May 09, 2016DanielJNickolas rated this title 4 out of 5 stars
“I am a sick man … I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man.”
Notes from Underground is a work that belies the abilities of reason and progress, and offers an uncomfortably close look at the potential wickedness that can be bred in us all. A wickedness that a person is not doomed to live by, or even born with, but wickedness that is itself a haze masking something much deeper. There are times when this book feels like stomping through a snow storm, but this uncertainty, created by an untrustworthy yet equally honest narrator, is how Dostoyevsky conveys his truth about society and human needs.
How can a narrator be both honest and untrustworthy? These two terms seem irreconcilable, but in a story where the narrator claims order and disorder to be things different than what society perceives them to be, it’s hard to imagine a better suited storyteller. He is always rationalizing, yet his actions are impulsive; he is terribly concerned with what others think, yet dislikes everyone around him; and though he is often contradictory, he is not a contradiction. He has in himself both order and disorder. Luckily for the reader the narrator does not hide these conflicting qualities for long, often admitting them outright (albeit the confessions are also, at times, conflicting). It’s clear from the text that the narrator has a depreciating sense of self. “The worst of it is, he himself, his very own self, looks on himself as a mouse; no one asks him to do so; and that is an important point.” And it is an important point! The narrator is highly aware of the disorder in his mind, but he sees a benefit in being honest about it. He is, himself, the best proof for the argument made against rationalism and progress. If our narrator was a well-balanced, healthy individual, Notes from Underground would make no sense.
Let us imagine a society that is built on reason, and committed to progress. They are held above all else. A society where people who have position, possessions, and/or pedigree are people of value, as these things prove progress. What will happen to a person who does not have these things? He must acquire them. If he does not, he will be of no real value to society. Likewise, the longer it takes to acquire these things the lower his esteem in the eyes of reason and progress, and the harder it will be to ever acquire a right standing. Our narrator, as one of these people of lesser value would be expected to do, hates and fights against such a society. However, he hates it not because he has been infringed by it, but because he has noticed something missing in this society, something fundamental that society won't acknowledge. “If necessary (man) is ready to act in opposition to all laws; that is, in opposition to reason, honor, peace, prosperity … if only he can attain that fundamental, most advantageous advantage which is dearer to him than all.”
The argument is not that these qualities of progress are bad, but that they possess only a mock importance when they, alone, are held in such high regard. Reading Notes from Underground with this in mind, it becomes clear that the narrator, in all his despicable acts and thoughts, is not trying to be cruel, but to be noticed. Most everything, from his obsession with gaining respect from the man at the Nevsky to his behavior at Zverkov’s going away party, can be explained by a desire, a need, to be noticed. He is eventually noticed by one individual, but it is by a person whom the narrator, and perhaps the reader, would not suspect.