In Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevski creates a character—the “underground man”—who is crucial not only to Dostoevski’s own best fiction but also to the whole of nineteenth and twentieth century literature. Indeed, some critics even date the beginning of modern literature from the publication of this short novel and identify the underground man as the archetypal modern antihero. At the very least, Notes from the Underground can be seen as the prologue to the five great novels that climaxed Dostoevski’s career: Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887), Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913), Podrostok (1875; A Raw Youth, 1916), and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912).
Some scholars and critics, however, have argued that Notes from the Underground is actually not a novel at all: The first part is too fragmentary and incoherent, the second is too short and arbitrary, and the relationship between the two is too unclear to allow the work that formal designation. In fact, the form and style of Notes from the Underground are as radical as its content and fuse perfectly to produce an organic, if unorthodox, work of art.
The first part (titled “Underground”) presents the underground man’s philosophy; the second part (“Apropos of Wet Snow”) recounts a series of early experiences that explain theorigins of that worldview while suggesting a possible alternative to it. Without part 2, part 1 is little more than the bitter rantings of a semihysterical social misfit; without part 1, part 2 is only the pathetic narrative of a petty, self-destructive neurotic. Together, however, the two parts combine into a powerful statement about the nature and situation of humanity in the nineteenth century and after.
In the first sentence of the book, the underground man states that he is sick, but he later defines that sickness as “acute consciousness”—a malady characteristic of the sensitive modern individual. This consciousness has made the narrator aware of the contradictions in his own behavior and the consequent impossibility of his acting forcefully and meaningfully in his society. He feels superior to his fellows, yet he knows he is incapable of dealing with them. He despises them, yet he obsessively wants their acceptance and approval. He acts spitefully toward them, yet he feels personally insulted when they ignore or berate him. He asserts his need for dignity and then forces himself into situations that can only end in his humiliation. The narrator is not the first Dostoevskian character to have such contradictory, self-defeating qualities, but he is the first to be aware of them and their sources, and so he represents a significant development in the novelist’s career.
Even the underground man’s attitude toward his own pain and humiliation is ambivalent. He does not actually enjoy his sufferings, and yet he takes satisfaction in them because they make him conscious of himself and give him a feeling of...
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