Notes From Underground (Zapiski iz Podpol'ia) by Fedor Dostoevskii, 1864

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NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (Zapiski iz podpol'ia)
by Fedor Dostoevskii, 1864

"Notes from Underground" ("Zapiski iz podpol'ia") is the first major work of the second phase of Fedor Dostoevskii's fiction in which psychological, existential, and philosophical concerns take over from his earlier social realism. The story is composed of two distinctive parts, the first an attack by the narrator, who is never named, on science and determinism, and the second recounting a number of episodes from the narrator's life. The most powerful element in the tale is the narrator himself: a tortured, intense, guilt-ridden outsider. "Notes from Underground" is an assault on scientific rationalism and positivist thinking, but it does not merely condemn these on abstract grounds. Rather, the narrator exposes the dire effects they have had on his own personality and behavior, which we see in the second part of the story.

The Underground Man is essentially a romantic in terms of his sensibility, comparing himself, for example, with Byron's Manfred. But unlike romantic heroes he suffers from a disabling self-consciousness that perverts his romantic nature, making it impossible for him really to believe in or take seriously romantic attitudes. He is so conscious of himself and of what others might think of him that his emotional energy can find no authentic outlet. He cannot break free from his own subjectivity, with the result that his feelings lack spontaneity and it is virtually impossible for him to act decisively. The dark cellar in which he lives is a kind of metaphor for the condition of being trapped inside one's own ego.

The first part of the story is crucial since it helps us to understand what has made him as he is. He addresses directly his contemporaries, who quite unthinkingly believe in scientific and material progress. Underlying such belief is an acceptance of deterministic thinking—that there are laws governing the world, society, and human nature. The Underground Man does not claim that determination is false, but he does not have any alternative theory. What he is concerned with are the consequences of deterministic thinking. If human beings come to believe that everything they think and do can be understood in terms of psychological and sociological laws—analogous to the way that the world can be understood in terms of scientific law—then any concept of freedom of action disappears.

Though the Underground Man accepts determinism he has a deep emotional need to believe that he is free. He knows that everything he does or thinks can be explained in terms of psychological, sociological, or behavioral principles and therefore that freedom is a fiction; but the implications of this, he claims, have not been understood. In the past people believed that they were free and therefore could act with spontaneity and without self-consciousness. People identified themselves with their actions. But since determinism shows that people are merely the product of various sets of laws, the self has no independent status. This creates people who are characterless, who are content to be mere cogs in the system, while those who still believe they are free are merely too stupid to understand the consequences of determinism.

The second part of the story illustrates the effects of this philosophy on the Underground Man's life. He is committed to making his life significant in the face of the nullifying effect of deterministic thinking. Though a minor civil servant involved in trivial work that is of no value in itself, he refuses to become one of the crowd and conform. The price he pays is that he is regarded as an eccentric, a figure of ridicule. He tries to feel superior, but his sense of self is so fragile that he finds it difficult to oppose the judgments of others. The incidents he recounts all concern his effort to resist nullification by asserting his own significance.

In the first episode he describes his tortuous efforts to be noticed by an army officer who insults him. All these efforts fail until he meets the officer by chance in the street, and, before he can become self-conscious, he bangs shoulders with him. Although the officer does not even look around, the Underground Man feels that his own existence has been acknowledged. The next episode recounts the difficulty he has in maintaining his dignity when facing former school acquaintances. Though he feels contempt for them, their contempt for him has the greater force; in order to overcome this threat to his ego he must find a way of making them accept him as significant. After an embarrassing scene that only seems to increase their disdain for him, he finds a device to restore some sense of his dignity: he writes a letter to one of them apologizing and blaming his behavior on having had too much to drink. The letter allows him to create an ennobled image of himself without having to encounter his former school acquaintance once more.

Probably the most crucial episode of the story is the Underground Man's meeting with a prostitute. For the first time he meets someone who treats him with sympathy and who offers him a human relationship. On the surface this might seem to provide him with the basis for believing that his life has significance and importance. But when she calls to see him he insults her and drives her away—he has just been outfaced by his servant and needs to compensate for that humiliation by exerting his power over someone else. He cannot allow himself to be sincere and open with another person; if he were laughed at, his already fragile ego would be further exposed and rendered all the more vulnerable. Relationships for him, therefore, can exist only in a context of power, and for him that power can be fueled only by spite. Spite is central to his sense of identity and allows him, psychologically at least, to resist determinism. In contrast to other emotions, such as anger, that have an outward manifestation, spite remains hidden within. The Underground Man can keep it bottled up inside him, cultivate it, and use it to generate the power necessary to sustain a sense of self in the face of his intellectual belief that his life has no significance. But the price he pays for forging an identity through spite is that he has to reject any genuine contact with other people, even with someone like the prostitute who offers him a relationship.

The Underground Man is a representative figure. He is a product of the modern, industrialized, godless civilization that Dostoevskii saw emerging in Europe and detested. The Underground Man is desperately fighting to preserve a human identity. The motto for the modern self, the author implies, is: I am spiteful and rancorous, therefore I am.

—K.M. Newton