The Underground Man Essay

Notes From the Underground Fyodor Dostoevsky

The following entry presents criticism of Dostoevsky's novella Zapiski iz podpol'ya (1864; Notes from the Underground). See also, Fyodor Dostoevsky Criticism.

Acclaimed as one of the classics of modern literature for its experimental form and style, thematic complexity, and innovative depiction of character psychology, Notes from the Underground is perhaps the most influential of Dostoevsky's works. The novella consists of "notes" on the philosophy and experiences of a retired, embittered recluse living in squalor in St. Petersburg. In creating the fictional author of the notes, who is commonly designated as the "underground man" by critics, Dostoevsky introduced the anti-hero into Russian fiction and firmly established the archetype of the outsider in world literature. The underground man has been cited as the figurative progenitor of various fictional characters of Franz Kafka, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, among others, and Notes is typically considered the single greatest literary precursor of Existentialist thought. Yet the philosophical dimension of the novella is only one aspect of a work that also fuses sociology, psychology, and politics. Despite these complexities, Notes from the Underground is perceived as principally sounding a theme that reverberates throughout Dostoevsky's writings: that science and materialism, so emphasized in the modern age, are inadequate substitutes for religion, love, and human understanding.

Plot and Major Characters

The notes of the underground man consist of two sections, "The Underground," a theoretical creed setting forth the fictional author's personal philosophy, and "Apropos of the Wet Snow," in which he recollects several experiences of his twenty-fourth year that anticipate his present condition and philosophy. In the course of his diatribe, the fictional author reveals many traits: he is ineffectual, resentful, alienated, ambivalent, introspective, and self-contradictory. Although he claims that his first-person, monologic notes are not written for anyone else, he nevertheless addresses an imaginary audience and anticipates its responses, thus giving the work the tenor of dialogue. In "The Underground," the author attacks contemporary theories on the nature of humanity and refuses to submit to a life defined by laws of reason and science, which he equates with the incogitant passivity of a "piano-key." This denial has led him to acts of perversity and debauchery in the attempt to demonstrate free will and the intangible human qualities that he claims to cherish. The first incident described in "Apropos of the Wet Snow" is an ambiguous encounter with an army officer that the underground man interprets as a personal affront. For two years the narrator plots a revenge that produces equally ambiguous results. The author then relates another story in which he intrudes upon a dinner party held by former schoolmates and proceeds to embarrass himself by insulting the others and flaunting his averred superior intelligence. When the party subsides, the underground man follows his former schoolmates to a brothel, where he asserts his superiority over a prostitute, Liza (also transliterated as Lisa), whom he manipulates with a noble speech and a lofty offer of assistance. Three days later, Liza appears at the underground man's abode, only to realize his meanness and unhappiness. He is humiliated at having been exposed and is unable to accept her consoling love. Shortly thereafter the notes abruptly end, with the underground man purporting that he will write no more; a comment contradicted by the heretofore silent "editor" of the notes who closes the novella by adding that the underground man "could not help going on."

Major Themes

The overall complexity of Notes from the Underground has generated a wide variety of thematic interpretations. Many critics have contended that Notes from the Underground is in one sense a parody of, or response to, Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, an 1863 Utopian novel that propounds a radical socialist philosophy of enlightened self-interest, referred to as "rational egoism." This philosophy asserts the absolute hegemony of reason, insisting that all human behavior is dictated by rational laws of nature. In What Is To be Done?, Chernyshevsky evoked the image of the Crystal Palace, a structure originally constructed for London's 1851 World's Fair, as the ideal of human rationality. The underground man, however, attacks this triumph of science and engineering as a symbol of the absence of spontaneity and freedom. In Notes, critics have maintained, Dostoevsky showed the moral and psychological incompatibility of an autonomous personality and the purely deterministic world heralded by Chernyshevsky and other socialist radicals. The psychological aspects of the novella have also received close attention. Scholars have termed Notes the self-revelation of a pathological personality diversely diagnosed as narcissistic, borderline psychotic, paranoid, compulsive, or repressed. Some critics have found in Dostoevsky's own troubles a basis for the autobiographical, agitated tone of his Notes. Many have held that the novella disparages the narrow intellectualism and overrefined consciousness that Dostoevsky ascribed to Russians who were, in his estimation, contaminated by the corrupt rationalist trends of western European thought. Still others have focused on the underground man as a social type representative of individuals unable to establish a bond with humanity: an anonymous and isolated figure who experiences hostility toward the mechanized and bureaucratic aspects of society. Notes has also been considered an argument for existential choice, and, similarly a protest against utilitarianism, materialism, and positivism. Many of these diverse thematic strains tend to coalesce in the observations of critics who find at the heart of the underground man's desperation Dostoevsky's own distrust of scientific rationalism as a means of illuminating ethical problems and his deeply-felt Christian spirituality. Such critics construe Notes as a condemnation of the spiritual malaise of Dostoevsky's era and a theological cry of despair over modern moral disintegration personified in the unredeemed figure of the underground man.

