Commentary by Karen Bernardo
It is ironic that the unnamed hero of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” considers himself to be the quintessential man, given the fact that he is unremittingly alienated from the world around him. (While the word translated here as “Underground” actually means “floorboards,” Dostoevsky is referring neither to a basement nor a subway, but the submersion of the protagonist’s own soul.)
Fiercely individualistic, our hero is a man utterly without optimism or joy; nonetheless, he assures us, he does have self-respect. Early in the novella, he goes into a billiard hall because he watched someone getting thrown out of the window there, and he is so desperate for human contact that even that looks like fun. He is somewhat disappointed that not only does no one throw him out a window, but no one even particularly notices him. Finally an officer, whom our hero has often seen on the street, strides toward him, trying to pass by. Instead of saying, “Excuse me,” which at least would have acknowledged our hero’s right to be there, the officer grasps him by the shoulders and moves him out of his path.
It is a trifling incident, but not to our hero. He spends a considerable amount of time—weeks, possibly months—plotting a suitable revenge. The revenge he finally devises is to dress up in a beaver collar and carefully-chosen black leather gloves so that he looks like a fine gentleman, purposely cross paths with the officer again, and refuse to budge. This simple plan becomes incredibly involved in its execution, but when it finally comes off, our hero realizes that he has actually been happy; “I was triumphant, and sang Italian arias.”
Later in the novella our hero momentarily breaks out of his isolation to have dinner with his former schoolfellows. It is noteworthy that our hero invited himself and knows it, just as he knows he doesn’t even like these men, nor they him. One of the men gives him the wrong time to meet, which keeps our hero waiting for over an hour. Initially, when they do arrive, two of the men agree that the time confusion was an unpardonable oversight (if oversight it was); in short, they attempt to be amenable to him. And yet our hero is the one who starts the argument over dinner. The most significant line of the episode is spoken by one of the diners, Zverkov, whom our hero mentions having just insulted. Again, the appropriate response would have been, “Oh, that’s all right.” Instead, Zverkov feigns surprise. “Insulted? You insulted me? Understand, sir, that you never, under any circumstances, could possibly insult me.”
Why could the protagonist never insult Zverkov? For the same reason that one cannot be insulted by a dog; one has to consider oneself at least approximately on the same evolutionary plane for the insult to have any meaning at all. There has to be a kind of equivalency, at least to the extent that each party recognizes the other as functionaries of the same world; from that point on, they are merely fighting for position on the pecking order within it. Dostoevsky’s protagonist, however, fights a losing battle because he is simply too far outside the pale of his culture’s social structure. Our hero simply does not exist for Zverkov at all.
When our hero finally has his existence validated by the prostitute Liza, it is too much of a shock to his system. “I [became] insufferably oppressed by her being here. I wanted her to disappear. I wanted peace, to be left alone in my underground world. Real life oppressed me with its novelty so much that I could scarcely breathe.” He had a real chance here but he throws it away, largely because in his need to prove to himself that he exists, he does not allow the full reality of anyone else to exist either.
The story as a whole seems irrational, or rather, the universe in which it takes place seems irrational—yet the protagonist accepts this world and actually perpetuates its irrationality. His abhorrence of rationality is reflected in his inability to tell his readers the truth; on the contrary, he keeps assuring us that whatever he’s just written is a lie, written for “spite.” And yet flashes of his protean truth come through brilliantly. Dostoevsky’s protagonist can see beauty, but cannot grasp it; he tells us “The more conscious I was of goodness, and of all that was ‘lofty and beautiful’, the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether.” At first he feels this is some form of “disease or depravity,” but as time goes on without any relief or improvement, he begins to accept his depression as “my most normal condition.” In fact, he adds, he enjoys it, noting that “in despair there are the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is very acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one’s position.” He prefers his own depression, which is uniquely his, to the cheerful optimism of the masses. But is this unremitting darkness, nonetheless, too much to bear? What, in the end, is the point? Dostoevsky does not give us an answer in this cheerless tale.
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