Choice in Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man
When Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus , he demonstrated the absurdity of human existence in the indifferent universe with the ridiculous task of pushing a rock up a hill an infinite number of times. Every time Sisyphus pushed the rock to the top of the hill, it only rolled back down for him to do it again. This is the very fundamental idea underlying Existentialism. Much like Sisyphus of the ancient myth, humans live a meaningless existence; nothing means anything when all that is certain is death. It is therefore ridiculous to live without such a realization, or otherwise with an illusion of meaning and purpose. Yet humans continue to live and assign importance to their daily activities, even against the fact that death is inevitable. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man accounts for the absurdity of human existence portrayed by Albert Camus and demonstrates what it is to be really ridiculous, yet also suggests a solution. We humans must understand that we both have the ability to choose the life we live, and that end results may not matter as much as we assume.
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote The Dream of a Ridiculous Man from a politically, socially, and spiritually troubled 19th century Russia. Life under the Russian regime is key in Dostoevsky writings, and The Dream of the Ridiculous Man is no exception. The story reflects the suffering and alienation of the Russian society and explores the psychology of the character shaped by the society. Dostoevsky however, provides consolation and hope at the end of the story as he believes there is purity and goodness at the end of suffering and despair (Bourgeois). The story also includes elements of Dostoevsky’s philosophical school of thought, Existentialism. Meaning in life, absurdity, suicide, as well as confronting mortality and the anxiety of choice are fundamental basis in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. The story is also richly influenced with Orthodox Christianity. Dostoevsky references the bible, creating alternate interpretations of Genesis, portrays the narrator as Adam, later as the Serpent, and then as Jesus, and explores religious concepts such as the Problem of Evil and Fall of Man (Cassedy). These influences play in to the story and at least in part explain or provide the context for the character’s ridiculous existence, suicidal intentions, and eventually the revelation to live and do good by choice.
The narrator of The Dream of a Ridiculous Man admits he is living an absurd existence and finds no evidence of the contrary. He explains that “he has always been ridiculous, and he has known it” (Dostoevsky, pg. 3), not only distinguishing himself from other humans, but also distinguishing humanity from other species. Humans are the only living creatures aware of their ultimate fate, and that knowledge is what makes their existence far more absurd than any other. The narrator’s acknowledgment of this is essential in the Existentialist thought. The narrator also reveals that earlier in his life when he was attending the university, “the more he learned, the more he understood he was ridiculous…in the end, the sciences he studied existed only to prove he was ridiculous” (pg. 3). The narrator does not know exactly when he became ridiculous, but he comes to understand that he has always been ridiculous and it does not matter when he realized it first. As the story continues, he grows ever more indifferent to life, and finds only more evidence of the absurdity of human existence with his friends, neighbors, and strangers.
The conversation between the narrator’s friends that follows only reinforces the narrator’s beliefs. They are arguing for the sake of argument, and are completely detached from the topic they speak of. Their conversation is meaningless and their enthusiasm a pretense as they do not understand the emotions and opinions they profess. When the narrator tells his friends that they do not really care for their argument, they only find his remark amusing. This conversation demonstrates the idea that nothing matters in life, and thus the only passion for doing anything that exists is fake. The narrator realizes that, but he speaks with indifference when he attempts to reproach his friends. The narrator also shows indifference in his apartment building. He says there is shouting and fighting in one of his neighbor’s apartment just behind the wall, but he shows no annoyance or concern. The narrator simply “does not care how much they shout on the other side of the partition or how many of them there are in there: he sits up all night and forgets them so completely that he does not hear the noise anymore” (pg. 6). An encounter with a little girl reveals that the narrator maintains his beliefs. When the little girl asks the narrator for his help, he reasons that the stranger he is asked to help will die nonetheless. Turning his back on humanity, the narrator demonstrates his further indifference and ambivalence to life, his or other. If everything in life is ridiculous then there is no reason he should help the stranger. The narrator essentially finds his existence ridiculous and there is no evidence of the contrary anywhere in his life. There is only absurdity and indifference, and so the narrator decides to commit suicide, but he falls asleep.
