Joseph Frank
The Stir of Liberation

Dostoevsky here is obviously talking about the formation of Russian ('our') society, which, as he could expect all readers of Epoch to know—had he not explained this endlessly in his articles in Time, most recently and explicitly in Winter Notes?—had been formed by the successive waves of European influence that had washed over Russia since the time of Peter the Great. The underground man must exist as a type because he is the inevitable product of such a cultural formation; and his character does in fact embody and reflect two phases of this historical evolution. He is, in short, conceived as a parodistic persona, whose life exemplifies the tragic-comic impasses resulting from the effects of such influences on the Russian national psyche. His diatribes in the first part thus do not arise, as has commonly been thought, because of his rejection of reason; on the contrary, they result from his acceptance of all the implications of reason in its then-current Russian incarnation—and particularly, all those consequences that advocates of reason such as Chernyshevsky blithely chose to disregard. In the second part, Dostoevsky extends the same technique to those more sentimental-humanitarian elements of Chernyshevsky's ideology that had revived some of the atmosphere of the 1840s.

Dostoevsky's footnote thus attempted to alert his audience to the satirical and parodistic nature of his conception; but it was too oblique to serve its purpose. Like many other examples of first-person satirical parody. Notes from Underground has usually been misunderstood and taken straight. Indeed, the intrinsic danger of such a form, used for such a purpose, is that it tends to wipe out any critical distance between the narrator and reader, and makes it difficult to see through the character to the target of the satire. A famous example of such a misunderstanding in English literature is Defoe's The Shortest Way with Dissenters, in which the dissenter Defoe, ironically speaking through the persona of a fanatical Tory, called for the physical extermination of all dissenters. But the irony was not understood, and Defoe, taken at his word, was sentenced to a term in the pillory as punishment. This danger can be avoided only if, as in Gulliver's Travels, the reader is disoriented from the very start by the strangeness of the situation, or if in other ways—linguistic exaggerations or manifestly grotesque behavior—he is made aware that the I-narrator is only a convention and not a genuine character. Although Dostoevsky makes some attempt to supplement his footnote in this direction, these efforts were not sufficient to balance the overwhelming psychological presence of the underground man and the force of his imprecations and anathemas against some of the most cherished dogmas of modem civilization. As a result, the parodistic function of his character has always been obscured by the immense vitality of its artistic embodiment, and it has, paradoxically, been Dostoevsky's very genius for the creation of character that has most interfered with the proper understanding of Notes from Underground.

It is not really difficult to comprehend why, in this instance, the passion that Dostoevsky poured into his character should have overshadowed the nature of the work as a satirical parody. Time and again we can hear Dostoevsky speaking about himself through his fictional guise, and he unquestionably endowed the underground man with some of his deepest and most intimate feelings. As the underground man belabors his own self-disgust and guilt, was not Dostoevsky also expressing his self-condemnation as a conscience-stricken spectator of his wife's death-agonies, and repenting of the egoism to which he confessed in his notebook? The self-critical references to the underground man's school years in the second part certainly draw on Dostoevsky's own unhappy sojourn long ago in the Academy of Engineers; and the frenzy of the character's revolt against a world of imprisonment by 'the laws of nature' imaginatively revived all the despair and torment of the prison years. Besides, what a release it must have been for Dostoevsky, after all his guarded temporizing and cautious qualifying, finally to fling his defiance into the teeth of the radicals and expose the disastrous implications of their 'advanced' ideas! No wonder he could not resist the temptation to impart more depth and vitality to his central figure than the literary form he had chosen really required!

These personal taproots of his inspiration, however, all flow into the service of an articulate and coherent satirical conception. Notes from Underground has been read as the psychological self-revelation of a pathological personality, or as a theological cry of despair over the evils of 'human nature,' or as a declaration of Dostoevsky's supposed adherence to Nietzsche's philosophy of 'amoralism' and the will to power, or as a defiant assertion of the revolt of the human personality against all attempts to limit its inexhaustible potentialities—and the list can easily be continued. All these readings, and many more, can plausibly be supported if certain features of the text are singled out and placed in the foreground while others are simply overlooked or forgotten. But if we are interested in understanding Dostoevsky's own point of view, so far as this can be reconstructed, then we must take it for what it was initially meant to be—a brilliantly Swiftian satire, remarkable for the finesse of its conception and the brio of its execution, which dramatizes the dilemmas of a representative Russian personality attempting to live by the two European codes whose unhappy effects Dostoevsky explores. And though the sections have a loose narrative link, the novella is above all a diptych depicting two episodes of a symbolic history of the Russian intelligentsia.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.