Published in 1864, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground has a reputation as the first existentialist novel. It established a template for the genre with a portrait of an isolated man contemptuous of the sordid society around him, paralyzed by doubt, and obsessed with the pain and absurdity of his own existence. Also true to form, the narrative, though it has a plot of sorts, does not redeem its hero in any sense or offer any resolution to his gnawing inner conflict, concluding, literally, as an unfinished text. Thirteen years later, the great Russian writer, his health in decline but his literary reputation and financial prospects much improved, wrote a similar story, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”
In this tale, an unnamed narrator also meditates on his absurd state, to the point of suicide. But he observes this spiritual malaise at a distance, recalling the story as an older man from a vantage point of wisdom: “I am a ridiculous person,” the story begins, “Now they call me a madman. That would be a promotion if it were not that I remain as ridiculous in their eyes as before. But now I do not resent it, they are all dear to me now.” This character, unlike Dostoevsky’s bitter underground man, has had a transformative experience—a dream in which he experiences the full moral weight of his choices on a grand scale. In a moment of instant enlightenment, our protagonist becomes a kinder, more humane person concerned with the welfare of others.