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Friday, 24th December 2010

White nights

I was once in Saint Petersburg (60 degrees north) in June. There and then, the Sun did not set until fairly late in the evening and twilight lasted almost all night. This is because during summertime, the Sun is at its northernmost position (summer solstice), and there is no complete darkness in high latitude places in the Northern Hemisphere.

Dostoyevsky's (1821-1881) White Nights was a short story set against this period of the year. It was published in 1848 when the author was young, well before his major novels such as Notes from Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866).

Figure 1     The young Dostoyevsky, 1847
Figure 1      The young Dostoyevsky, 1847

Read the story, and you will appreciate why it has been adapted many times for the screen in various countries : Russia, Italy, India (3 times), France, Iran and the United States. Here is the storyline.

First night

In the story, the main character (let's call him Ivan) was a lonely person who loved walking in the city at night time. It was one of those summer evenings when he first saw a young girl crying. He was concerned but hesitated to ask as this was out of his character. Nonetheless, when he heard her scream he acted and saved her from being harassed. A conversation then started between them, in which he told Nastenka, the young girl, he had never known a woman let alone talking to one, for fear of disappointment or being ridiculed. On reaching the girl's home, he asked to see her again the next evening just to relive the happy moment. She agreed, adding that she would be there anyway and would tell him her story.

Second night

On the second night, they knew more about each other. Ivan indicated that he had little to say about himself because he spent his life alone, dreaming all the time as this was the only way to relieve himself from boredom. Nastenka related that she stayed with her strict grandmother of limited means, who had to rent out their house for a living. There began a courtship when a young lodger started giving her books to read and taking her and her granny to opera. When the young man had to leave for Moscow, Nastenka asked him to marry her, but he refused because he had no money. He however promised her that he would return in a year's time. Now a year had passed and there was no letter from him. She was very upset.

Third night

Ivan discovered that he had fallen in love and that the love in her could never be platonic. He nonetheless helped her write a letter to the young man knowing that the latter was in town. But there was no reply. She started to despair and said to Ivan "I love you so, because you have not fallen in love with me." He felt very uneasy. The world seemed to be drifting away from him.

Fourth night

Ivan continued to comfort her. She felt very grateful. At this, he confessed his love for her. On hearing this, she was temporarily lost. He insisted that they should never see each other again well knowing that it would no longer be possible for them to remain as friends. He was about to leave. She urged him to stay. As they walked she said who could tell their relationship might become romantic one day, but she desired his friendship for life. His spirit lifted somewhat, but at this point the young man suddenly appeared. She instantly fell for him, only returning to give Ivan a brief kiss.


Heart broken, Ivan received a letter from Nastenka. In the letter she asked for his forgiveness and thanked him for his company, adding that she would be married in the week and hoped he could come. At the end he wrote: "My nights came to an end with a morning. The weather was dreadful. It was pouring, and the rain kept beating dismally against my window panes."

B.Y. Lee



Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>