The “Third Truth”: Mysticism and Theodicy in Ivan Bunin’s “The Dreams of Čang”

Vicki Polansky, Indiana University

In the critically acclaimed short story “The Dreams of Čang” (“Sny Čanga,” 1916), Ivan Bunin uses the dream-memories of the dog Čang to recount the intertwined histories of Čang and his master, a sea captain who drinks himself to death out of despair over his wife’s infidelity and his ruined career. In turn, the lives of man and dog serve to illustrate two diametrically opposed attitudes toward human existence, formulated in the “two truths” of the captain: “life is unutterably beautiful” and “life is conceivable only for madmen.” Bunin’s protagonists struggle to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable “truths” as the vicissitudes of life plunge them from one to the other of the two extremes. In the end, the journey of life leads Čang to a moment of grace, an encounter with a “third truth,” in whose light the first two truths are rendered meaningless.

Bunin scholarship has typically related the “third truth” to the writer’s affirmation of memory as man’s defense against the existential despair born of his awareness of time as the agent of death and loss. (1) While Bunin does indeed present Čang’s remembrance of his master as the source of a kind of immortality, the reduction of memory to a purely psychological phenomenon is ultimately unsatisfying in that it fails adequately to address several intriguing issues. First, how can individual memory be said to confer immortality; how can the captain’s place “in that world without beginning and end which is immune to Death” hang on to the slender thread of the ailing Čang’s life? Second, why does Bunin link memory, love, and the “third truth”? Finally, how are these connected to the cosmic and religious images and motifs that appear throughout the story—references to an “ultimate Master” and to the ocean as “womb” and “Abyss-Primordial Mother,” the captain’s excursus on Taoism, and allusions to the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, to say nothing of the fact that Čang’s encounter with the “third truth” takes place at the threshold of a church?

In this paper I treat “The Dreams of Čang” as a metaphysical narrative illuminating both the tragic consequences of man’s estrangement from God and the way to reconciliation and fullness of life. I argue that, drawing parallels between Taoism and Orthodox Christian teaching, Bunin presents the revelation of the “third truth” as a mystical experience, an encounter with the One whose Love-Memory brought forth and sustains all of creation. Overawed by the majesty of the divine Presence, assured of the absolute reality of God and of immortality, Čang, unlike his master and like Job and Ecclesiastes, is able to renounce his anger, to submit to God’s unfathomable will, and thus to live.


1. See, for example, V. Ja. Linkov, Mir i čelovek v tvorčestve L. Tolstogo i I. Bunina, [Moscow: Izdatel′stvo Moskovskogo universiteta, 1991], 153; and James Woodward, Ivan Bunin. [Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1980], 120.)