In Notes from Underground Fyodor Dostoevsky presents the life of an individual living in the underground condition. Dostoevsky notes on the first page that the notes and the narrator are fictional. However, he also states that the narrator is “one representative of a generation that is still living out its life” (Dostoevsky 1). Dostoevsky then states that the narrator will introduce himself and “elucidate the reasons why he appeared and had to appear among us” (Dostoevsky 1). The narrator then represents the underground condition. A consideration of the narrator will show that the underground condition refers to a person defined by rejection and alienation, loneliness, a life based on fantasy, and anger and spite. Each of these aspects of the underground life will now be considered, with a focus on showing how these aspects define the person’s life and on showing why the underground man acts the way he does.
The “underground condition” is associated with being disconnected, alienated, and rejected. The narrator explains that he is an orphan and that his relatives sent him away to school because they did not love him. At school, he was teased and hated by his peers. The narrator’s life then has been based on a series of rejections. This rejection in early life has had a significant impact on the narrator’s adult life. While in adulthood he should be able to gain control and seek acceptance, he finds himself unable to do so. The narrator has come to view himself as a rejected individual. This assumption then defines all his new relationships. In response, he acts in ways that cause him to be rejected from others. This is seen in his relationships with his workmates, with the people he meets at work, and his relationship with Liza. This is even seen in the way he writes the book, where he manages to isolate the reader. For example, at the start of the book he tells the reader that he was wicked official. He then says that he was not a wicked official and just lied out of his own wickedness. Later in the novel, the narrator loses the sense of spite for a short time and adds a touch of humor. He then follows this immediately with a denial that he is trying to be amusing. As the narrator states, “You no doubt think, gentlemen, that I want to make you laugh? Here, too, you’re mistaken” (Dostoevsky 5). This is an example of the narrator’s ability to isolate everyone he comes into contact with. He manages to engage and interest the reader for a moment, but then immediately goads the reader by telling them what they are thinking and then telling them that they are wrong. The narrator even speaks directly to the reader saying “and I already feel you are irritated” and later says that he will tell his story “whether you do or do not wish to hear it” (Dostoevsky 6). This shows that the narrator acts in a way that purposely tries to repel and cause the reader to dislike him. This shows that the narrator was once rejected due to circumstances, but now causes his own rejection. In considering why the narrator acts this way, it seems that his earlier rejection has made him feel alienated and disconnected. He finds himself unable to connect with people, with his resulting feelings of alienation leading to an even greater sense of disconnection. He reacts to this out of spite, which worsens the situation. In the end, the underground condition is about being locked in a cycle of disconnection, alienation, and rejection.
Another part of the underground condition is loneliness, with this closely linked to the way the narrator feels alienated. First, it must be noted that the narrator is largely alone. He does not interact with others. It must also be noted that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. The state of loneliness means that a person is not just alone, but feels pain because they are alone. The narrator suggests that he does not mind being alone, but his actions show otherwise. This is seen by the way that he visits his boss every Tuesday. He is always ignored on these visits, but just the fact that he continues to go shows that he is trying to make a connection to another person. Another example is seen where the narrator goes to visit Simonov, an old schoolmate. The narrator learns that a dinner party is being planned for another schoolmate and he invites himself to the dinner party. This shows that the narrator has a desire to fit in with his old schoolmates. At the dinner party, the narrator is treated badly by his old schoolmates and seems clearly unwelcome. He reacts by challenging an old schoolmate to a duel. It seems that the narrator would have been happy if the schoolmate had agreed to the duel, but instead he is ignored. These events suggest that the narrator is only able to interact with people via conflict. He did originally have a desire to fit in, but finds this impossible. He then tries to interact with his schoolmates via conflict. This is a case where the narrator is not just acting out of any real desire for violence. Instead, it seems that conflict is the only way he can gain any kind of interaction with others. He ultimately fails though because his schoolmates choose to ignore him, rather than fight him. The narrator does not give up at this point. Instead, he chooses to stay and he paces for the next few hours. The narrator notes that the reason he chose to stay was to annoy and irritate his schoolmates. This shows the narrator’s desire to interact with people, where if he can’t be friends with his schoolmates, he can at least annoy them. This shows that for the narrator, it is better to be hated than