Notes From Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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What does Notes from Underground reveal about human need and dignity?

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In Notes from Underground, a connection between human need and human dignity is revealed by the interactions between Liza and the Underground Man. Both characters have a need for love, but the Underground Man does not recognize Liza's dignity. Liza demonstrates this dignity when she refuses to accept payment from the Underground Man and feels pity toward him, showing that real dignity comes from the ability to love rather than from one's intellect or station in life.

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The subplot with Liza, the young woman forced into prostitution, illustrates a great deal about human need and human dignity in Notes from Underground. She and the Underground Man serve as doubles in several ways: both are unhappy with their lives and desperately lonely. Above everything, both wish to be loved. Liza dreams of romantic love (she clings to the memory of a former suitor who did not know of her profession) and finding someone who will save her from having to sell herself. The Underground Man, raised as an orphan and only able to find satisfactory human relationships in novels, dreams of making a real connection with someone else as well. So human need translates to the desire to find a person who will assuage loneliness, to find a family or soulmate.

How does human need connect to the idea of human dignity in this novel, then? Dostoyevsky seems to suggest that humans need love above all, but his definition of love differs from the Underground Man's: the Underground Man wants to dominate Liza, still seeing her as inferior to him despite his pity for her situation. He does not see her as a human being with inherent dignity; Dostoyevsky shows that she is just that through her actions after she comes to the Underground Man's apartment at his invitation, only to be spurned and humiliated by him.

Ironically, Liza shows more dignity than the Underground Man does during this scene. She recovers from her self-loathing enough to see through the Underground Man's humiliating remarks to her and leave his hateful presence with her head held high. Her sufferings have made her compassionate. She is able to pity even the Underground Man, who, while having a better lot in life than she does, is far more twisted in his inability to truly connect with other people or even foster compassion for himself. Her refusal to take the payment from the Underground Man is the best showcase of her inner dignity. Here, Dostoyevsky is suggesting that dignity does not come from intellectual ability or class placement, but from the ability to love others and retain both self-respect and compassion in the face of humiliation. Liza achieves this despite her lowly station; the Underground Man does not.

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