Good Sunday afternoon everyone, and thanks for checking out my very first book review!
Today we are celebrating the amazing life and work of one of the world’s greatest writers of all time: Fyodor Dostoevsky. And no, this not the day of his birth, or the anniversary of his debut novel; it isn’t annual “Dostoevsky” day or anything significant like that. I simply wanted to share with you my newfound interest in his novel Notes From Underground; I just finished reading it and completely fell in love.
But before I jump into the review, let’s talk really briefly about Ted (Fyodor is the Russian version of Theodore). His life just astounds me, honestly. Though he lived in dire poverty and suffered from epileptic seizures for a good part of his middle-aged career, he still managed to publish 15 novels within his lifetime. How crazy is that? After learning about his life and the hardships he underwent, I have an incredible amount of respect for him. How many times have I complained that there are never enough hours in the day to fit in writing? And yet here was a man who managed to devote several hours every day to cultivating his passion even whilst carrying the burden of financial pressure and physical illness!
Ted lived a life of extremes. Coming out of college, he joined a group of Romantic Socialist radicals who plotted the downfall of the Russian Tsar, which eventually led to his arrest and mock execution. He was promptly sent to Siberia, a merciful alternative to the death sentence, where he served for several years. After his return home, he was a strikingly different man; abandoning the Egotistical/Socialist views of his youth, he committed the rest of his life to writing down his observations of human nature and mankind’s innate tendency towards evil. What made him so remarkable, however, was his empathy towards young radicals. While most writers of his age were advocating for harsher punishment on those young people who were intoxicated with the romantic ideals of Socialism, Dostoevsky was sympathetic. Though he disagreed with their ideas, labeling them unrealistic and even harmful to society, he understood, and even commended, their inner yearnings for a better world. Dostoevsky became a great role model for the young people he came in contact with, and his books, though addressed to a past century, still hold great significance in our present day.
Notes From Underground is the story of “the underground man”, a man at war with himself. A walking contradiction, the underground man constantly bemoans his faults and failings and despises himself for them, yet remains unable, or shall we say, unwilling, to accept the remedy for his problems. The beginning of book I opens with the underground man lamenting his “sickness” yet refusing to ask for help: “No, sir, I refuse to be treated out of wickedness” (Dostoevsky, Part I, 3). For to accept the cure, he must first acknowledge his failings, his passions, his vulnerabilities, and his vanity and pride; to do so would contradict his insistent belief that man is governed by reason alone. He glorifies the Russian romantics who cling to science and reason (“He’s a broad man, our romantic, and the foremost knave of all knaves…the romantic is always intelligent” [Dostoevsky, 46]). It is precisely this idea of the intelligent romantic that both fascinates and tortures him. For though he is convicted of his faults, he stubbornly refuses to let go of his ever-inflating ego. In the end, it is the underground man’s pride, and unrealistic ideals for humankind, which seal his fate and doom him to the isolated underground of his mind.
At the heart of Notes from Underground is this idea of mankind’s innate selfishness. Man is not a cold, calculating machine that operates on reason alone, as the underground man consents in Part I, pg. 31, (“he [man] would still not come to reason, but would do something contrary on purpose, solely out of ingratitude alone”), but rather a passionate and violent creature that, when left to his own devises, will never be satisfied. “I think the best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful” (Dostoevsky, 29). The rational egoist claims that if every individual strives to satisfy his or her own desires, everyone will get along in perfect harmony. Dostoevsky shows the folly in this lofty ideal through the split personality of his underground man, the man who thinks himself above everyone else because he reads a lot of books on romantic socialism, yet doesn’t know how to come to terms with his personal failings and the failings of the people around him. We see this in Part II when he attends a dinner party with his old school “friends” and he thinks to himself: “‘Lord, is this any company for me!… These oafs think they’ve done me an honor by giving me a place at their table; they don’t realize that it’s I, I, who am doing the honor, and not they me!’” (Dostoevsky, 73). In convincing himself of his own superiority, he loses the ability to interact with other people around him.
Notes from Underground does not end on a happy note (no pun intended). The underground man humiliates himself in front of his friends, scorns the love of the young girl Liza, with whom he might have finally found redemption, and concludes his monologue with a tone of despair and hopelessness. The man was never able to let go of his vanity, and it consumed him.
However, this book is not meant to be depressing; it’s meant to be illuminating. If you read between the lines, you will find that Dostoevsky provides the answers you may or may not have even known you were looking for. And that is precisely what makes this novel so beautiful. In a world of seeming discord and depression and all things BAD, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of the novel, the protagonist is given the power to escape the “prison” in which he dwells (by accepting Liza’s forgiveness and outstretched hand), but, (spoiler alert!) he chooses to cling on to his pride rather than take that giant leap of faith and exit the underground.
The underground is not locked from the outside as we might like to believe; it is locked from the inside. The underground man, and thereby we, the readers, have the power to escape. So Dostoevsky leaves us with this choice: will we choose to turn the key?
Notes From Underground is a complex work of art that you do not want to miss out on! I am so grateful for my professor who introduced me to the wonderful world of Dostoevsky, and I hope you have been encouraged to give his work a try.