Notes From Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky
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Describe the poor treatment of women in Notes From Underground (social, physical, or emotional) and how it reflects a romantic or realistic approach. Do they fight back?

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When it comes to the theme of women in society, Notes from the Underground predominantly focuses on the women of the lowest ring on the social ladder: prostitutes. By the nature of their profession, prostitutes were considered morally unclean by polite society. By the time they were no longer young and beautiful, they were deemed worthless and unemployable unless they came to run a brothel themselves. In Notes from the Underground, the desperate situation these women found themselves in is made clear by the character of Liza.

Liza is the one significant female character in the story, and she is in a far worse place than the Underground Man. Circumstances have forced her into prostitution, yet she remains a romantic at heart. This romanticism links her with the Underground Man, who views himself as a Romantic hero. In most early Romantic novels, women were often damsels in need of rescue from predatory men. In a similar vein, Liza longs for someone to come and rescue her from her miserable life. However, the novel's realistic style also makes it clear that her romanticism comes from naivete and ignorance rather than from sophisticated understanding. At least, this is the case at first.

Liza's "fighting back" comes in the form of her attitude when the Underground Man reveals he never truly cared about her. He humiliates and insults her to her face. Yet Liza reacts to all of this with dignity. She comforts the Underground Man when he has a breakdown and then refuses the money he offers her. In this realistic novel that largely rejects the romantic vision of life, Liza does come to embody some of the traits of the Romantic hero that the Underground Man certainly does not: she is empathetic, strong, and honorable even in the face of absolute squalor. The pain of life and the lowliness of her position does not prevent her from trying to reach out or connect with others, as it does with the Underground Man.

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