By Fydor Dostoevesky, First published 1864. Bantam paperback edition published 1974. 158 pgs. ISBN: 0-553-21144-7.
A classic text, and a seminal work in the early existentialist genre. This very short novel has two parts; the second about twice as long as the first. The first part, “Underground” sets the stage for the highly introspective anti-hero, who ruminates on the purpose and meaning of life. Almost thankfully, part two, “On The Occasion Of Wet Snow,” has some other characters, and some action, although there’s still considerable monologue and inner dialogue.
The paradox of this sort of thinking–and thinking about thinking–is that it’s both very nihilistic and yet sporadically celebratory. The pitfall for the reader comes in accepting the nihilist content at face value. In other words, after the narrator has told us dozens of times how worthless he is, how perverse and meaningless his life is, how pessimistic he is, “I often looked at myself with furious dissatisfaction, verging on loathing” (p.59), and “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man” (p.1) etc. Is it possible that anything good, decent, or constructive can come of his existence?
Later, that’s exactly what he goes on about, when speaking to his new-found friend/lover Liza, about children “Do you love babies, Liza?…The baby, rosy, plump spreads out his arms and legs, luxuriating against your warmth…Isn’t this the greatest happiness on earth when the three of them, and husband, wife, and child are together?” (p. 114). He’s describing a hypothetical situation to her, but it’s hard to believe that he doesn’t want to be a part of this eloquent picture of domestic bliss.
Nonetheless, these gems are found nestled in layers of absurdity, endlessly described. The result is a suspension of understanding. That is, what’s more meaningless than something indescribable? Well, the narrator is assiduously doing his homework, so to speak, but the equation he’s describing (his 2 x 2=4) to explain the difference between experience and logic turns out not to be mathematical at all. In life, sometimes 2×2=5 (p. 13). Thus, his dilemma. Life isn’t an equation–or a series of small equations leading to an overall solution–and it’s an incredible delusion to think so.
Much of what the Underground Man rails against is not, therefore, of his own making. He tries to tear away the veils (of civilization) which hide life’s inherent ambiguity. And, faced with that existence behind the curtain, he feels he’s failed [telling his equally melancholy acquaintance Liza] “I can’t be…good. (p.145).” But that’s because “They [civilized man?] won’t let me.” (also p. 145). Actually, he should cut himself some slack.
Underground Man is a bit Christ-like; I hope that doesn’t appear blasphemous. I’m thinking only of how much he’s suffered. And why does he? His fictional audience, the “gentlemen” he refers to, as though looking at the reader from his own obscured looking-glass, are the beneficiaries of his trials.
When the narrator gives himself room to wander, in Part Two, there’s the genesis of an actual plot. Still, he’s feeling universally shunned “…no one else was like me. I was like no one else. I am alone, I thought, and they [all other people] are everybody.” (p.52). He nonetheless figures he has nothing to lose by checking up on an bunch of guys he knew from school; suffice it to say that he’s less than welcome, and he doesn’t enjoy their company anyway. In a comical way, he persists in joining in with them, to the extent of inviting himself to a going-away party for one of them, Zherkov.
At the ensuing dinner, they mistreat him, he mistreats them. There’s very much of a game-like back-and-forth, which both he and the others can’t really have enough of. His only saving grace is that they concede that he is an intelligent guy, who can be somewhat entertaining. He pretty much blows himself out of the water, though, by getting so drunk that he’s not only insufferable, but incoherent as well.
All of this manic stuff is foreshadowed by a purely comical plan to get in a duel with an officer he doesn’t really know; the ‘dispute’–jostling the man as they pass in the street–is so contrived that it’s plain ridiculous. Perhaps luckily for the narrator, he never quite cashes in on this self-defeating pose.
The long party scene is easily the most entertaining bit in the book; but the last part of Part Two, in which The Underground Man meets Liza, a very unwilling, and innocent prostitute, remains the most poignant and memorable scene.
Liza’s at least as bitter as the narrator. They differ in that Liza more or less feels things (circumstances) aren’t changeable; as reflective and insightful as she is, she’s haunted by fate. In a sense he’s the same way, except that he has minimalized his life to the point where he effectively has no ‘circumstances.’
So, in a rather shop-worn romantic way, he’s taken on the role of ‘saving’ Liza from perdition. Predictably, he fails to do so. But that doesn’t mean he fails completely. She at first is somewhat in awe of his apparently better status, and his obvious intelligence and eloquence.
But, even though he can’t resist trashing her as he does everyone else, she ultimately takes pity on him. Even more, she seems to ‘get’ him “I also knew that she would understand the essence of my words very well” (p.142). That’s really all that he could expect, and exactly what he wants.
The Underground Man has succeeded in making himself relevant, even if just for a moment. His awareness brings about insight “We’ll soon invent a way of somehow getting born from an idea” (p. 153). That’s magical thinking, but what he’s up to is promoting enlightenment by thinking. “I have in my own life merely carried to the extreme that which you [the reader] have never ventured to carry even halfway” (p. 152).
And, finally, with knowledge of his limitations, he states “We are stillborn” (p.153). Having discovered that 2×2 doesn’t always equal four, he’s willing to explore other outcomes. It’s in this summation, that Notes From Underground rises from apparently pure pessimism to something resembling hope.