ignored. Clearly the narrator just wants to be acknowledged and included in some way. This is seen again when the schoolmates decide to go to a brothel and the narrator begs to go with them. On the way to the brothel, the narrator has an interesting fantasy where he imagines two possibilities that please him. The first is that his classmates accept him and beg for his friendship. The second is that he slaps Zverkov. It is this second fantasy that he chooses as most likely to happen and he continues to imagine the scenario. These two fantasies of the narrator are important because they show what the narrator really wants vs. what he believes is capable of happening. The first fantasy shows what he really wants, which is to be accepted and befriended. However, he rejects this as being a possibility. He then chooses the second fantasy, which is that he will fight with his friend. This shows both the narrator’s loneliness and how he deals with. The fact that he has fantasies about being accepted as a friend shows that he is lonely. His rejection of this as a possibility shows how he deals with his loneliness. It is clear that he is not capable of believing that he will be accepted as a friend by anyone. His need for friendship is then turned into a need just to have any kind of interaction with other people. This links back to his deep belief that he will be rejected by everyone and he concludes that the best way he has to interact with people is to draw on the fact that everybody hates him. This explains why he constantly turns to angering people as a means of overcoming his loneliness.
Another means of overcoming loneliness is related to the narrator’s life of fantasy. This shows that the underground life is based on living in a dream world, rather than living in the real world. There are numerous examples of the narrator’s dream life. One was described above, where the narrator imagines himself slapping Zverkov when they arrive at the brothel. This does not happen. The narrator also meets Liza at the brothel and fantasizes about falling in love with her. It is clear that this is only a fantasy when Liza visits the narrator and he rejects her. It is also seen that the narrator feels humiliation at this point because Liza sees where he lives and how he lives. Previous to this point, the narrator had acted like he was superior to Liza, including lecturing her on how she should live. This shows that the narrator portrays himself to others based on a fantasy of how he wants to be seen. When Liza visits the narrator, his fantasy of himself is shattered and he reacts with anger. This suggests that the narrator is driven by a need to make himself superior to others, with this a way of counteracting the fact that he actually feels like a lesser person. Since there is nothing in the narrator’s life to show that he is superior, he can only achieve this through fantasy. The same occurs with the narrator’s actions, where these are based on fantasy. One example is seen at the start of the novel where the narrator describes how he was a wicked official, being rude to people and enjoying it. It turns out that even this is a fantasy and represents how the narrator wishes he could act. The narrator also goes on to say that, “I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect” (Dostoevsky 5). This shows that the narrator has been plagued by the inability to do anything. He counteracts this inability by living in a dream world where he carries out the actions he finds himself unable to do. It is also seen that the narrator has fantasies about who he is and the reasons for his actions. He describes this at one point saying,
And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being (Dostoevsky 5).
This shows that the narrator blames his own situation on the fact that he is too good. He considers that he lives a miserable existence because he is intelligent and that he is destined to live without character because he is intelligent. The narrator also goes on to blame his increased consciousness for his problems. He says at one point that “the more conscious I was of the good and of all this ‘beautiful and lofty,’ the deeper I kept sinking into my mire” (Dostoevsky 7). This shows that the narrator again blames his problems on his own intelligence. This can also be linked to a consideration of what is considered good and bad in society. In The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche describes how the definition of what is good and what is bad is related to the position of a person in society. The noble and the powerful in society come to see themselves as good. It is then the people who are common, poor, or weak that sees themselves as bad. With Nietzsche’s view, good and bad in society is not really based on the individual’s own actions, but on their place in society. Returning to Notes from Underground, the narrator is clearly common, weak, and poor. Based on this position, he then begins to see himself as bad. This helps explain why the narrator continually refers to himself as if he is bad, including having ongoing fantasies of all the bad things he does. The narrator though cannot actually do many of the bad things he imagines himself doing. He then adds to his fantasies by concluding that he cannot be bad because he is too intelligent and too conscious. In this way, even his inability to do bad is not viewed as something showing his positive character, but instead becomes a weakness. This shows that the narrator’s fantasy life is defined by how he sees himself based on his position in life, rather than how he really is as a person.
