Book Review: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This was my first Dostoevsky ever! I adore his writing and laughed out loud several times (“haha I do that!”). Darkly funny, strangely introspective and painfully relatable. As bitter and pathetic as the underground man undeniably is, it’s startling how many similarities we share (which honestly is now making me question whether that means I’m bitter and pathetic… hm)

It is fascinating that despite being a clear caricatural figure, something about the underground man still feels undeniably ‘real’ to me. Perhaps it is from the recognition that his flaws, though comically magnified, are mine; the underground man gives a physical form to the unconscious weak spots in my morality, highlighting and exacerbating them to an almost pathological level. All his existential angst, spite, and bitterness with the state of the world are only amplified echoes of every human’s weaknesses. Caricatures are effective at striking chords because they are reflections of humanity – distorted reflections, much like those in a funhouse mirror, but reflections just the same. His depravity and narcissism are exaggerated just enough to be satirical, but also seem uncomfortably probable, bringing up insecurities and doubts about your own character that you may not want to be too conscious of. He exists in everyone, at least to a certain extent.

His writings are the result of consciousness reflecting in on itself – this is seen most clearly in the fact that although the underground man is the one telling his story in first person, he is not the only narrator. The writing is fragmented into multiple perspectives with the effect of creating a disorienting, chaotic narrative that scrambles the architecture of plot and temporality in the novel. Many times, the underground man addresses the reader directly, making them an involuntary narrator in the work by crafting imaginary responses for them.

He demonstrates himself to be an unreliable narrator within the first few pages of the book, overtly admitting to lying to his reader: “I lied about myself just now when I said I was a wicked official. I lied out of wickedness”. His account of events is structured around the imaginary voices of his audience, which can range from being cynical and pragmatic to sarcastic and cruel. In turn, his responses are both defensive and strangely venerable in tone: he is asking to be understood, to be vindicated. The fact that he is unstable and antithetical to an extreme is a form of caricature, yet it makes his character seem more realistic. It reminds you that reality itself is the product of subjective interpretation, and the fragmentary, multifaceted rhetoric in the book accurately mirrors the inconsistent manner in which people remember and relate events in real life.

He is known as the underground man, though he does not actually live underground – rather, the underground is symbolic of his reclusion from society. He writes of a wretched and vengeful mouse, covered in “stinking filth consisting of its dubieties, anxieties, and, finally, the spit raining on it from the ingenuous figures who stand solemnly around it like judges and dictators”. The mouse, insulted and ashamed, retreats to its “loathsome, stinking underground” where it “immerses itself in cold, venomous, and above all, everlasting spite”. This is an allegorical depiction of the underground man’s own experience; like the scorned mouse, he too withdraws from the world into his private little corner, where he festers in his own misery for decades on end. The image of the underground and the reference to the figures spitting on him from above are also symbolic of his imagined sense of inferiority. So debilitating are his insecurity and resentment that his entire identity has been constructed around this idea that he is living underground. Yet his failings make him more of a victim than a villain, more real than comic:

“It is clear to me now that, owing to my unbounded vanity and to the high standard I set for myself, I often looked at myself with furious discontent, which verged on loathing, and so I inwardly attributed the same feeling to everyone.”

Leave a Reply