Notes from Underground
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Fallacies of Rationalism and Utopianism
Throughout the novel, the Underground Man makes a convincing case against the “rational egoists” and utopian socialists of his era, who claimed that the application of reason alone could perfect the world. Believing that destructive behavior results from a misguided sense of profit, these theorists thought that if everyone in the world understood what was really in their best interests, they would never do anything irrational or destructive. If the natural laws that governed human behavior could be understood, through reason, utopia would indeed be attainable.
The Underground Man opposes such a view because he believes that it underestimates the human desire for free will. He argues that humans value the ability to exert their own will—even if it runs contrary to their best interests—more than they value reason. The Underground Man’s masochistic tendencies illustrate this theory. Rather than submit to the “law of reason” that dictates that only doctors and dentists can cure liver disease and toothaches, the Underground Man prefers to suffer his ailments in silence, even though this decision only brings him more pain. This example is absurd, almost parodic, but it emphasizes the Underground Man’s point about human nature. Dostoevsky himself was highly suspicious of utopian socialists, worrying that their desire to codify rational human behavior ignored the complex nature of human beings. The freedom these utopian socialists preached could too easily lead to total uniformity—a uniformity that could lead to totalitarianism.
The Artificiality of Russian Culture
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Russian social and intellectual elite had been imitating western European culture for decades. A nineteenth-century Russian man was considered “developed” and “educated” if he was familiar with the literary and philosophical traditions of Germany, France, and England. The Underground Man, with his intelligence, consciousness, and sense of the “beautiful and lofty” (a term borrowed from European philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant), considers himself a “developed man of the nineteenth century.” He tells us that, in his youth, he tried rather earnestly to live by the ideals he found in European literature and philosophy. Though Dostoevsky may have shared this fascination with European culture in his own youth, by the time he wrote Notes from Underground, he had decided that such pervasive European influence on Russia was destructive. Captivated by the West, Russian intellectuals had lost touch with the true Russian way of life the peasants and lower-class workers still practiced. To restore national unity and harmony, Dostoevsky called for a “return to the soil,” emphasizing Russian values of family, religion, personal responsibility, and brotherly love over European “enlightenment,” scientific progressivism, and utopianism. The Underground Man’s European influences are partially responsible for driving him “underground,” as his attempts to live by a foreign set of values meet with failure and frustration.
Paralysis of the Conscious Man in Modern Society
Throughout the novel we see that the Underground Man is unable to make decisions or take action with confidence. He explains that this inability is due to his intense degree of consciousness. The Underground Man is able to imagine the variety of consequences that every action could have, he is aware of the possible arguments that can be made against every statement, and he is conscious of the multiplicity of different motives that inform every decision he makes. As a result, the Underground Man sees that every choice a person makes is more complicated than it may seem on the surface. This complexity throws every decision into doubt. Action becomes impossible because it is impossible to determine the best course of action to take.
In earlier times, when religious and moral imperatives existed, people allayed any doubts about action and decision by following these imperatives in absolute confidence. In the modern era, however, most of these absolutes have dissolved. The only people who can act with confidence, according to the Underground Man, are narrow-minded people who are too stupid to question themselves. The one remaining absolute, according to the Underground Man, is reason. Even educated men pursue the laws of science and reason without questioning them. The Underground Man—along with Dostoevsky himself—believes that such mindless adherence to the laws of reason is misguided. Dostoevsky does not necessarily believe, however, that total inaction is the best strategy for conscious people. He does believe, though, that an active person with a totally fixed mind—one that is not open to different possibilities—is more dangerous than an inactive person whose mind moves and changes.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Wet Snow
It always seems to be snowing in the world the Underground Man inhabits. The falling wet snow is more than simply an element of setting: the monotony of the weather and the dreariness of the snow echoes the changelessness and dreariness of the Underground Man’s alienated life. The wet snow also serves to link the parts of the novel that take place in the 1860s (primarily Part I) with the parts that take place in the 1840s (primarily Part II). The Underground Man recalls the story of the dinner with Zverkov and his encounter with Liza because the same wet snow that fell on those days is falling as he composes his Notes from Underground.
