Notes From Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Discuss the brutal attack which Dostoevsky unleashes on the misplaced utopian ideals of the Western civilizations in Notes from Underground.

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Notes from Underground is an 1864 novella by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881). It was written during a dark period in the author's life, as his wife was dying and he was in financial distress. It is a highly unconventional work and sometimes considered the first existentialist novel. In some ways, it challenges assumptions about the nature of the novel as much as about society.

The novella is written from the first-person point of view of a nameless, unhappy, angry, and unreliable narrator. It lacks a conventional plot structure of conflict and resolution and instead is closer to the long rambling monologue. Also, the narrator is a deeply unsympathetic character, unlike the traditional viewpoint characters of novels who are sympathetic and reliable. The character of the narrator and his unreliability are made apparent in the opening of the text:

I am a sick man. ... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.

This type of narrator and plot structure undermines the optimistic narrative of the traditional plot structure which suggests that a basically likable character overcomes conflict and adversity to achieve a happy ending. The narrator of this work undermines our assumption of the fundamental goodness of human nature, and the lack of happy ending subverts the notion of progress and that of a benevolent God who makes things work out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Instead, the world is seen as bleak and brutal and the optimistic narrative of progress and prosperity seen as mere hypocrisy, covering up deep seated alienation. Modern life itself is seen as a sort of sickness of which the narrator is a symptom, and the lack of resolution of the novella suggests that there is no cure.

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