Notes From Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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What is the role of "romanticism" in the life of Dostoevsky's Underground Man?

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The Underground Man fancies himself a Romantic figure. Like many a Byronic hero, he is a loner and feels misunderstood. He cannot fully connect with the greater society as he is an outcast. He also sees himself as a potential savior for the young prostitute Liza, since he feels he is sensitive enough to understand and rescue her.

However, this is all a self-indulgent lie. The Underground Man's alienation has many causes, but a large one (maybe the largest of them all) is his disdain for other people. He views others with contempt, even Liza, who he claims to so pity. His self-loathing also prevents him from truly loving anyone else.

While the Underground Man might compare himself to the lonely creature in Mary Shelley's Romantic masterpiece Frankenstein, he has largely shut others out due to his own inner ugliness. He rejects finer feelings and emotions and seems to have a view of life which rejects many Romantic ideals, such as the sublime. He has no sense of wonder for anything and values nothing more than himself—the opposite of a a Romantic.

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The most dominant examples of Romanticism in the life of the Underground Man is evident in his interactions with Liza.  The poet recognizes that when he projects his sense of self into the world, he does so with a Romantic vision of the good. The idea of the solitary artist or thinker triumphing over a society that is deemed either inferior to him or unable to understand him is something that exists inside him.  To a great extent, the narrator understands that this is nothing more than a nonsensical sense of Romanticism.  In Part II, he even suggests that Romanticism creates "fools," but like so much with the Underground Man, we understand his contradiction and recognize that while he might repel it in one sense, he cannot help but capitulate it in another.  It is here where he assumes his greatest stance of Romanticism, as the poet who rescues a prostitute.  The Underground Man is motivated by a purely Romantic sense of self in his desire to help Liza.  This is the Romanticism that convinces him that his words are right, he is superior to her, and she is inferior to him.  This is a strictly Romantic sensibility where he is able to swoop in on his "steed" and rescue the fair maiden.

Yet, it is in this very story that the Underground Man is shown to be a fraud.  The prostitute actually comes to save him, as she does not conform to the expectation and world around her.  She assumes a morally transcendent quality that is of greater spiritual redemptive quality than anything the Underground Man can muster.  To this end, he is humiliated and can do nothing but establish some semblance of power through loveless sex and money, proving that he is both inferior to her and his Romanticism is nothing more but pure bunk.  It is for this reason that the ending of the book is one that indicts Romanticism and other movements that seek to create individuals who emulate modes of thought.  In this, the Underground Man argues that human emotions become contrived and there is little sincerity present for everything is reproduced to be akin to what is in books, suggesting that this becomes the horrific birth-parents of people as opposed to real human beings.  In this, there is a fairly stinging rebuke of Romanticism, with little hope of developing anything legitimate to replace it.

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