Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Themes

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Human Nature and Free Will

The Underground Man is concerned with human nature, or humans' true identity and purpose in the world. The issue of human nature intersects with the personal, social, and philosophical concepts in the novel. The social philosophy and organization of the society in which a person lives is a primary focus of the novel's discussion of human nature.

The Underground Man views himself as degraded: wicked, cruel, spiteful, and spiritually sick. His view of humanity, as represented by the Russian people he satirizes, is they are weak, shallow, spineless, and in thrall to the latest Western European societal constructs. His pessimistic assessment of humanity allows him to viciously attack those social philosophies that have rosier—albeit in his view delusional—ideas about human nature. Rational egoists see rationality as the core of human nature. Romantics deem emotional sensitivity to be the true heart of humanity. The Underground Man rejects both these misguided theories. He admits his pessimistic view is extreme. Yet his role as an outsider gives him sufficient distance to be a more objective, clear-eyed observer of human nature as it really is, not as idealists would like it to be.

As an existentialist, the Underground Man realizes he must determine human nature for himself. In a meaningless universe, the existentialist must create his own self and identity and create meaning within his social context. For him free will is the most important characteristic of the human existence, for it allows the individual to forge his or her own sense of self and motivation for action.

This existential view is explored in the narrator's critiques of both rational egoism and romanticism. Rational egoists see human nature as pure reason, so they discount (or abolish) free will. Romanticists find the truest form of human nature in the emotions. They, too, disparage free will unless it is guided by the superior individual's intuition and emotions. The Underground Man explores and ultimately rejects both these views. Yet he continually struggles with the question, "What is the essence of human nature, and how does it inform the way a person lives in the world?"

The Underground Man says he may choose to act or not to act—but action and inertia arise from his free will alone. Existential actions are not motivated by the prescribed modes of behavior imposed by social norms and customs. The Underground Man insists on acting according to his free will, even if such actions are self-destructive or irrational. His actions may be arbitrary and senseless, but at least they are expressions of his self-proclaimed freedom.

Similarly, the Underground Man must determine for himself what constitutes moral action because he does not accept society's definition or code of morality. He is often tormented by guilt at the questionable morality—or outright immorality—of some of his actions. Yet he freely takes responsibility for these actions, which arise from his free will, even if they result in anguished guilt or his own humiliation.

Rational Egoism

In Part 1 of the novel, the Underground Man argues fiercely against the prevailing social ideas of his time (the 1860s), specifically the social philosophy of rational egoism. Rational egoists believe humans are inherently good, and if everyone acted rationally to promote their individual self-interest, society would be perfect and harmonious.

The tenets of rational egoism are in direct opposition to the Underground Man's existential insistence on the primacy of free will. The bedrock of rational egoism is the belief rational self-interested action is predictable and uniform. It is like science or math in applying reason to action must lead to a specific, known result. The philosophy abolishes free will and individual freedom. A person can't act freely if his freedom is constrained by reason; he can't choose to act unreasonably. Rational egoism also underpins science and "progress," both of which the Underground Man abhors as a threat to the spirit of Russian culture.

Nothing could be more in opposition to the Underground Man's insistence on free will and the essence of what it means to be human than rational egoism. Acting in one's own self-interest does not necessarily yield moral actions that are beneficial to others in society.

Romanticism

Part 2 of the book is a critique of romanticism, a worldview in fashion in 1840s Russia. Romanticism jettisons free will and replaces it with emotion. For the romantics feeling, instinct, intuition, and love of beauty and nature are the ultimate expressions of humanness. Fyodor Dostoevsky ridicules romanticism because it, too, leaves little or no room for free will. People should be free to act in a way that goes against feeling, instinct, and emotion, although this would horrify the romantics.

Dostoevsky also critiques romanticism for its adoption by people who have fashioned a romantic identity from reading romantic literature. They have read about romanticism in popular books of the day and from that wear the mantle of a romantic figure. Through the Underground Man's dismal social failures in Part 2, readers see acting as if one were a character in a romantic novel is inauthentic and rather pathetic. The individual will not find freedom and the core of humanness by pretending to be a character in a book. Dostoevsky has fun criticizing such pretensions.

Romanticism, like rational egoism, leads to acts of questionable morality, such as the Underground Man's cruel and immoral treatment of Liza. Existential acts arising from free will may or may not be moral, but there is little if any moral guidance to be found in romanticism.

Consciousness and Suffering

The Underground Man frequently refers to himself as a person of "intensified consciousness" who is deeply and painfully aware of the existential quagmire he's stuck in. He understands how his irrational actions have caused his own pain and sometimes caused pain to others. He is also tortured by his awareness of how untethered and amorphous his identity is. As an existentialist, the Underground Man struggles with inventing his own identity and imposing his own meaning and morality on a meaningless world.

The Underground Man's "intensified consciousness" therefore causes him no end of suffering. As he says, "To be overly conscious is a sickness." He suffers in his mind as he grapples with forging his identity and explaining his often-masochistic actions. He suffers countless humiliations—real or imagined—and tortures himself with his self-loathing and an inertia that prevents him from carrying out his elaborate plots for revenge. His only relief is the long confessional of his notes from underground.

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