky’s character forges an insane synthesis of the two, thus branding himself a ridiculous man.

The cheery person who thinks life is but a dream we consider immature or out of touch, if not ‘touched;’ whereas those who claim this is a nightmare are often praised for their bold realism. Dostoevsky’s ‘ridiculous man’ walks a stunningly different path. This graphic tale, grim of mien, is weirdly hopeful.

Avoiding any spoilers, the story opens with the portrait of a man on the verge of suicide who has a meager moral awakening, in which he arrives at the conviction that “life and the world somehow depended on me now.” Then comes the dream, which begins with a mouth-watering picture of a new-Earth paradise, but then, like a gust of wind slamming your fingers in the door, turns wicked. When the dream ends (was it a dream or a vision of reality?—he wonders openly), he not only knows the truth, he has to do something about it.

Dostoevsky leans heavily into the dark side of human nature, but never closes off the brightness of promise. “Man is a mystery,” he wrote at eighteen to his brother Mikhail. “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,” (1839). This drive to know man is but one side of the coin. The other side belongs to the One for whom man is made.

In his final decade, while The Brothers Karamazov was still forming in the womb of his imagination he wrote to a friend: “The main question, which is pursued in all the parts, is the same one that I have been tormented by consciously and unconsciously my whole life—the existence of God,” (1870). How does one trace the outlines of humanity when society attempts to delete the horizon of our divine destiny? Out of this drama arises the author’s prophetic mission.

Dostoevsky had a vision of Russia’s role for the future of the world. “I do not attempt to compare the Russian people with the Western nations in the sphere of their economic or scientific glory. I merely say that among all nations the Russian soul, the genius of the Russian people is, perhaps, most apt to embrace the idea of the universal fellowship of man, of brotherly love—that sober point of view which forgives that which is hostile, which distinguishes and excuses that which is desperate, which removes contradictions” (Diary, p. 961).

Any devotee of Our Lady’s plea and promise at Fatima may wish to join prayers for Russia’s ongoing conversion to the literature of Russia. There are bridges to be built between God’s dream of a Reign of Peace and certain ridiculous dreams of prophets like Dostoevsky.

Fr. Michael Hickin is the pastor of St. Mark’s Church in Bottineau and St. Andrew’s Church in Westhope.