The narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is a despicable person, a dreadful man: obnoxious, petty, base, repugnant to the core of his being, and reading this novel feels like being trapped in a sewer with him for a week. For many readers, such a description of Notes from Underground would be sufficient, and they would be apt to put away the book in a cold, dark place, in the cellar maybe with the potatoes that are sprouting. A more philosophic person may have a different view altogether. And that is the rub Dostoevsky may have been dependant on. He was hoping literary people would be at least partially-partial to the character and his pale unorthodox views. But were the Underground Man’s views similar to Dostoevsky’s? Could he have been a mouthpiece for the author’s wild, philosophic ideas? Or is there something more artful about Dostoevsky’s characterization of the Underground Man, something more artistic about his presentation?
The Underground Man is a difficult character to understand. On the one hand, he is extremely mean and judgemental, while on the other hand his thinking seems to be very rational. He cannot be easily dismissed for at least a couple of reasons. For one, his ideas about human nature are very perceptive and interesting not only in the context of his own age and also in the present one. Secondly, and perhaps striking closer to home, there is something very familiar about the Underground Man. I think anybody who is interested in literature, or for that matter, someone who is neurotic, analytical, or “hyperconscious,” as it were, would be able to relate to the character of the Underground Man. That is what makes this novel uncomfortable for many readers, to the point where they become defensive about the character.
The Underground Man speaks of himself as “a man of nineteenth century.” He attests that he is a representative of the age. At the end of the novel, the Underground Man makes a transition in his narrative position: he no longer speaks only for himself, but for all. He identifies the transition with his use of the plural pronoun “we” instead of the singular “I” which he had used for the majority of the novel. He defines the shift in his address as “allness.” It is difficult to believe that the Underground Man could be a representative for anybody but himself. It is preposterous to attest that he could represent an entire age. The Underground Man undermines his own argument earlier in the novel. He tells the reader that he does not “believe a word, not one single little word, of all [he has] scribbled down.” He even provides a refutation to his idea of “allness”: “I know that…you will cry against me and stamp you foot: ‘You are talking only about yourself and your underground miseries, don’t dare speak of “all of us.””
The Underground Man may or may not have been attempting to excuse himself and his behaviour by posturing as a representative of the age, but literary critics over the last century and a half certainly made a case for him as an icon. The Underground Man might have been speaking against “generalized human being[s]” but he was one himself. Dostoevsky is very deliberate with his parody of the literary man. The Underground Man consistently speaks about becoming unused to any state resembling “real life.” He carries this idea over as a critique of the age at large: “we have all got out of the habit of living…and we are all agreed that, for our part, that it is better in books.” It is ironic that the Underground Man came to be, for many literary critics, an archetype of the human psyche. As to what the archetype of the Underground Man signifies, many critics would be divided. It is an area of great debate. But the again, this interpretation is a long way off from simply reading the character as a nasty, despicable person.
It is interesting how a man who considers himself “morally bound, to be essentially without character” and who “finds…pleasure in the consciousness of his own degradation” can become an archetypal heroic figure. He labels himself as an “anti-hero” but not in the romantic sense. I do not think Dostoevsky created the Underground Man as a Promethean figure. This is perhaps an idea the Underground Man entertained, but I do not think Dostoevsky can be held in line with this view. If there is one quality about the Underground Man that is unique, it is the degree to which he is conscious or “hyperconscious.” It is not an appealing quality for him to have in terms of personality, but as a thinker, the Underground Man is exceptional—he is profoundly literary, a kind of precursor to the maximal thought-overload we associate with the postmodern age. It is obvious why academics would share an affinity for this character. The Underground man is a literary type. It is quite easy to romanticize his position and his character: even though he is incapable to physically act, he engages in an intellectual battle in the novel against notions of his age, against theories of enlightenment, even against the laws of nature. The Underground Man certainly positions himself as a Promethean figure in the novel. But Dostoevsky has different ideas for his characterization.
