“The whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!” Thus Dostoevsky’s unnamed character describes the essence of human life in “Notes from the Underground”. Written in the context of 19th century Russian urban society, invaded by Western European philosophical ideas, the short novel presents the notes of a bitter and depressed former civil servant, who is disillusioned about the modern concepts of society and man but is also aware of his own moral failure in life. The Underground Man, as literary critics call him, in many ways reflecting Dostoevsky’s personal sufferings and expressing his ideas, attacks the emerging doctrines of rational egoism, scientific determinism and utopian socialism. Later on, he goes even deeper and explores his own life, painting a picture of a “modern man” on the margins of society who has led his theories to their logical conclusions and consequently is unable to live. The novel was highly significant for the time and place in which it was written but, as it presents, in many ways, the image of a modern man in general, I think it is still significant today and will continue to be such in the future.
The first part of “Notes from the Underground” lays out the narrator’s critique of modern social and philosophical liberal ideas and presents his own dark, depressing and, sometimes, contradictory views. At the time when Dostoevsky wrote the novel, numerous members of the Russian intelligentsia had accepted from the West the theories of materialism and rational egoism, according to which the purpose of every action must be in maximizing one’s own self-interest. Another theory, still commonly held among scientists, is that of determinism – the view that every single action, even “freely chosen” human actions are actually predetermined by the laws of nature. The theory that presents a sort of socially relevant conclusion to both of these is utopianism – in this case, it is the idea that, as human knowledge develops more and more, scientists will eventually identify every single cause of every human decision, reasoning or emotion and will finally be able to organize human life as to avoid any harmful conflicts. Man will finally understand his own “real normal interests” and will live in complete happiness and satisfaction.
Against all of these theories, the Underground Man lays out his arguments. He shows that not only does man sometimes act against his own interest but that human history is, in fact, filled with such examples. Moreover, confronted by the laws of nature and reason and any other “wall” that cannot be broken through, man oftentimes does not give up but continues to bash himself against it, even finding a certain pleasure in the pain that the bashing causes in him. Dostoevsky’s character even goes so far as to state that reason is not all there is to life – on the contrary, it only performs the function of the rational faculty. Life must be lived not only with reason but with the full being of man, with all of its faculties, choices and emotions. Regarding the perceived utopia that is supposed to result from scientific progress, the Underground Man points to the element that plays the most important role in defining the human person, free will. Even if man accepts for a short while the “crystal palace” built by the leaders of humanity, the state in which there will be no wars and suffering and everything will be pre-determined, he will sooner or later destroy it – only because he wants to. Through his character, Dostoevsky states that no matter how many “rational” theories, such as utopianism, are created, they will all fail eventually because they do not take into account human free will. According to the Underground Man, human beings are ready to even ruin the whole world, “to launch a curse upon the world” but to preserve their right to will, their right to choose, for that is what makes them human and saves them from being “piano-keys”. It is interesting to note that many of Dostoevsky’s predictions here were actually fulfilled in the Socialist regimes that were formed in the 20th century – regimes which did not value human freedom but instead encouraged people to just do what they are told by “the Party”. Nowadays, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, most of the world is convinced of the futility of socialism. Even today, however, as many scientists presuppose the truthfulness of naturalism and imply it in their publications, the deduction that man does not in fact have free will can still be easily reached if only one takes the theory to its logical conclusion. But why should naturalism be presupposed, especially in light of our every day experience of free will? Moreover, how can anyone be praised or blamed for his actions if he was pre-determined to do them?
The narrator of the “Notes” proceeds to delve into the life of modern urban Russian society to show that there are two types of people in it – those who think and therefore do not act, and those who act but do not think. The members of the first group possess enlightened and developed minds and have realized that the results of their actions can be ambivalent and may never achieve the intended effects. Therefore, they choose to be completely inactive. Moreover, these people cannot define themselves and cannot be defined by anything. “Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature.“ This is one of the narrator’s most terrifying (for himself) beliefs about humanity – he even prefers to be inactive out of laziness but to have, at least, the characteristics of a lazy person. But he cannot have even that – instead he has isolated himself almost completely from society in his “nasty, stinking, underground” where he is left only to reason and dream about life instead of living it.
