Notes From Underground
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“Oh, gentlemen, perhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I've never been able to start or finish anything. Granted, granted I'm a babbler, a harmless, irksome babbler, as we all are. But what's to be done if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble--that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
A forty year old man introduces himself: "I AM A SICK MAN . . . I am a wicked (nasty) man." This comes from a man who immediately demonstrates his unsureness and his unreliability, as he touts his superstitiousness and refusal to be treated for his (imagined?) sickness. With a few lines of prose Dostoevsky has introduced the reader to a new type of man, one that we will see traces of in characters like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and others in subsequent novels. What do we make of this narrator and his story?
It is a story that is bifurcated into two parts that are very different from each other but intimately connected. The narrator is talking to someone. Perhaps it is the reader or perhaps it is himself, but he is passionate as he speaks out from his "corner" bemoaning the fact that he is not even able to become an insect, much as he would like to. The narration, upon first reading, is strange, but it changes when he draws in the reader by observing that he is not the only one who takes pride in his "sickness". Everyone takes pride in their own sickness. Suddenly we have come upon, become part of, the modern condition. This is the world that Nietzsche and others would later describe and that we live in.
The first part is entitled "Underground" and it is a world where the certainties of "2+2=4" and the philosophies of rationalism and utilitarianism are not welcome. The narrator, in his hole, cannot act and is overcome with inertia -- being constantly offended by "the laws of nature". What is a man without wants or desires who is living a life that is determined? Reason is not the answer, so he speculates that "two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing". (p 34) He is bored and so he begins to write as the falling snow reminds him of an anecdote that occurred when he was twenty-four years old.
Thus the narration changes as the second part, "Apropos of the Wet Snow" begins. The nature of his pathology and his paranoia becomes clear as he reacts with coworkers and meets a young girl. The bifurcation of the story begins to appear in the narrator who, shortly after meeting the girl, starts to have doubts, thoughts like this:
"A sullen thought was born in my brain and passed through my whole body like some vile sensation, similar to what one feels on entering an underground cellar, damp and musty. It was somehow unnatural . . . " (p 88)
He begins to doubt himself (maybe he always has). The girl tries to reach out to him but he cannot reciprocate. Ultimately he concludes that life lived in books is better than his real life. He does little, is disappointed, and begins to write.
This novel is a tragicomedy of ideas, powerful in the sense that it identifies the direction that much of modern thought will pursue. The dramatic expressiveness of the prose betrays a narrator who is bereft of the will to engage in life. It is a form of nihilism that eats away at the narrator. Dostoevsky's answer, not given in this short novel but found in The Brothers Karamazov and elsewhere, is a faith that is absent here. That does not mean that this is not a rich text, filled with ideas and deep with meaning. It is a book that challenges the reader in ways that resonate forward more than a century later.