Tragedy of the Underground Man
19 April 2012
Most people do not want others to know a miserable aspect of the self. Some people hate to show their weakness, and some others try to hide their strangeness from others. Thus, once people invade the secret area in their mind, they feel uncomfortable. This fear even causes extreme anxiety for some people, making them socially awkward. Notes from underground written by Fyodor Dostoevsky depicted such a person, in an exaggerated way, but whom he believed to be a representative of the generation in his time. This text was structured as a written work by the man who is overly conscious and thus is paranoid about how others see him and how he can protect his pride. In his youth described in the second chapter, in spite of his desperate wish to look good, he makes every wrong decision. As a result, he cannot stand living in the society and makes himself hide underground for more than 20 years. Dostoevsky points out that “people like the author of these notes not only may, but actually must exist in our society, considering the general circumstances under which our society was formed” (Dostoevsky, 1307). Therefore, the way he described the man is extreme but possesses a very realistic aspect. This essay addresses how the tragedy of the man was caused and why he could not avoid it by focusing on his self-consciousness too much, his dependence upon literary language, and his demand for perfection.
In this text, his extreme self-consciousness seems to be the trigger of most of his peculiar actions in his youth, which eventually pushed himself into the underground. It would not be a big deal if he were just a man who had an inflated sense of self with no doubt; however, the reason why this heightened self-consciousness became the trigger for the tragedy is because he, at the same time, understood that “being overly conscious is a disease, a genuine, full-fledged disease” (1309). Therefore, in psychology terms, there exists a strong self-discrepancy between actual-self and ideal-self, which drives him into a state of emotional discomfort. The theory indicates that the stronger self-discrepancy people have, the lower self-esteem they may have. Considering the big difference of his ideal-self and the actual-self implied in the text, it can be assumed that the self-esteem of the man was extremely in danger. Therefore, while he “env[ies] the normal man to point of exasperation” (1327) in his mind, looking down on such people is a way for him to justify the existence of himself. His downward comparison with his colleagues who never realize “that others regard [them] with loathing” (1329) concludes to make himself believe that he is “morbidly refined, as befits any cultured man of our time” (1330). In fact, as he explained that “the more conscious I was of what was good, of everything ‘beautiful and sublime,’ the more deeply I sank into the morass and the more capable I was of becoming entirely bogged down in it” (1309), he realizes the down-side of believing in this way, yet this internal conflict unwillingly but gradually led him to go beyond the point of no return.
Therefore, his extremely heightened self-esteem cannot be attributed to just his personality. At the very end of the notes, as he cried out that “they won’t let me … I can’t be … good!” (1376), he seems to be rather a tragic hero as a product of the modern society. It is important to understand that too much self-consciousness can come from caring about other people. He knew what would make people feel uncomfortable but thought too much and believed that people were disgusted with him. Therefore, in order to reduce people’s feeling of repulsion towards him, he started “to behave as independently as possible … and … tried to assume as noble an expression as possible” (1329). As a result, this caring about others ironically builds the high barriers that he cannot transcend back anymore. Therefore, all his socially awkward actions were not led by any malicious intention, but were actually due to no more than his desperate desire for his existence to be acknowledged. The man just wanted to be “offered … friendship” (1334) and wanted to “compel his friends to love [him]” (1345). Therefore, it can be said that Dostoevsky did not describe the man as an innately cynical person but by disclosing the process of the destruction of the character, he addressed a type of tragedy that reasonably could have been found in a modern society.
In addition to the flaw of his personality, another important aspect of the tragedy is his dependency on “literary language” (1333) to talk about a point of honor in order to cover up his pitiful actual-self. When he writes about the cause of his madness towards his friends, even though it was driven by his desire to be loved, he pointed out the cause in the friends with clasped beliefs and the society that lead people believe to in such a way. He wrote “they’d begun to worship nothing but success. Everything that was just, but oppressed and humiliated, they ridiculed hard-heartedly and shamelessly” (1343) and criticized the way of the people in the society where people “mistook rank for intelligence” (1343). Here, he explains his idealistic theory in literary language by showing sympathy toward weak people who are taken advantage of because of their lower status by the powerful people instead of directly disclosing his actual desire to be socially accepted. Similarly, when he talked with a prostitute Liza to convince her to bail out of the miserable work, as Liza described that his way of talk “sounds just like a book” (1361), as he plays a role of philanthropist by covering up his actual miserable self. From those descriptions, the readers can see his extreme fear to expose his actual-self and the dependence upon the literary language to cover up the actual-self.
