Study Guide For Dostoyevsky

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Notes from Underground is one of the most influential pieces of fiction in Western European history. It has attracted attention for many reasons. 1) It contains an all-out assault on Enlightenment rationalism and the idea of progress which foreshadows many such assaults in the mid-to-late twentieth century. 2) It is an outstanding example of Dostoyevskys psychological skills, depicting a character motivated by many contradictory impulses. Such contradictions were not clearly understood in the nineteenth century, but Freud and modern psychology generally were to explore in depth the irrational bases of much human thought. 3) One of the most salient characteristics of the Underground Man is his profound self-contempt combined with an exquisitely sensitive ego-a combination that is much discussed these days. 4) The story contains one of the first characters whose childhood experiences have led him to fear love and intimacy even though he longs for them: another topic of intense interest currently. 5) It portrays one of the first anti-heroes in fiction, a protagonist utterly lacking every trait of the Romantic hero and living out a futile life on the margins of society. Such figures were to dominate much serious fiction in the mid-twentieth century, notably Albert Camus Meursault in The Stranger.
Because the narrator (he has no name) of this story is a thoroughly disagreeable person who seems to go out of the way to offend his readers, some care is needed to read the story well. First, it is important to keep in mind that the Underground Man, as he is traditionally called (UM below) is not Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as the notes at the beginning and end of the story make clear. He shares some of Dostoyevskys ideas, but he is also the target of Dostoyevskys satire. Dostoyevsky enjoyed handicapping himself by placing some of his favorite arguments in the mouth of a character he despised. In this and in other works, he strongly resists the impulse to sweep the reader away by making his views irresistible. He wants you to be aware of both their strengths and weaknesses, and make your mind up independently. Second, although some readers find that they are identifying with the UM to some extent, unlike most popular fiction, this is not a story in which you are expected to identify with the narrator. The danger is, in fact, that the reader will become so exasperated with his tone and manner as to simply refuse to pay attention what he is saying. Consider the UM as a complex portrait, lacking surface appeal, but filled with fascinating detail which reveals itself only upon close examination. Third, it is crucial not simply to let the UMs self-contradictions cancel each other out and dismiss him as a madman whose ravings are not worth deciphering. It is precisely in the tension between various emotions and ideas that significance of the UMs narrative lies. Close reading will reveal a careful and consistent psychological portrait.
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