Notes from the Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Student Question

What defines the character of the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground and what shaped him?

Quick answer:

The Underground Man’s character and self is defined by his avowed honesty, extreme self-loathing, and alienation from society in Notes from the Underground. His current condition has resulted from the inability to escape from his assigned status in the hierarchical Russian society of his day, along with frustration stemming from domination and humiliation by powerful people.

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As the narrator, the unnamed Underground Man provides the primary insights into his character. He claims to be an honest person who is incapable of offering anything but an honest account of his current situation. In his stated commitment to debauchery, the reader sees him trying and failing to assert his own domination over others; these futile efforts serve to emphasize the depth of his self-loathing. Overall, his individual self is always positioned in opposition to dominant values. In this regard, he is characterized by alienation from society.

The reader gradually learns that he has become bitter and morose because he feels trapped. He begrudgingly accepts that it is impossible for him to advance socially. Because Russian society in that time was so rigid and hierarchical, he is bounded into his assigned status. While he claims to accept this fatalistic assessment, he also reveals the combination of envy and frustration he experiences from having his efforts rebuffed. More powerful people do not hesitate to dominate and humiliate him. His conflicted attitude toward these negative experiences is summed up in his assessment of Zherkov, a wealthy land-owner and military officer. The underground man both despises and envies him for being powerful, bold, and handsome.

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