This Dostoyevsky collection contains four of his short stories.
A Weak Heart (often translated as A Faint Heart), from 1848, is about two best friends, one of whom has the opportunity to marry the love of his life. But he cannot handle happiness, and gets increasingly irresponsible about his work duties, which makes him then panic and, with his friend’s assistance, try to get caught up, and it all spirals out of control. His conviction that surely his life cannot really develop as happily at it seems to be headed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately he goes mad.
The story reminds me of Gogol in style, though it’s not as funny as Gogol’s best. It has interesting elements of a nightmare to it. Not in the sense of scary horror story content, monsters, supernatural occurrences, or even the kind of incoherence that’s common in dreams, but more like the dreams of frustration where you are running as hard as you can and making little or no progress. He experiences that kind of inability to make progress with his work. As the time available shortens, the task just seems to get longer and more intimidating, and he is reduced to a kind of ineffectual flailing and despair.
White Nights, also from 1848, reads like a parody (which one certainly hopes it is) of a saccharine, purple prose romance tale, or as one character says to another, “You talk as if you were reading from a book.”
A 17 year old girl and a modestly older but just as inexperienced male meet and share their wildly idealistic, romantic notions about love, friendship, etc. He lacks experience because he is almost always alone, and lives in his dreamy head, while she is inexperienced because the blind grandmother she lives with literally keeps her tied to her so she won’t be able to get away and have any kind of life independent of her.
Unfortunately for him, while he has her in mind with all this talk, she is infatuated with another guy. So it’s the classic “friend zone” scenario, albeit a 19th century version.
Whereas the sometimes high falutin’, exaggerated, flowery dialogue is more tolerable and at times humorous in A Weak Heart, here I found it mostly annoying. A Weak Heart is a modestly interesting, entertaining little story; White Nights I’d rank a bit below that.
The longest (it’s really more a novella than a short story), and I would say best, story of the collection is the title story—Uncle’s Dream from 1859. 1859 is before Dostoyevsky wrote his greatest novels, but on the other hand his abilities had had another decade or so to develop from when he wrote A Weak Heart and White Nights.
In the story, a controversial society lady schemes to get her daughter married off to a comically insane, eccentric old fellow who has inherited a large sum of money.
The context of the story—life amongst landowners in some Russian provincial town, with their gossip, scandals, foibles, and misadventures—reminds me of some of his later classic novels, including The Possessed and The Idiot. It’s not as deep as those works certainly, and not as funny, but it comes close enough to still be worthwhile.
The final story in the collection is The Meek Girl (often translated as A Gentle Creature). It was published in a periodical in 1876, as one of the writings that would eventually be collected into the book A Writer’s Diary. Having read A Writer’s Diary, I vaguely remembered this story.
Dostoyevsky got the idea for the story from an actual news story, but the similarity is very, very slight, so really The Meek Girl is over 90% fiction.
The story is told from the point of view of the protagonist, who recounts recent events in his life in order to try to understand his wife’s suicide. It is certainly the darkest, most serious story of the four in this collection, and as a psychological study of a man analyzing his guilt, self-awareness, manipulativeness, love, etc., it is quite interesting, my second favorite story overall of the four.
In summary, while all the stories have something to offer and are worth reading if you connect with Dostoyevsky at all—with the third and fourth being the most solid—they certainly did not impress me to the degree that several of his novels have. It may be that the shorter form just doesn’t fit his talents as well, though it also may be a factor that three of the four—the first two in particular—came earlier in his career than his classic novels.