The Pathological Protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground
Dostoevsky’s vision of the world is violent and his characters tortured; it is no wonder that many have viewed his work as prophetic of the 20th century. However, though Dostoevsky, in his unflinching portrayal of depravity, gives the Devil some of his best arguments, the Gospel often triumphs. Ivan Karamazov is at least offered the possibility of repentance when kissed by his saintly brother Alyosha. Raskolnikov, the nihilistic antihero of Crime and Punishment, is eventually redeemed through the love of the pure prostitute Sonja.
Notes from the Underground, however, breaks this pattern. The protagonist of this novel, who, uncharacteristically for Dostoevsky, is also the narrator, is not redeemed by his encounter with a prostitute, but rather degrades both her and himself by his actions. While Notes from the Underground has often been analyzed from a philosophical perspective, as Dostoevsky’s defense of free will against the mechanistic determinism and utilitarian moral theories popular in his day, it is more properly viewed as a character study. This view is necessitated, Ralph Matlaw writes, by the unreliability of the underground man as a guide to his own character and motivations (102). One who consistently proves to be a liar in matters of fact is not likely to be an honest theoretician either. The underground man himself, nearing the conclusion of his philosophical reflections, writes, “I swear to you, gentlemen, there is not one thing, not one word of what I have written that I really believe. That is, I believe it, perhaps, but at the same time I feel and suspect that I am lying like a cobbler” (Dostoevsky 212).
Regarding the novel as primarily a character study rather than a philosophical treatise preserves the unity of its two parts, so that the second section is not seen as an addendum to the first, merely an enactment of the principles which the underground man has already stated abstractly (Matlaw 101). Notes from the Underground, despite its unpolished narrative and paradoxical narrator, is a coherent whole, a subtle portrait of a man in conflict with himself. The first portion of the Notes is “a revelation of personality,” according to J. M. Coetzee, whereas the second is “a revelation of a shameful history” (219).
The two cannot be separated from each other; both are necessary to complete the underground man’s portrait. Though he may put on a bold front in the ideological jabs of the first section, the second shows his ineffectual character, the seemingly irresolvable paradoxes of his personality. The underground man is paralyzed by indecision, governed by spite. His inability to “live life” is a malady that has grown prevalent in the “educated nineteenth century” (Dostoevsky 296, 191). As Dostoevsky writes in a footnote at the beginning of the work, “such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our...