Supporting Modernist Narrative in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

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Notes from underground, one of the most influential works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, was written during a time when Russia was in a great economic and social upheaval, and the influence of science was on the rise (Williams, 129). Dostoevsky was not only affected by the social injustice in his country, but his own life too was in shambles, including his own near death experience. During his exile, he becomes convinced that humans were not only capable of being rational but also irrational and there was more to humankind than just reason and enlightenment. These factors resulted in him creating a disordered and unstable world comprising of the “spiteful” and “sick” unnamed narrator of the novel.

Dostoevsky’s protagonist is shown to be a peculiar man who introduces himself as someone who has been living “under the floorboards” for many years now, devoid of any human contact. Though, underground man is presented as someone who is honest, intelligent and logical, Dostoevsky also displays his unstable, irrational and whimsical side, which seems to be a direct product of social circumstances. This irrational man has been forced into a rational world, driven by science, which conflict his natural inclinations. Through this character, Dostoevsky seems to criticize Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “highly didactic and naively optimistic” work What is to be Done? (Barstow, 24). Chernyshevsky believed that society can be improved and reach to an utopic state through enlightened self-interest combined with scientific methods. But, in contrast, the underground man refuses to believe that men will ever become “good” or “reasonable” (p. 35). According to him, science can never explain a human’s desire and free will, nor can it achieve the utopian existence as symbolized by “crystal palace”, which is considered to be the first modern building. For underground man it represents reason, logic and progress of civilization, which he out rightly opposes and believed that if humans behaved only according to reason and lived in perfect structures, they will just be reduced to being an “organ stop” and will have no control over their own actions as they, then will be predetermined for them and will be listed in tables of actions (p. 31).

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Furthermore, he also believed that “civilization has made mankind if not more bloodthirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty” (p. 28), and to prove his point, his give examples of various wars and military conflict that has happened since and thinks that civilization has only helped in producing “a variety of sensations—and absolutely nothing more” (p. 27). Here, underground man reflects on human beings’ tendency to destroy and this urge for destruction, according to him, arises because man is “instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing” (p. 38). This goal that humans are trying to achieve is none other than the formula “twice two makes four” which like crystal palace symbolizes the repressive rationality and is beginning of death as it deprives an individual of free will. In his critique of scientific rationalism and systemized view of human nature, through the character of Underground Man, Dostoevsky almost seems to predict the deplorable conditions of twentieth century (Conradi, 126).

Dostoevsky’s “modern hero” or “anti-hero” represents a “new literary type, a semi intellectual who is spiritually homeless and socially a misfit” (Nisly, 157). The underground man seems to exercise a perplexing duality wherein the readers can see a constant conflict, as he continuously contradicts himself. He is someone who is acutely aware of his own consciousness and firmly believes that “every sort of consciousness, in fact, is a disease” (p. 9). Being a victim of his own personality, underground man can neither control or change things around him, and thus seems to be stuck in state of a compete “inertia” and can never decide on a course of action. Though, this state of inactivity is not because of laziness, underground man wishes he was a “sluggard”, but, sadly, because of his over thinking he cannot settle on a fixed identity for himself.

The underground man seems to shares an ambivalent relation with the society and it remains unclear whether the society has rejected him or he has rejected society. At times he shows a clear disdain towards people and says, “In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped” (p. 33). But, other times, he seems to be envious of these “rational” people and wishes that he, too could function normally in a society, like other “intellectual” men. The narrator seems to always mock and critique the society and openly displays his anger and discontent with the modern world and its rational people. Because of his hyperconsciousness, Underground Man suffers and it almost seems to even give him a purpose to live (Barstow, 28), as he remarks, “Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact” (p. 39). But, in spite of having this pleasure in life, he remains isolated and socially alienated, realizing that he himself is nothing, and “could not even become an insect” (p. 9).

Dostoevsky’s work becomes a modernist narrative as it rejects the optimism and articulates a shift in being. It is greatly skeptic of the unstable world around and rejects notions of harmony and stability and his presence represents a shift towards a world full of uncertainty and indeterminacy. Through the character of Underground Man, Dostoevsky “provides us with a modern map of the unconscious itself, in a devastating portrait anonymous enough to sit in for us all” (Conradi, 41). His work almost seems to “prophecy” this age of modernity, that West faces in twentieth century wherein science replaces God (Conradi, 126).

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