Critical Reception

Notes from the Underground was a pivotal work for Dostoevsky for its inauguration of themes prominent in his later novels and its introduction of the acutely self-analytical, spiritually torn hero, who is a prototype for many other of his characters. However, the importance of Notes extends far beyond its significance in Dostoevsky's career, as evinced in George Steiner's estimation of the novella: ". . . when the traditional literary elements in [Notes from the Underground] have been set aside, and when close affinities to Dostoevsky's other works have been noted, the profound originality of the thing continues to assert itself. Chords previously unheard had been struck with admirable precision. No other text by Dostoevsky has exerted more influence on twentieth-century thought or technique."

Topic #1: Is the narrator a man of action?
I. Thesis statement: The narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground claims he is not a man of action. He demonstrates this in many different ways throughout the novel. However, he does follow through on three important actions. Two of these he does as if he is blinded by them. But the third he does in complete consciousness. It is a vile act, one that sends him into complete isolation.

II. The narrator defines himself as the opposite of a man of action.

A. The narrator describes a man of action.
1. Provide the definition of a man of action.
2. Provide examples of a man of action.

B. The narrator describes a man of excessive consciousness, the opposite of a man of action.
1. Provide the definition of a man of excessive consciousness.
2. Provide examples of a man of excessive consciousness.

III. The narrator thinks about taking action.
1. Provide examples of plans the narrator makes.
2. Provide examples of how the plans fail.
3. How do these examples demonstrate that he is not a man of action?

IV. The narrator does take three actions.
A. Two plans that the narrator does almost blindly
1. He closes his eyes when he bumps into the officer.
2. He blacks out after having sex with Liza for the first time.
B. He then humiliates and perhaps rapes Liza.

V. Conclusion: Is the narrator a man of action or not?

Topic #2: The narrator as a hero or an antihero?
I. Thesis statement: The term antihero is found in Notes From Underground. There is also a discussion about heroes, what it takes to be a hero, and who might be considered one. Despite the narrator’s awareness of the difference between hero and antihero, he often dreams of being a hero. He even thinks he is a hero when he persuades Liza to leave the house of prostitution. So what is the narrator: a hero or an antihero?

II. There are two definitions of a hero.
A. Provide a classic literary definition of hero.
1. What does it take to be a hero according to the literary definition?
2. Who are some classic literary heroes?

B. Provide the narrator’s definition of hero.
1. What does it take to be a hero in the narrator’s words?
2. Whom does the narrator consider a hero in this novel?

III. There are two definitions of an antihero.
A. Provide a classic literary definition of an antihero.
1. What does it take to be an antihero according to the literary definition?
2. Who are some classic literary antiheroes?

B. Provide the narrator’s definition of an antihero.
1. What does it take to be an antihero in the narrator’s words?
2. How does the narrator fit this definition?

IV. The confusion of the narrator as he sees himself as a hero
A. The narrator sees himself as a hero in his fantasies.
B. The narrator sees himself as a hero to Liza.

V. Conclusion: Is the narrator a hero or an antihero?

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