Near the end of the novel, the Underground Man says that “all the features of an anti-hero have purposely been collected.” The reason for this anti-hero characterization is supposedly to critique the age by reflecting its folly: “we have all got out of the habit of living, we are all in a greater or less degree crippled.” The Underground Man’s address at the novel’s end is uncharacteristic of him. It is an anomaly in the novel. He not only changes his narrative address from the singular to the plural, he also seems to have acquired a mission for his “confession.” It may be an artistic flaw on Dostoevsky’s behalf because, for the first time in the novel, the Underground Man clearly appears to be speaking on the author’s behalf. What is also clear is that the Underground Man has been created purposely to parody the age or at least a certain type of person. The Underground Man is nothing more than a wretch in the novel, despite his ideas and ambitions. He tyrannizes himself and anyone else who crosses his path. His curse, his stigma, is consciousness. His prison is his intellectual activity. Dostoevsky presents the “hyperconsciousness” of his character as an intellectual prison. The Underground Man holds a similar view in the novel.
The Underground Man completely understands his situation and thoroughly acknowledges who he is: “I am a sick man….I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.” There is no reason why we should not take these declarations literally. The Underground Man openly reveals who and what he is. We are not privy to another person’s perspective of him. All that we have, as readers, are his notes. His assertions about himself seem very literal. There is no other contrasting description of him in the novel. His intention for these notes is not to lie about himself. He concedes that others have lied about themselves in their confessions, but he states that his practice is the opposite: “I, however, am writing for myself alone.” His notes are only an affirmation of what he is. Besides, the action of the novel hardly enters into the sensational or hyperbolic for us suspect the integrity of the author. It is ironic to speak of the Underground Man in terms of integrity, but as a narrator, honesty is one quality we assume he possesses, but only in his role as narrator of the novel.
The Underground Man describes himself in various ways, but none that contrast his initial statement. He portrays himself as a “hunchback or a dwarf” and as a “highly conscious mouse.” Both are unfavourable and piteous depictions, consistent with his original account. Friedrich Nietzsche said that “Under conditions of peace the warlike man attacks himself.” This certainly seems to be the case with the Underground Man. He is a tyrant. He is a combative man. The entire account in the novel reads like a battle, which is a curious effect considering the narrator claims he is hopelessly inert and that he is not “rattling [his] sword.” The Underground Man claims he is not “vain of his disease” and that he refuses to “swagger” with it. Of course, he is doing the opposite of what he denounces. Nietzsche also said that “Around the hero everything becomes a tragedy, around the demi-god a satyr-play…” I would argue that around the vain man everything becomes a confession. The Underground Man is a vain man. He is also a literary man. There is inherently more sly in his technique than there is in the average man: “To talk about oneself a great deal can also be a means of concealing oneself,” Nietzsche famously said of confessions. It can also be a means of concealing ones motives.
The Underground Man attests that “hyperconsciousness” is only an “intensified awareness” of oneself. For the Underground Man, a higher degree of consciousness does not inherently allow him to change. In fact, “hyperconsciousness” does the exact opposite for: it highlights his inability to change and makes him only “too clearly of [his] own degradation.” So what is the purpose of the Underground Man’s confession? He claims that he is writing only for himself and he is addressing an audience only because it makes it easier to write. Whether he is being earnest or not I cannot say. The fact that his notes have been published discounts any intention the narrator might have possessed. Besides, Dostoevsky is only using a narrative ploy to distance himself from the narrator. As the material stands, what is the value of the Underground Man’s confession? His “hyperconsciousness” is only an extension of personality. The novel is only an exhibition of his selfhood. The Underground Man is only “rattling [his] sword.” Nietzsche had said in Beyond Good and Evil, “How poisonous, how cunning, how bad every protracted war makes one when it cannot be waged with open force.” The Underground Man doesn’t land far from this concept when he says that “trustworthy autobiographies are almost an impossibility” and that he understands “how vanity can make one accuse oneself of downright crimes.” He understands only too well.
The novel is an exhibition of the crimes he commits against himself. His confession illustrates the subterfuge of his private war and the state that he has sunk to. The form of the confession, the literary aspect of it, is only present because it allows the narrator to sit “more severely in judgment of [himself].” It is only another facet of his private war. Like the narrator admits, “there is a whole psychology involved in this.” The narrator is aware of what he is doing to himself: “I was simply scaring sparrows for my own amusement.” However, what he is not aware of, is why he is committing these acts on himself. The Underground Man is not capable of such detachment in the novel. Fortunately for us, Dostoevsky is. He comes in during the closing parts of the novel and rescues the Underground Man. Despite his willingness to scapegoat himself, Dostoevsky will not allow it to happen. The age is to blame. Consciousness is to blame. Another scapegoat will not be necessary.