What is an element of Modernism in the novel? How does the element reflect a Modernist viewpoint?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One particular aspect of Modernism that is seen in the text involves the narrator, himself.  The Underground Man is far from the traditional protagonist. It's tough to even call him a "hero" in the traditional sense.  He is an individual who rails against the Status Quo, and yet does not provide a sensible alternative to it.  He mocks and complains and thoroughly drives his point through anger and discontent.  He is complicated and filled with contradictions. For example, he is in pain, and yet does not want to alleviate it.  He believes that pain is the only element that is legitimate and something of his own.  It is for this reason that he says, "My liver hurts?  Let it hurt more?"  The Underground Man indicts the rationalism and the totality that governs Western thought:  "Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms. It's by talking nonsense that one gets to the truth! I talk nonsense, therefore I'm human."  In the Underground Man's rejection of totality, one finds an indictment of Western progress and civilization.

This shift in understanding is Modernist in scope.  Virginia Woolf defined Modernism as a "shift" in consciousness and thought:  "All human relations shifted...and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.”  Although the Underground Man predates Woolf's quote, one can see how Woolf's understanding applies to Dostoyevsky's work.  Notes from Underground is a Modernist narrative because it articulates a shift in being. The shift is one that moves away from totalizing visions of the good. It is a work that expresses a great deal of skepticism and doubt in structures that professed absolutism.  The Underground Man is a Modernist construction because he rejects any notion of harmony and unity. His mere presence is Modernist because it represents a shift towards a world where doubt, questioning, and contingency emerge.  In this shift and in his viewpoint, one sees a Modernist element in the work.

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