The Underground Man: A Literary Archetype Analysis

The Issue

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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.

The Invention of a Tradition

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That Dostoevski was inventing, rather than simply continuing, a literary tradition is suggested by the author’s note referring to the underground man as a “representative of the current generation.” The complex and contradictory nature of Dostoevski’s underground man, however, bears traces of his antecedents. In his humble status, he resembles Nikolai Gogol’s civil servant in his overcoat. The underground man’s inertia recalls that of Ivan Turgenev’s superfluous man. Although the underground man pokes fun at the romantic hero, his sensitivity and subjectivism can be traced to the romantics. He resembles the alienated heroes of Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov.

Dostoevski’s underground man finds a target for passionate scorn in Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s Chto delat’? (1863; What Is to Be Done?, c. 1863). Chernyshevsky’s view of humanity is a product of the rationalist culture—the aboveground culture. According to Chernyshevsky, human nature is defined in terms of “laws of nature,” which are really laws of rationalism or laws of modern technology. Chernyshevsky’s argument, therefore, is that humanity lives in obedience to rational laws. What humanity needs to do is acknowledge these laws; to do so leads automatically to one’s seeking enlightened self-interest and becoming a happy member of society. A utopia consisting of such happy people is thus proposed.

In his rebuttal, the underground man argues that reason only satisfies one’s rational faculty. The will, however, is manifestation of all life; the will includes reason and all impulses. On this basis—that there are larger forces at work in the human psyche than the rational—the underground man mocks the superficiality of Chernyshevsky’s mechanical formulas. Although the underground man reasons, he reasons too much, and his reasoning is an important factor in his remaining underground. The underground man concludes that the human being is not a piano key; that is, rational rules, which explain the workings of a piano key, do not explain a human being, who can be contrary, who can make no sound when played. Also, reason does little to explain why piano keys exist or why music is made. The underground man sees no purpose or significance in his actions, so his actions tend to be capricious and absurd.

Underground Man in Twentieth Century Continental Literature

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Literature produces no carbon copy of an original. Likewise, twentieth century underground characters rarely have all the traits of Dostoevski’s underground man. Before World War I, underground man appears as a social rebel challenging conventional morality. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (serial, 1899; 1902), he is Kurtz, whose exile into the African jungle signifies a revolt against the missionary zeal of nineteenth century imperialism. He is Michel in André Gide’s L’Immoraliste (1902, The Immoralist, 1930) and Gustav in Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925) whose bold espousal of homosexuality epitomizes their revolt.

After World War I, disillusionment with the controlling forces in society led to a proliferation of literary characters whose underground consciousness is marked by an acute sense of alienation from God, country, and society. Harry Haller, in Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf (1927, Steppenwolf, 1929), is turned into a wolf of the desolate steppes when war shatters the Germany of his youth. As Haller experiences discontent with the human condition, including his own, he doubts himself into a corner, as does Dostoevski’s underground man. The “wolf” (desires) and the “man” (reason) in him become irreconcilable. A latent mysticism in him, manifested in a mysterious treatise, eventually allows him to affirm the many facets of his...

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Underground Man in Twentieth Century American Literature

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Underground protagonists in American literature resemble Dostoevski’s original prototype and parallel the literary evolution of underground man in continental literature. In the period after World War I, Ernest Hemingway created Jake Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises (1926), who is rendered impotent in battle and is denied love and family. Barnes chooses exile as his underground. William Faulkner, on the other hand, hears echoes of the American Civil War continuing in the human heart. In Light in August (1932), he portrays an underground man in Joe Christmas, who being of mixed racial background is not both but neither black nor white. Christmas is ostracized from the community. Christmas leads an underground existence in defiance of the cultural code of race.

The underground man is central to African American literature. Underground characters appear in Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground,” a short story in Eight Men (1961), in Wright’s The Outsider (1953) and in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). These protagonists clearly register their authors’ rebellion against society’s efforts to confine and constrain African Americans. Wright and Ellison turn these characters’ lives and thinking into discussions about the meaning of identity, the source of values, and the possibility of action in an ethical vacuum. The underground man has the qualities of a social outcast, an anguished existentialist, and an enlightened but frustrated individual seeking affirmation. The underground man is also portrayed in a formal structure—first person narration with an emphasis on the character’s mental life—closely resembling that of Notes from the Underground.

“The Man Who Lived Underground” tells the story of a black man, Fred Daniel, forced to hide in the sewers of a city because he is accused of a murder he did not commit. From his home in the literal and figurative underground,...

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Suggested Readings

Abood, Edward F. Underground Man. San Francisco: Chandler, 1973. A primary study of the archetype.

Barrent, William. Irrational Man. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958. A lucid examination of existentialist themes, including a discussion of underground man