However, Dostoevsky discloses the vulnerability of his dependence on the literary language by forcing the man to face the reality. After his literary language, Liza successfully gets out of the track of the miserable life and visits the man with a hope. However, her visit actually forced him to face the fact that the literary language that he used to cover up his actual-self now became a pressure as he believes that she should expect the same thing in his everyday language. This situation deprives him of the way to escape with literary language but makes him face his reality. Even though he had been longing “for people, for friends” (1344), he seems to possess “instinctive fear of achieving his goal” by disclosing his actual-self. He believed that once normal people face an absolute fact like “two times two makes four” (1312), they immediately submit, but he is not such a person. For him, impossibility is always a good reason not to try out, but the remaining possibility of winning still gives him hope. For example, he was relieved when he lost his chance to fight with his friend because they did not show up and talked to himself saying “I’d have given him the slap” (1354). However, if Liza realizes the miserable actual self of the man as a result of being his dream come true, he would not have any excuse but actually have to face the actual impossibility, “stone wall” (1312) for the first time. If he will be confronted by the ‘stone wall’ as a result, he won’t have any way to differentiate himself from all the other ‘normal people’ to justify his social awkwardness. This very big problem seemed to drive him into a destructive psychological state; therefore, he rejected Liza and decided to hide himself underground to avoid any contact with any others in order to protect his weak justifications.
The man failed to prove his absolute trust in his intelligence to deal with everything about himself and psychologically destructed himself in “the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world” (1309). Nevertheless, the note he writes underground is still to prove his perfection but in an opposite way, which is to prove he cannot become anything. He describes:
that it was disgusting, but couldn’t be otherwise; you had no other choice – you could never become a different person; and that even if there were still time and faith enough for you to change into something else, most likely you wouldn’t even want to change (1310).
The man rejected any further improvement in himself and even by resigning from his job, which was the only last connection between him and the social world, he decided to seek for perfection as one who “couldn’t become anything at all” (1308). His life in the social world ended with complete failure to prove his intellectual superiority; however, here underground, he declares that “in my life I’ve only taken to an extreme that which you haven’t even dared to take halfway” (1379) to prove he can be an absolute fool who has lived more than 40 years (1308).
Therefore, the ultimate purpose of writing these notes through the obtrusive disclosure of his inner feeling and his shameful past seems to strongly reassure his miserableness. Sadly, this is only the way he could reach to prove the existence of himself. Thus, he tries to recall every detail of miserable past memories and even “[fabricates] all sorts of incredible stories about itself under the pretext that they too could have happened” (1312). However, what makes this story a tragedy is that even though he tries to justify his life underground in various ways, he himself does not seem to be wholly convinced. His discussion in the first chapter is often interrupted by counterarguments posed by himself. Whenever he becomes confused or cannot provide a convincing answer to the question, the discussion is sidetracked by changing the subject. As a result, readers can see the anxiety and loneliness of the man as he forces himself not to become anything because his real mind is actually poured out as a grievous cry of “To hell with the underground! ” (1327).
In this piece, Dostoevsky successfully depicted a tragedy of a man who digs himself deeper underground due to his extreme self-consciousness as a product of the modern society. He is described in a very cynical way, but the readers should find similar emotions in themselves in some degree because the conflict between the actual-self and ideal-self add reality to the character. The text depicted the human aspect of the man who is afraid and tries to distance himself from the social world yet envies those other normal people who can live without thinking too much. Even though his intention was only for his existence to be acknowledged by others, all his actions that were covered up with literary language pressed all the wrong buttons. The tragedy is that the two conflicting desires to be with and to be away from people destructed the vulnerable mind of the young man, forcing him to believe he is less than nothing. As Dostoevsky noted that the man is “a representative of the current generation” (1307), this piece poses the question of the premeditated and abstract modern society.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Notes from Underground.” Trans. Michael Katz. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Vol. E. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: Norton, 2003. 1307-1379.