Notes from the Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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How is Notes from the Underground an existentialist novel?

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Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1864 novel Notes From the Underground can easily be viewed through an existentialist lens. A clear definition of existentialism is difficult to pin down. Such a diverse variety of thinkers with conflicting views are lumped into the category of “existentialist” that the term requires a common definition before moving forward with a response!

Existentialism emphasizes the individual human’s existence and free will. Most existentialists reject religion and argue that no deities inhabit our universe. As a result, meaning for humanity is self-derived rather than imposed by God. In some ways, it is ironic that Dostoevsky is often categorized in this manner because he was NOT an adherent to existentialism. As a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, Dostoevsky feared the societal and individual consequences of the rising popularity of proto-existentialists.

Dostoevsky’s novel Notes From the Underground does not promote existentialism. Instead, Dostoevsky uses his stories to warn about the dangers of this philosophy. The results aren’t pretty!

The unnamed narrator and protagonist of Notes From the Underground is a sadistic, bitter former civil servant who lives an isolated life in St. Petersburg. Delivering his narrative in a rambling journal, the “underground man” struggles to understand his position in the world and communicate his belief-systems in part 1 of the book. The narrator writes that

the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!

The “underground man” is adamant that he creates his meaning. He does not want to be a part of a whole—he wants the free will of an individual to shape his own existence! He resents the forces that impede him in this endeavor but struggles to control his wild impulses. Although others may not comprehend his motives or actions, the “underground man” firmly believes in himself, and this is all that matters to him. The narrator’s behavior and beliefs in Notes From the Underground tie directly to existentialism for this reason. I hope this helps!

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The two main attributes of the Underground Man are his self loathing, which extends to everything and everyone around him, and his belief in free will, in that his greatest pleasures derive from acting exactly as he wishes, regardless of social expectations. This leads him, for example, to take pleasure from his toothaches precisely because he will not go to a dentist like other people. At the same time, he recognizes the uselessness of such decisions, which in turn reinforces his sense of self loathing, and his determination to act independently. He is, in short, rendered inert by this psychological double bind he has constructed for himself.

This is existential in the sense that the Underground Man's plight is a function of human nature, or the business of being a living human. That is, he feels helpless to raise himself out of this cycle, yet at the same time is aware of the absurdity of his situation and devotes almost all his energy to its contemplation.

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I think that Dostoevsky's work is considered an existentialist work because it openly declares that there is little in way of transcendent totality in human  consciousness.  Dostoevsky's "underground man" is the existentialist protagonist.  He exists, without any sort of sanctuary and refuge from the pain and agony that exists consciousness.  His predicament and the manner in which he is depicted fulfills many of the conditions of existentialism.  The lack of faith in God or religious exploration is one such way in which the protagonist, the "angry man," is an existentialist character.  Little in him represents the idea that there is an external and transcendent end capable of achievement in consciousness.  There is freedom in the life of the angry man, another tenet of existentialism.  The freedom to live one's life and actually live in a state of perpetual hurt and resentment is another condition present in the novel that is akin to existentialist ideas.  This helps to bring to light the idea that there is a search for meaning and identity which is a part of the existentialist ideas as well as the angry man's condition in the world, one in which there is little in way of solidity, and one where there is constant flux and change.

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