'Notes From Underground' Discussion
(I promised to start the discussion by the end of this week, so here goes. If you haven't finished the book yet, I hope this post will help make it more understandable as you read.)
Since Notes From Underground is set in 19th century Tsarist Russia, some readers may wonder if it has any relevence to modern life.
I think it does and I will show this by relating the narrator to a few characters of modern fiction.
The book begins with the narrator saying: "I am a sick man...I believe my liver is diseased."
The opening reminded me very much of Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver when he said he believed he had stomach cancer.
Both characters feel diseased, but they view society in somewhat different ways. Bickle hopes for a magical rain to clean the human scum off the streets and he ends up trying to do it himself in a psychopathic rage. The narrator of Notes feels impotent to change any of the things he hates -- not even himself. In that respect he is similar to Holden Caulfield, the main character in The Catcher In The Rye by J. D. Salinger.
Like Catcher, Dostoevsky's novella is essentially a rant against the emptiness of modern life -- social conformity, phony behavior, education without meaning, the suffocating effects of bureaucracy, etc.
The narrator also shares similarities with the main character in Franz Kafka's story "Metamorphosis." He sees himself as a sort of human bug in the dung pile of society.
Notes belongs to the tradition of nihilist literature which includes authors as seemingly diverse as Omar Khyyam, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Chuck Palahniuk. Nihilism is the philosophical conviction that social institutions are a lie and/or hypocrisy and that life is essentially meaningless.
Under the influence of nihilism, the intellectual withdraws into a kind of subterranean realm. He lives mostly inside his head and this makes him sick.
Meeting the waifish young Liza is the turning point in the plot of Notes. The narrator feels sorry for her, but at the same time he can't resist tormenting her out of spite. He dreams he is in love with her, but he knows he is incapable of real love. "Even in my underground dreams I did not imagine love except as a struggle," he remarks.
In the end the narrator describes himself as an anti-hero in the story he has told, a new type of man who is becoming common. He is over-educated, alienated, angry and emotionally stunted.
He writes: "We are oppressed at being men -- men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea."
This passage seems prophetically aimed at the socialist ideal man in the coming Russian revolution, which Dostoevsky rejected as inhuman.
Consider these questions and post your comments about them:
Should the narrator be dismissed as a "whiner" or does he make some valid points about modern life?
Why does he sometimes vacillate between self-loathing and egotism?
Why is he particularly critical of self-consciousness and intellectualism?
What does Liza symbolize to him?
Why is he incapable of loving her?
Does Notes From Underground remind you of any other fiction book you have read? If so, which one?
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa