The author of short fiction must be extremely economical in the choice of words and images. There is little space for nonessential commentary in a short story. One must therefore assume that in Dostoevsky’s short story ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree,’’ there are no wasted words or images; everything is significant. Given that Dostoevsky devotes a relatively large portion of his text to a discussion of the lifelike dolls the boy glimpses in a shop window, the significance of this section of the story must be explored to fully appreciate the work as a whole. The particular aspect of the dolls that attracts the little boy is their lifelike nature. He at first thinks they are real children. When the lifelike dolls in the shop window are understood as things that appear to be other than what they actually are (they appear to be real children but are not), they may be viewed as symbolic of Dostoevsky’s nihilism.
Nihilism is a complex philosophical concept that has been variously interpreted and employed for myriad political, philosophical, and literary purposes. Briefly stated, nihilism asserts that reality as humans perceive it does not exist—in other words, that reality is essentially unknowable. There is a moral component linked to these assertions. If reality, or truth, is unknowable, then any attempt to characterize what is perceived as ‘‘good’’ or ‘‘evil’’ is fruitless, for nothing is as it seems. Some nihilists focus their arguments on moral truth rather than the whole realm of human experience, while still making a similar argument, namely, that there is no way to objectively ascertain what is morally true. In nineteenth century Russian philosophical thought, nihilism was closely linked with literary realism. Some believed that efforts to convey human thought and action in an accurate manner often revealed a basic absence of human morality. Evil actions could appear to be justified, while good actions might not always be as positive as they seem, or might have negative consequences. Some elements and characters in Russian realist novels convey a sense of a moral void. As Nishitani Keiji explains The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (1990), for Dostoevsky involvement in nihilism grew steadily after the publication in 1864 of his Notes from Underground . Keiji maintains that Dostoevsky moved toward an understanding of nihilism in which ‘‘religion, metaphysics, and morality’’ were negated by ‘‘science and socialism.’’ Keiji also observes the extent to which Dostoevsky was in a state of internal conflict with respect to his nihilism, suggesting that ‘‘God, Christ, the great earth, the homeland of Russia and its peasants’’ are all elements that challenged his conception of nihilism. Likewise, in his 2004 work The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia , Kenneth Lantz emphasizes the shifting nature of Dostoevsky’s views on nihilism. He explores nihilism through characters in such works The Devils The Brothers Karamazov , while also satirizing and criticizing them. As Lantz points out, in the year of his death (1881), Dostoevsky wrote in a notebook entry that ‘‘nihilism appeared among us because we are all nihilists (emphasis in original).
Dostoevsky’s nihilistic tendencies and his internal conflict over those tendencies are apparent in the short story ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree’’ and are highlighted by Dostoevsky’s incorporation into the story of the lifelike dolls. The significance of the dolls is initially underscored by the differences between the dolls and the other holiday sights the boy views through the shop windows lining the street. He first glimpses a Christmas tree around which children are merrily playing while eating and drinking. The comforts the other children are enjoying are noted by the boy, who is later reminded of his own suffering, whereupon he runs away. In another window the boy sees a variety of cakes, with three young ladies distributing cake to the people who enter the establishment. After being chased away, he runs off, crying. Peering through another window, the boy sees three dolls displayed ‘‘exactly as though they were alive.’’ The dolls appear to be playing little violins while nodding. Upon seeing their lips move, the boy assumes they must be speaking—although he is unable to hear them since a glass window separates him from them. When he begins to comprehend that they are dolls, he laughs. ‘‘And he wanted to cry, but he felt amused, amused by the dolls.’’ The child seems equally frightened and pleased. His response to what he sees behind this window is different from what he glimpses behind the other windows. In the other two windows, the boy is reminded of things he does not have—primarily food and secondarily companionship. The window with the dolls is different: behind it is nothing of immediate value to the boy. He seems entertained, and being distracted from his hunger is a condition not without value. However, the boy is afraid as well, and this fear diminishes his enjoyment. There is nothing for him behind this window, but it is to this window that the boy desires to return after he is chased away.
The windows themselves are significant. They form a barrier through which the boy is prevented from accessing food, shelter, and companionship, as well as experiencing the celebrations taking part around him. Viewed as nihilistic symbols, the windows exist as barriers to experiential reality and suggest that people are separated from reality— from truth—by their perceptions. The boy cannot actively experience the reality behind the window; he can only passively view reality. His perceptions, which are not informed by the truth of experience, are shaped without the benefit of the objective information derived from true experience.
The dolls also function as nihilistic symbols of the false nature of perception since they are things that are not truly what they appear to be. The dolls seem to be alive, but they are not. They represent the false reality human perceptions create. A void of meaning exists beyond the window where the boy views the dolls. The dolls appear to offer something positive—entertainment, amusement—but they frighten the boy as well. Through the boy’s response to the dolls, the interplay between perception and reality parallels Dostoevsky’s treatment of Christianity in ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree.’’ At the end of his short, painful life, the boy is reunited with his mother—and Christ—in heaven. Yet Dostoevsky doubts whether this resurrection in heaven could have happened. The salvation offered by Christianity appears to have a positive purpose— hope, salvation—but Dostoevsky’s lack of faith in the reality of this salvation leaves the same void of meaning resulting from the contemplation of the dolls. If one cannot believe that what one is seeing is real, how can one trust what one perceives? Dostoevsky seems to be suggesting through this story that if one cannot hope for a life after death with Christ, how can one trust religion? What, then, is the meaning of the boy’s life, one filled only with fear and suffering, if hope, salvation, and Christ are merely perceptions that one cannot trust? These are the nihilistic thoughts Dostoevsky explores in ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree.’’ He employs the windows as barriers to truth, with the dolls symbolizing faulty perception. By means of these symbols, Dostoevsky conveys the nihilistic notion that the reality of true experiential and spiritual meaning is inaccessible.
This questioning of the reality of spiritual— specifically Christian—meaning that the dolls underscore emphasizes the moral void in which the story takes place and to which Dostoevsky draws the reader’s attention. The dolls link apparent meaning with an absence of meaning: they seem to be alive but are not; they appear to elicit a pleasurable sensation but actually frighten. Dostoevsky’s use of the dolls to suggest this void of experiential meaning parallels the void of spiritual meaning that he implies at the story’s end: Christianity appears to offer salvation but may not. The earlier chronology of events in the story—before the dolls, before the boy’s death—is better understood within this nihilistic framework. The end of the story clearly suggests that Christianity may not be what it appears, while other, more subtle examples earlier in the story lay the groundwork for Dostoevsky’s later questioning of the truth of Christian salvation. In fact, the story implies a general void of moral truth. The starving, freezing boy is offered no charity in the course of the story save for a single coin, which he accidentally loses. During the Christmas season, the child is ignored at best and physically attacked at worst. The utter lack of aid offered the child, followed by a death no one mourns and a resurrection that is called into question moments after it is described, points to Dostoevsky’s attraction to a nihilistic view of the world. Yet his inability fully to embrace this view is apparent as well. Two elements of ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree’’—the description of a doubtful salvation and the image of a donated coin that rolls away due to the boy’s frozen hands—suggest that Dostoevsky was reluctant to embrace nihilism, that he wanted to hope for the existence of moral truth rather than accept the notion of a moral void. The woman did not feed the starving child, but she did attempt to give him money. Perhaps the boy really did go to heaven after he died. Although Dostoevsky undercuts both of these hopeful elements, he at least includes them as glimmers, however dim, of hopefulness that humans are guided by moral truths, that spirituality is not without meaning.
Catherine Dominic, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Published by Gale Group, 2010