The summers of St. Petersburg are like no other. The city emerges from long months of cold and darkness, and basks in days and nights of soft daylight. They call them the White Nights. Dostoevsky once wove a tale of unrequited love and unexpected companionship that bloomed over such nights.
Our narrator is a clerk to pay his bills, and a dreamer by vocation. He finds solace in self imposed solitude, roaming the streets of St. Petersburg well into the night. One night, he comes across Nastenka, a distraught stranger by the river, in imminent danger of a drunkard. With a novel bravery, he comes to her rescue, giving in to the beginnings of a friendship. He makes a timid but stubborn request to see her again. Nastenka is reluctant, but gives in on account of her loneliness, and insists that he isn’t to fall in love with her.
They meet for the second time, and Nastenka wills him to tell her his story – the story of a Dreamer the hero. The narrator lives in his dream world for it can be moulded into a thing of fantasy, unlike the drudgery of everyday life. In spite of his self imposed solitude, he longs for company, and Nastenka promises to be his friend.
Nastenka gives a flash of her life. She and her grandmother earned their income by renting out rooms in their lodging. Nastenka’s betrothed was one such lodger. Her betrothed had to leave for Moscow, but wouldn’t marry her before he left. He said that he didn’t have the means to support them just yet, but he would come back for Nastenka in a year. A year had come and gone, unlike her betrothed. She now waited, every night, at their decided rendez-vous, in vain. Somewhere in the course of Nastenka’s tale, the narrator falls for her.
Even so, he helps Nastenka send a letter to her lover on the third night, and she waits for a reply that never comes. The narrator becomes her pillar, reigning in her despair. She declares that her betrothed was nothing but a meagre infatuation, and she has found an ideal, mature love in the narrator, for he did not fall for her- the love that is stable, even if not founded in romance. Feeling a little alienated from her but overjoyed nonetheless, he offers Nastenka all he has, and the two of them revel in the daze of finding a soulmate.
The narrator declares his unrequited love on the fourth night. Nastenka is taken aback, and the narrator realises that their bond is tarnished forevermore. He insists that they never see each other again; Nastenka tries to convince him that one day, she might return his feelings, but she could not bear to lose this friendship of a lifetime. In the midst of this, her betrothed finds them; he was looking to answer her letter. What she believed to be a meagre infatuation cements itself as her true love and she walks off into the night with her betrothed, leaving the narrator with a parting kiss and the memory of four soft, glorious nights.
The next morning, he finds Nansteka’s goodbye- a letter thanking him for his company, apologizing for being fickle with his heart, and inviting him to her wedding due the following week. Their companionship was like the ephemeral white nights in which they met- glorious but transient, giving way to lonely grey skies and rain, much like the morning of the letter. He is in pieces over Nastenka; his maid, Matryona, disturbs him while he wallows. Matryona was an old woman, as alone as the narrator, and the closest human relation he had until Nastenka- she appeared older and more alone than ever in that moment. True to someone who could not bear the drudgery of everyday life, he refuses to despair- he will not see a fate like Matryona’s, and wishes Nastenka the best in his heart of hearts.
Not too long ago, I started reading The Brothers Karamazov, and I read Crime and Punishment a year or so back. While I don’t think my 19-year-old pea sized brain truly understood Dostoyevsky, both books did have the expected dark undertones pretty early on, and carried them to the end. White Nights is not painted with a similar palette of emotions. There is a raw, innocent beauty in the short story of the Dreamer and Nastenka. The story ends with the narrator nursing a broken heart, but not on a note of despair. He won’t wither away, not like St Petersburg’s spring. It is all rather optimistic, all rather un-Dostoevsky-esque, while being rather Dostoyevsky-esque. It is mundane details of life—meeting a stranger in difficult circumstances, conversations on a bench—knit through with pure companionship, soft compassion, deep anguish and hope. Yes, the Dreamer’s love slipped away like sand. He has hope, though. Sometimes, a bittersweet ending is as good as a happy one.