The Pathological Protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground

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The Pathological Protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground

Dostoevsky’s vision of the world is violent and his characters tortured; it is no wonder that many have viewed his work as prophetic of the 20th century. However, though Dostoevsky, in his unflinching portrayal of depravity, gives the Devil some of his best arguments, the Gospel often triumphs. Ivan Karamazov is at least offered the possibility of repentance when kissed by his saintly brother Alyosha. Raskolnikov, the nihilistic antihero of Crime and Punishment, is eventually redeemed through the love of the pure prostitute Sonja.

Notes from the Underground, however, breaks this pattern. The protagonist of this novel, who, uncharacteristically for Dostoevsky, is also the narrator, is not redeemed by his encounter with a prostitute, but rather degrades both her and himself by his actions. While Notes from the Underground has often been analyzed from a philosophical perspective, as Dostoevsky’s defense of free will against the mechanistic determinism and utilitarian moral theories popular in his day, it is more properly viewed as a character study. This view is necessitated, Ralph Matlaw writes, by the unreliability of the underground man as a guide to his own character and motivations (102). One who consistently proves to be a liar in matters of fact is not likely to be an honest theoretician either. The underground man himself, nearing the conclusion of his philosophical reflections, writes, “I swear to you, gentlemen, there is not one thing, not one word of what I have written that I really believe. That is, I believe it, perhaps, but at the same time I feel and suspect that I am lying like a cobbler” (Dostoevsky 212).

Regarding the novel as prima...

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...y, NY: Anchor Books, 1960.

Lethcoe, James. “Self-Deception in Dostoevskij's Notes from the Underground.” The Slavic and East European Journal 10.1 (Spring, 1966): 9-21.

Matlaw, Ralph. “Structure and Integration in Notes from the Underground.” PMLA 73.1 (March 1958): 101-109.

Meerson, Olga. “Old Testament Lamentation in the Underground Man’s Monologue: A Refutation of the Existentialist Reading of Notes from the Underground.” The Slavic and East European Journal, 36.3 (Autumn 1992): 317-322.

Morson, Gary Saul. “Paradoxical Dostoevsky.” The Slavic and East European Journal 43.3 (Autumn 1999): 471-494.

Paris, Bernard. “Notes from Underground: A Horneyan Analysis.” PMLA 88.3 (May 1973): 511-522.

Rosenshield, Gary. “The Fate of Dostoevskij's Underground Man: The Case for an Open Ending.” The Slavic and East European Journal 28.3 (Autumn, 1984): 324-339.
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