The narrator’s dream is a fundamental change in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. It is a vision or a revelation that teaches the narrator of the true absurdity of human existence, and creates a dramatic change in the narrator’s life. He goes from committing suicide to preaching what he believes is the truth. The dream itself not only puts the paradise that the narrator visits and his world in juxtaposition, but also parallels ultimate good with knowledge of good and evil. The paradise, or the earth before the Fall of Man, is free from all that is evil and shameless; it is a utopia where every resident is innocent and happy. With the narrator’s presence however, the paradise is cursed with the same fate as Eden was on Earth. The narrator corrupts the paradise with knowledge by introducing lies, sexual debauchery, jealousy, murder, factions, nationalism, war, etc. (pg. 19). He brings an end to the perfect happiness and ultimate good of people of the paradise, but at the same time he gives them humanity, knowledge, and choice. The people of the paradise lack the ability to choose their life, and that is no life at all. What the narrator essentially gives them is the most human thing of all, the ability to choose.
The narrator learns that knowledge and the ability to choose is far more meaningful then life itself. The people of the paradise are merely instinctual creatures, doing good, but having no ability to reason or choose to do good. There is no evidence that living a good life is any better than living a bad life or an indifferent life, yet the people of the paradise are exclusive to only that one option, one option among three. There is nothing that can be more ridiculous then to live a good, moral life above any other when in the end the good and the bad will both meet the same fate, and both will be exactly equal. Living a good, moral life is not a necessary element of human existence. The knowledge that there is a choice, and the understanding that all choices are equal is the key to any happiness. The narrator explains that the people of the paradise “would not want to return to the paradise” (pg. 20), and then the narrator himself admits “he loves the earth they have polluted more then the paradise” (pg. 21). Indeed, the knowledge and the ability to choose are higher than any life in paradise. The narrator and the people of the paradise learn that if men do good it should be because they can do good all by themselves, because they can choose to do good by their own conscious understanding. The narrator summarizes this truth when he wakes up; “the chief thing is to love others like yourself, that is the chief thing” (pg. 22). The narrator is a changed man now, not only does he cherish life, but he goes from attempting suicide to a life where he preaches the truth and atones his past mistakes. He finds meaning and purpose, and there is no mention of a God or an afterlife. The narrator learns that “he can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth” (pg. 22), that is, he is motivated to do good purely by his own choosing, not by the promise of eternal life or a paradise.
Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is a short story that confirms the absurdity of human existence and gives some thought to suicide as a viable response, but at the same time demonstrates that happiness and meaning can be attained in this world if one understands that one should do good by his own conscious choosing. Dostoevsky’s implications however go beyond this. The story is also a comment on Christianity, and in particular Eden or the paradise. The Dream of the Ridiculous Man seems to suggest that a “paradise or an afterlife will never come to be” (pg. 22), because an eternity of unconsciously doing only good is inhuman. Consciousness of life is higher than life, and the paradise is an automatic, robotic life deprived of consciousness. The ability to choose indeed gives life consciousness and perhaps the short life on earth is worth more than an eternity in paradise, as Dostoevsky implies. In the story, Dostoevsky also comments on the evolution of civilization. The paradise in the narrator’s vision seems to take on the same history as that of humanity on earth. First there is a paradise, next is corruption, and then mankind spends the next thousands of years learning how to be happy again. The difference is that when mankind learns the truth, in that they will do good and be happy, they will have arrived at it consciously. This evolution of civilization perhaps only attempts to recapture the goodness and happiness of the paradise, but it also more importantly gains consciousness in the process. Dostoevsky stresses that it is this consciousness, the knowledge, the ability to choose that gives any sense to life.
In Dostoevsky’s conception, humanity has not regressed from paradise, but progressed. God has given us the ability to do good, we have given ourselves the ability to choose to do good. We have come from being unconscious, instinctive and mechanical automatons, to conscious human begins with the capacity not only to be genuinely happy, but also the knowledge of the laws of happiness. We should do good not because it may or may not be rewarded by God who may or may not exist, but because we can do good regardless of God and an afterlife. We are merely human beings on this earth who can only conquer the absurdity of our own existence when we understand that our conscious mind transcends everything.
Bourgeois, Patrick, Lyall. “Dostoevsky and Existentialism.“ Journal of Thought (1980): 29-38. Philosopher’s Index. EBSCO. Web. 5 May 2010.
Cassedy, Steven. “Dostoevsky’s Religion.” Studies in East European Thought (2007): 163-165. Philosopher’s Index. EBSCO. Web.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Feedbooks. Published: 1877. PDF File.
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