The final aspect that defines the life of the underground man is anger and spite. One good example is seen where the narrator goes to a tavern with the intent of getting into a fight. Rather than get into a fight, the narrator is ignored. The narrator then becomes focused on an officer who passed by him and ignored him. This becomes a point of humiliation and the narrator becomes angered and wants to seek revenge. The narrator’s anger though, does not play out in any kind of violent way. This may be what the narrator originally fantasized, but he completely fails in having any ability to fight back or take violent action. His method of fighting back is a long process where he follows the officer for years. In doing so, he notices how people move out of the way for the officer when he is walking towards them. The narrator’s plan of action involves walking towards the officer and refusing to move out of the way. This is a small action and relatively insignificant, showing just how little power the narrator has. It is also similar to the narrator’s interactions with his old schoolmates, where the only way he can get back at them is to pace around and irritate them just be being there. It is clear that the narrator has no real power to stand up for himself. Instead, he can only play games with himself, creating a revenge scenario that has meaning to him, but will mean little to the person his revenge is directed at. This is exactly what happens when the narrator carries out his plan and walks into the officer. The event seems insignificant to the officer and it is likely that it was forgotten almost as soon as it happened. The narrator though, feels like he has sought revenge and feels good about the event. It does not seem to occur to the narrator that he has wasted years seeking revenge on an officer who is not even aware he existed. These events illustrate the lack of power the narrator has. They also illustrate that he is driven be anger, but it becomes an inward considered anger, rather than a serious outburst. The inward considered anger then grows and consumes the narrator’s life. This same inward considered anger is also seen in the situation with Liza. It is seen that the narrator is angry with Liza for visiting him. However, rather than react angrily, he acts cold towards her. When this doesn’t work, he eventually acts out of spite and tells Liza that he hates her. Liza sees through his and sees that the spite is really a sign of his unhappiness. The narrator ignores Liza’s attempt to reach out to him. The final insult for the narrator is to hand Liza some money as she leaves. In doing this, the narrator is lowering her to nothing more than a prostitute, and trying to establish that he is better than her. Liza has the last word though by leaving behind the money. The important point is that this is something that the narrator worries over. He then states in his narration that he is writing about Liza to free himself of thinking about her. This shows how the narrator turns his anger and spite inward. Rather then release it, it becomes part of him and the issues simmer away in his consciousness. He then releases his anger via relatively meaningless actions, such as being rude to customers, writing about Liza, or walking into the officer. The most important point is that the way the underground man deals with his anger is related to his alienation. He is not even able to connect with people to release his anger. Instead, his anger becomes part of his fantasy world and he imagines himself seeking revenge. He is so obsessed with himself and so disconnected with others that he is not even able to see how ridiculous and useless his acts of revenge are. In this way, even in anger and revenge, the underground man remains isolated from others.
It has now been seen that the underground life is defined by rejection and alienation, loneliness, a life based on fantasy, and anger and spite. These are all the aspects that define the narrator’s life and make him who he is. If it is recalled that Dosteovsky created the narrator as “one representative of a generation that is still living out its life” (Dostoevsky 1), then it is fair to say that Dosteovsky considers many people are living the underground life. The situation may not be as extreme as it is for the narrator, but there are people whose lives are defined by alienation, loneliness, fantasy, and anger.
Dostoevsky, F. Notes from Underground. New York: Bantam, 1992.
Nietzsche, F. The Genealogy of Morals. New York: Dover, 2003.