Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
An illustration of a barefoot man in a suit looking behind him

Is It Possible to Find the Meaning of Life in a Dream?


A Dostoyevsky short story shows us the possibility of dreaming and discovering why life is worth living.

In antiquity it was believed that dreams were messages from the gods. And even now in monotheist religions such as Judaism and Islam stories are told, such as that of Joseph or Mohammed who received divine revelation while they slept. In the modern era dreams have lost part of their aura of mystery and secrecy, although not entirely, as, from the psychological and even neuro-scientific point of view it is still believed that dreams tell us something: they tell us of desires that for some reason we choose to evade, or we find the solution to a problem while asleep, when the brain relaxes and reorganizes the available information.

Perhaps as a result dreams belong to an unknown territory that we barely perceive, even in brutal and nihilist times it is possible to trust in them, and which could sound paradoxical, but the fact is that deep down we well know that they are about something that belongs to us, something that we perhaps do not understand but that is ours and inalienable.

In 1877, Dostoyevsky wrote a story with the curious title of “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” It is not, however, a jocular story, perhaps because nothing by Dostoyevsky is, but it is optimistic. The story is told in the first person by the protagonists, a man who does not believe in anything except himself, like the narrator of Notes from the Underground or Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, poisoned by his own solipsism. Except that in “The Dream…” there is a subtle difference: the man is a suicide. He believes that the world only exists for him and in his reasoning suicide is a way of proving that premise:

It seemed clear to me that life and the world somehow depended upon me now. I may almost say that the world now seemed created for me alone: if I shot myself the world would cease to be at least for me.

To think thus is, in some ways, to be on the cusp of madness, less for the motive of suicide than for the impossibility of being able to establish a bridge with others, with the real world in which people get on and share, where what we are is pitted against what another is. With notable literary, psychological and humanist genius, Dostoyevsky highlights this in the narrative and makes his protagonist ponder his intentions for a moment, precisely thanks to contact with another, in a textual sense: the hand of a young girl that takes him by the elbow on the same night that he had planned to kill himself. The little girl was lost, was asking for her mother, and that vulnerability provoked mercy in the man, and his humanity and life presented themselves to him at that moment as if he had never before been aware of them:

[…] I saw clearly that so long as I was still a human being and not nothingness, I was alive and so could suffer, be angry and feel shame at my actions.

Amid those reflections, the protagonist falls asleep unexpectedly, because “dreams are a very strange phenomenon,” and in that other world his thoughts and plans are consummated and he does what he did not do in ‘real’ life: he commits suicide. He then dreams about his death, his funeral and his burial. He sees himself inside the coffin, unmoving and tormented by an incessant drip that leaks through the lid and falls directly into his eye. In these conditions he begs to God that he be liberated from his suffering. A being responds to his call and pulls him from the coffin to take him on a sidereal and edifying journey in which at the same time as glimpsing the earth and other planets, they talk about the meaning of life. Until the mysterious being abandons him to a world that is identical to that of humankind, except in one aspect:

It was the earth untarnished by the Fall; on it lived people who had not sinned. They lived just in such a paradise as that in which, according to all the legends of mankind, our first parents lived before they sinned; the only difference was that all this earth was the same paradise.

In this fantastical and utopian world, the description of which we recommend you read, the one-time suicide discovers the meaning of existence, the reason for which life is worth living:

It was morning, that is, it was not yet daylight, but about six o’clock. I woke up in the same arm-chair; my candle had burnt out; every one was asleep in the captain’s room, and there was a stillness all round, rare in our flat. First of all I leapt up in great amazement: nothing like this had ever happened to me before, not even in the most trivial detail; I had never, for instance, fallen asleep like this in my arm-chair. While I was standing and coming to myself I suddenly caught sight of my revolver lying loaded, ready—but instantly I thrust it away! Oh, now, life, life! I lifted up my hands and called upon eternal truth, not with words but with tears; ecstasy, immeasurable ecstasy flooded my soul. Yes, life and spreading the good tidings!

And what was, to paraphrase Coleridge, the flower that that man brought back from that Eden?

What is a dream? And is not our life a dream? I will say more. Suppose that this paradise will never come to pass (that I understand), yet I shall go on preaching it. And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the great thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted—you will find out at once how to arrange it all.

All images taken from “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, a hand-painted animation directed by Alexander Petrov, which you can watch here.

Related Articles