In reading “Notes From Underground” the author of this essay found himself in not unfamiliar territory, as he had read previously Dostoevsky’s most familiar and enduring works: “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot,” “The Brothers K-,” and a few others. He was used to, and expecting, characters on the margins of society, desperate men and desperate women, themes of Christian redemption and an acknowledgement of the inability to find true and meaningful solitude amid a bustling city atmosphere. These elements are all present in “Notes From Underground,” but what stands out the most is the idea of having an awareness so acute and possessive as to render its host numb and completely deficit of social norms, a self-fixation so intoxicating that it wards all others away.
In, the “Notes,” the author’s manic obsession with himself most interestingly reflects Dostoevsky writing in a strain that makes the artist less removed from his own work, that instead of writing a foreign city, Dostoevsky is writing a neighboring house, or even his own house. The degree of separation between Dostoevsky’s famed cognition and that of his subject is greatly shortened from previous attempts at psychological fiction, a burgeoning specialty of his time. Like Nietzsche, for example, Dostoevsky was interested in consciousness, trains of thought, meta-thinking, but all under the idea of an awe, wary-ness, revulsion, and somewhat Luddite reaction to the dangerous new possibilities of the philosophical and psychological climes of 19th century Europe.
Dostoevsky’s own insistence that man needed religion and more specifically Jesus, is itself a reaction to the new trends of morality he never could keep in check. For a culture that tends to look rearward for what is true, what is good, Dostoevsky stands out as an example of the idea that novelty is not to be immediately trusted, and only after consideration and thought are we to accept what the world, the new world, has to offer us.
“Crime and Punishment,” published immediately after in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre also featured a character manically obsessed with himself in Raskolnikov. The haunting and congested city atmosphere plays the backdrop in a novel where thoughts seem to tangle upon themselves like the names of streets. “Crime and Punishment” is rightly placed alongside “The Brothers Karamazov” as among the greatest novels of all time, but it does not mark the first time Dostoevsky used a protagonist with Raskolnikovian traits.
One of the main scenes in “Notes From Underground” revolves around a dinner party thrown for an old friend of the narrator in his pseudo-autobiographical novella within a novel, “Apropos of the Wet Snow.” The Underground Man is given a chance to attend, though he was then, as he is now, very socially awkward and aloof. His inability to conform makes him into somewhat a pariah; as his former schoolboy friends go around toasting their guest of honor, the Underground Man secretly wonders why he isn’t getting attention for himself or his ideas. When his school chums laugh at his meager salary, he hardly seems concerned, however, because that is a worldly concern and the Underground Man is only concerned with his thoughts and ideas.
“Notes From Underground” strikes this kind of chord with readers who find themselves aso questioning the legitimacy and homogeny of normalness, among those who poke fun at hypocrisy and received beliefs. What could the place of faith be amidst this kind of backdrop? Faith especially is something that is typically handed down through generations, something that is at once feared and never questioned. In this and other of his book, Dostoevsky seemed to be looking backward for inspiration in his ideas of what faith meant to a thoroughly moral and honest existentialist.
By Matthew C. Brock