Rousseauian Visions in Dostoevskij's "Dream of a Ridiculous Man"

Hilary Fink, Yale University

The majority of scholarship on Rousseau in Russia focuses on the work of Tolstoj, who wore a locket of Rousseau around his neck at age fifteen and who stated that "with some of [Rousseau's] pages I am so familiar that I feel as if I had written them myself." Tolstoj adored Rousseau his entire life, attracted primarily to the philosopher's portrait of the "natural man" whose inherent goodness is corrupted by society. Numerous studies (Markovitch, Orwin, Carden, McLean, Barran, Anschuetz, to name just a few) have been made which examine Tolstoj's literary attraction to Rousseauian thought.

The topic of Dostoevskij and Rousseau, on the contrary, has been much less explored, though there is a fairly consistent critical view that if Tolstoj revered Rousseau, Dostoevskij despised him. The few articles devoted to the two figures focus on the theme of confession, more specifically on how Dostoevskij condemned the Rousseauian type of confession as egotistical and thus inauthentic. Several scholars have taken a broader view of the literary relationship between Dostoevskij and Rousseau, delving further into its philosophical terrain of human nature, morality, and freedom. Both Donna Orwin ("The Return to Nature: Tolstoyan Echoes in The Idiot") and Tanya Mairs ("Rousseau and Dostoevsky: The Hidden Polemic") discuss, among many other things, Dostoevskij's Prince Myshkin as a parody of Rousseau, while Robin Feuer Miller briefly examines "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" in terms of Dostoevskij's polemic with Rousseau ("Dostoevsky's 'The Dream of a Ridiculous Man': Unsealing the Generic Envelope").

Dostoevskij rarely mentions Rousseau in his literary works and other writings, and whenever he does refer to the philosopher, it is in a negative light. Despite the outwardly critical tone of these occasional references, there is an unspoken affinity between Dostoevskij and Rousseau as each grapples with a similar quest for an "ideal," for a type of perfection in society and in man himself (though Dostoevskij would find the notion of "perfection" both alluring and dangerous). One finds scattered mention of this undertone of commonality between Dostoevskij and Rousseau; according to Lotman, for example, Dostoevskij fought his attraction to Rousseau his whole life (Zhan-Zhak Russo. Traktaky, 603), and it is this grudging attraction that informs my examination of Dostoevskij's "Dream of a Ridiculous Man." I will discuss how Rousseau's philosophy-especially his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality-is reflected in Dostoevskij's "Dream"; how each thinker conceived of the "natural man," freedom, and the evolution of society; how Dostoevskij and Tolstoj read Rousseau differently; and how, ultimately, Dostoevskij and Rousseau may be seen to share more ground than critics have traditionally granted.