The Underground Man eventually begins the second part of his notes and starts telling the actual story – a small part of his life, filled with seemingly insignificant events which, however, have the power to change the narrator’s life completely. The main character had been, back then, a low-paid clerk with no real friends but with some acquaintances whom in most cases he had hated. The narrator tells of his encounters with a haughty officer who has insulted him but does not seem to even notice him, of the scandal he caused with some “old friends” from school, who also barely notice him and, finally, of his encounter with Liza, a young prostitute and the first and last person to care about him. Throughout the whole story, the narrator exposes himself as an evil, pusillanimous, proud, conceited and despotic man who is, however, terribly dependent on other people’s opinion of him. He is also a dreamer, constantly imagining himself performing heroic acts and earnestly desiring the lofty things in life. However, in reality, he almost never acts consistently with his dreams and has instead thrust himself into making others respect (and almost worship) him.
The only time in the story when he actually achieves his goal is his night with Liza. Liza, although a confused and desperate prostitute, has a noble, kind and loving personality. Through his fiery speech, the Underground Man convinces her that he is not like the rest of her clients but actually cares about the lofty things in life. Here, although the narrator is again pursuing his selfish purpose, he is finally being sincere, at least partially, in his speech. Liza is captivated by the image of the main character and decides to visit him in his poor and messy residence. Embarrassed by the fact that his guest now sees him as he really is, the Underground Man bursts into a fury of insults to Liza, but he also finally reveals his whole life and personality to her, with all of his moral failures, fears and evils. Here, Liza, turning the motif of “the Redeemed Prostitute” upside down, embraces the main character, expressing her humble acceptance of and redemptive love for him. The narrator, however, eventually comes to grips with himself again and begins to feel shame (because he has revealed his whole soul) and even envy (because now she is the hero) towards Liza and decides to humiliate her once again, only to show that he is in power. After they have sex, with which the Underground Man tries to express an attitude of a client who does not really care, Liza leaves his room but leaves her payment on the table. The Underground Man is shocked by this expression of dignity and tries to find Liza to fall on his knees before her and ask for forgiveness. But he fails even this last chance of salvation for his soul. In the end, it turns out that the narrator is unable to love in the true sense of the word and returns to his usual “life” – the Underground.
In this small masterpiece of psychology and philosophy, Dostoevsky presents the image of the thinking modern man – an image that can still be seen today, the image of a man whose only ability, which he fully utilizes, is his rational ability – he only thinks. Indeed, that alone is worthy of praise, since this man is at least brave enough to accept the deductions and implications of his own views. However, these views, oftentimes accepted without much evidence in their support but through social influence, have led modern man to live a sort of half life – a life lived mostly in dreams and reflections. The Underground Man is afraid to live in reality, to live truly – indeed, it seems that he is unable to. Real life is filled with risks, it is filled with choices, it is filled with actions. As it is evident from the whole story, the main character is in fact able to act but he is afraid to do so, he is afraid to start living with his whole being. He is so attached to the dreamy life, to the isolated reflections on reality (the Underground) that he rejects even his last chance to live fully – he rejects love, the power of life. The reason for that: he has become one with his underground, his peace, dreams and inertia. The tragedy in all of that is… that he fully realizes it.
The Underground Man ends his notes with another philosophical appeal to his imaginary audience, which in real life would probably infuriate his listeners. He no longer justifies himself but simply states what he believes: that we are all like him in many respects, that most of us are also afraid of real life and prefer simply the literary form of life, the theories and ideas but not their applications. The only thing that he is proud of is his realization of those facts, his leading his theories to their logical conclusions. The narrator actually cannot help it and continues to write, but Dostoevsky decides to end the novel, leaving the reader to reflect on the Underground Man’s life on his own.
Nowadays, “Notes from the Underground” is considered to be one of the first, if not the first, existentialist novels. It exercised its influence on the famous existentialist thinkers of later times like Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche. Most importantly however, the ideas and observations presented in the novel are still relevant today, in our modern society. Many of us are still oblivious to the deep existential questions of the meaning and purpose of life and prefer to simply act, aiming at immediate and, oftentimes, irrelevant goals. Many of us who do, however, reflect seriously on life are afraid of real life and prefer to remain inactive, in peace, reflecting. Through his dark and depressing short novel, the genius of Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky, gives a cold negative argument against both mindless living and reflective inertia. It is up to us to use that which defines us as persons – free will, to choose whether we will walk on either of these two paths or on a completely different path, only subtly but significantly mentioned in “Notes from the Underground”, in the character of Liza.