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Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Motifs


Animal Imagery

Fyodor Dostoevsky uses various references to animals to exemplify the loss of individuality Utopian rational egoism would create. Most of his animal references conjure up beings without free will or free agency. Some, such as the mouse man, refer to the low status of the Underground Man.

The author's animal imagery is intended to make more vivid—or horrific, or humorous—the inhuman cost of rational egoism. Dostoevsky uses this motif to underline the loss of what he views as the most important of all human values: free will.

Spite, Revenge, and Cruelty

Throughout the book the Underground Man recounts instances in which he or others revel in being spiteful, in taking revenge on others for perceived slights, and in the cruelty they will inflict to exact retribution.

Frequently the slights that elicit the desire for revenge and cruelty against another are petty or even nonexistent—just figments in the narrator's mind. Just as often the spite and cruelty that motivates the narrator's actions are unwarranted. In these cases this motif is used to reveal the free will of the Underground Man and his—admittedly perverse—motivations. That the actions are perverse or almost meaningless is one way the narrator boldly demonstrates his free will. He is not motivated by rationality; instead his free will might lead him to commit (or fantasize about) outrageous actions.

Self-Hatred, Superiority, and Humiliation

In his determination to exercise his free will, the Underground Man may seek out humiliation or act in ways he knows will humiliate him in the eyes of others. Yet he is also obsessed by a desire to be thought of as superior to others, especially in Part 2. The tension and irrational fury these conflicting desires or motivations produce in the Underground Man provide a good deal of the energy that drives the narrative.

The conflict between these two opposing forces leaves the Underground Man in a state of paralyzing self-hatred. The famous first lines of the novel ("I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man ... I am an unattractive man") aggressively force the reader to contend with his self-loathing from the start. His self-hatred is existential insofar as it arises because he's trapped between two opposing and equally ridiculous worldviews (rationality and romanticism), and he must forge an identity in a world shaped by absurd and meaningless principles.

Contradictions and Paradoxes

The Underground Man's dilemma is clearly highlighted by the way he frequently contradicts himself or presents ideas and situations in a paradoxical way. He is trying to exercise his free will but finds his situation is so ambiguous he cannot avoid contradicting himself. Contradictions and paradoxes also arise when the narrator tries to mesh his notions of free will and free agency with the fixed ideas of the times he lives in: either rational egoism or romanticism. Contradictions and paradoxes arise because neither worldview is compatible with true free will.

Contradictions and paradoxes are also something the existentialist must confront. If the universe is without meaning and the individual must find his own purpose and meaning, then any choice or act of free will must be considered possible. The options are often contradictory or paradoxical, but they arise from the dilemma the existential man must contend with. Fairly often the narrator is contradictory out of a type of spite or as his way of recognizing one decision or action is as good as another. In the first paragraph in the book he states, "I'm sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am." There's no explanation for this other than willful, perverse contrariness.

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