Antihero: The Self-Hating Existentialist in Notes From Underground
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground is often considered an early example of existentialism, and a particularly influential one. Although written in the mid-nineteenth century, it easily invites comparison to twentieth-century works such as Albert Camus’s The Stranger and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Certainly, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is comparable to the disaffected heroes of Camus’s and Salinger’s stories. The specific qualities of existentialism that tie the novel to a movement it predates are the lack of meaning in life, an absurdist take on the world, and the isolation of the main character. Upon closer examination, the existentialist elements in Notes From Underground stem from its lead character’s self-hatred. Thus, the Underground Man’s existentialist crisis is created rather than inherited. In creating an existentialist environment for himself, the Underground Man perpetuates his own skewed perspective on “reality.”
The notion of “reality” is perhaps the most intrinsic to existentialism. In this school of thought, humans simply exist. Any meaning that existence takes on is simply an attempt by people to create significance where none is or can be. The pursuit of any kind of meaning is absurd. In other people’s reliance on order, structure, and especially religion, the existentialist sees a willful self-delusion. People look for happiness in government, money, family, and religion. For the existentialist, these are merely structures created by humankind to brainwash itself into a kind of forced sense of fulfillment.
In Dostoevsky’s novel, the Underground Man finds himself in a unique, if hypocritical, position. On one hand, he clearly despises the people and the world around him. His work as a civil servant is just one of many kinds of suffering, and he loathes his coworkers. From another perspective, however, the Underground Man defines himself by his opposition to these people and institutions. If not for them, to whom or what could he direct his vitriol? The Underground Man must create a “reality” where he is in opposition to the world to find some kind of reason for his self-hatred. In doing so, he is breaking the very existentialist tenets he professes to uphold. The Underground Man may be mocking others’ false realities, but in doing so, he has created one of his own.
To reinforce this skewed reality, Dostoevsky uses a number of structural tools. First and most importantly, the story is told from the Underground Man’s perspective. Like The Stranger’s Meursault and The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, the Underground Man is our sole window into this world. As a result, we only get his skewed take on the “reality” in which he lives. Key to this reality is the Man’s status as “underground.” He identifies himself as underground for two main reasons. First, it establishes him as an outsider, and although this status is the source of much misery, it is essential for the reality he has created for himself. Second, it hints at the notion of revolution: there might be other Undergrounders out there waiting to unite against the oppression of their everyday lives. Ironically, the Underground Man is too apathetic to seek out other Undergrounders, creating further dissatisfaction in himself.
What also makes his narration unique is its almost Brechtian sense of distance. The Underground Man frequently interrupts himself to editorialize upon his thoughts and actions. At one point, when lamenting his conflicts with Liza, he admits that he was going to lie but instead stopped himself....
(The entire section is 1489 words.)