The term “underground man” refers to a condition of being unnoticed, marginalized, self-effacing, and to an extent antisocial. The defining feature of the underground man is his paradoxical nature. The underground man’s “hyperconsciousness” (Fyodor Dostoevski’s word) results from his intelligence and sensitivity on one hand and his pathological fear of action on the other. The dissociation of action from consciousness makes the underground man a skeptic, paralyzed by his overanalysis of everything in his life. The underground man is generally a rebel against the prevalent norms of his society and the forces that perpetuate those norms in the name of nation, morality, and religion. The underground man questions not only the scientific and rational views ostensibly favored by the elites but also the popular concepts of God and tradition. Alienated, rejected, or both, the underground man is often a neurotic, disgusted with imperfections in himself and in the world. At heart the underground man is a frustrated idealist. He avoids commitment to pursue an individual freedom but, ironically, often finds the burdens of freedom hard to bear.
In twentieth century literature, Dostoevski’s underground man finds a multitude of famous descendants. These characters are also known as the marginalized character, the steppenwolf, the absurd man, the existentialist, and the invisible man. Although protagonists in the tradition differ in the reasons why they go underground and in the specific contents of their underground consciousness, they nevertheless can be grouped together.
Whether there are underground women is debatable. Certainly many feminist portrayals of women feature an underground consciousness rebelling against sexist norms. The predominant comparable character in feminist writings, however, is a madwoman in the attic, someone who is locked up or otherwise silenced. This character conveys a different message: in a patriarchal culture, a woman’s consciousness is not even permitted articulation. One may make a case, however, that such characters as the protagonists of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) or Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972), for example, may be considered underground women.