L’Homme de la Nature et de la Vérité
The Underground Man is preoccupied with the idea of “l’homme de la nature et de la vérité,” which is French for “the man of nature and truth.” The phrase is a distortion of a sentence from Confessions by the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Confessions is a kind of autobiography meant to present a portrait of its author “exactly from nature and in all its truth.” In Notes from Underground, this “man of nature and truth” becomes the “unconscious man,” the man of action against whom the Underground Man opposes himself. This active man is healthy, single-minded—narrow-minded, according to the Underground Man—and acts according to the laws of nature and reason. The Underground Man disdains this type of man for his blind faith, yet he also feels inferior to such a man, considering himself a “mouse” or an “insect” in comparison. Among the characters in the novel, Zverkov and the unnamed officer both share characteristics of l’homme de la nature et de la vérité.
The Redeemed Prostitute
The motif of the redeemed prostitute was popular in progressive novels, poems, and plays of the mid-nineteenth century. These works frequently involved variations on a standard plot: an altruistic hero rescues a young prostitute from a lifetime of degradation, using rhetoric to awaken the noble instincts that have been buried in her soul. In short, the hero appeals to the prostitute’s sense of the “beautiful and lofty.”
The Underground Man has absorbed this literary convention, and, wanting to imagine himself the hero of his own story, attempts to rescue the prostitute Liza. This attempt is an ironic one, however. First, it is symptomatic of the Underground Man’s desire to “live out” literature in the real world. Moreover, the Underground Man is hardly an appropriate person to rescue anyone, as his own life is as miserable and empty as the lowliest prostitute’s.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The “underground,” the “dark cellar” from which the Underground Man claims to be writing, is a symbol for his total isolation from society. He feels rejected and shut out from the society to which he is supposed to belong, and he imagines that he is viewing the world through cracks in the floorboards. The Underground Man often claims, however, to prefer the underground to the real world above. He treasures the space the underground gives him to exert his individuality—one of the few things he possesses.
The city of St. Petersburg serves as the backdrop for Notes from Underground and many of Dostoevsky’s other works. The Underground Man makes frequent negative references to the city’s climate, culture, and cost of living. His primary complaint is that the city is artificial: he describes it as an “abstract and intentional city,” implying that nothing about the city feels natural or real. St. Petersburg is, in the Underground Man’s eyes, rigidly systematized, bureaucratized, and alienating. St. Petersburg is an “artificial” city in a sense: it was built from scratch starting in 1703 by decree of Tsar Peter the Great, who hoped that the new city would become a “window on Europe.” In 1713, St. Petersburg became the capital of Russia, but it never shook its origin as an artificial city. Peter the Great’s desire to bring more European culture into Russia stimulated the Russian captivation with Western culture that Dostoevsky frequently criticized. For Dostoevsky, then, St. Petersburg is doubly artificial: not only was it built to order, but it also symbolizes the artificiality of the Russian adoption of European culture.
The Crystal Palace
The real Crystal Palace, a vast exhibition hall of glass and iron, was built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The structure used the most advanced materials and technology available at the time. For progressive thinkers of the era, the idea of a crystal palace represented the ideal living space for a utopian society based on reason and natural laws. The Underground Man says he despises the idea of the crystal palace because he cannot stick his tongue out at it. By this he means that the blind, obstinate faith in reason that the crystal palace represents ignores the importance of individuality and personal freedom. However, the Underground Man seems to feel this way only about the crystal palace as envisioned by utopian thinkers, describing their palace as a “chicken coop” posing as a crystal palace. A real crystal palace would celebrate truth and harmony without reducing the complexities of human nature to confining mathematical laws, but the Underground Man cannot imagine its existence.
For the Underground Man, money is a symbol of power. The Underground Man’s poverty keeps him from feeling socially or even morally equal to others. He is deeply ashamed when he has to borrow money. In the few circumstances when the Underground Man attempts to exert his power, he is giving or withholding money. He tries to break Apollon’s pride by withholding his wages, and he thrusts money into Liza’s hands as she leaves his apartment in a deliberate attempt to assert that she is still nothing but a prostitute.
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