An Analysis of the Anti-Utopian Notion in “Notes from Underground”
Notes from Underground, completed in 1864, is considered one of Dostoevsky’s most deviously insightful works, famous for its gloomy description of not only the dark historical period but also the dark environment in which the protagonist lives. This is a novel that attacks moralism, rationalism, utilitarianism and utopian idealism. After a thorough reading, one can locate abundant clues and evidence to support that one of the core themes of Notes from Underground is the fight against the world that people would call civilized, i.e. the ideal world that people are longing for, and the world that “I”, the protagonist of the story, will deny.
The opening paragraphs of the story clearly convey the protagonist’s view of life, personality and the status of his rationality. Almost immediately, we learn that the protagonist is afflicted by illness but refuses to receive medical treatment. He says, “My liver hurts; well, then let it hurt even worse”(3). He interprets medical treatment as “harming only myself and no one else.” This reveals how clearly he understands his illness. That he chooses not to see a doctor proves the protagonist’s advocacy for free will and the power of this free will could make him choose to tolerate the pain rather than seek a cure. Well-being and happiness are desirable goals, and also the features of the utopian world, but he chooses to deny these notions and suffer in order to prove his views. Furthermore, his monologue also implies his championing of rationality over morality and how he escapes from the control imposed by morality. He says: “What was the main point about my wickedness? The whole thing precisely was … that I was simply frightening sparrows in vain, and pleasing myself with it.”(4) This excerpt shows how powerfully moral judgment suppresses a person’s anger. It changes a person in rage into a timid sparrow.Moreover, simple comfort like a doll or sugar could assuage him. Closely following the above quote is the protagonist’s confession, “an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure – primarily a limited being” (5). When everybody is calling for a higher standard of morality, the protagonist expresses the idea that morality makes people characterless. When morality is considered a social progress towards utopian idealism, the protagonist chooses to avoid it and live out his life outside of this movement, behaving in a way that society would deem wicked. He dislikes society, so he stays away from it, and he remains “wicked” so as not to become characterless.
The protagonist clearly knows that he could not blend in with society because of his wickedness, but upon facing their derision, he could do nothing but fight back in protest. This is illustrated by his encounter with an officer in the street. In thinking about how to deal with the superior officer, he says, “it tormented me that even in the street I simply could not be on an equal footing with him.” (48) He thought it humiliating and unequal that he would have to step aside in deference to the officer even though the man had no authority on the street. He even imagines, “what if I meet him and do not step aside? Deliberately do not step aside, even if I have to shove him?” (48) The key word here is equality, in that the protagonist does not want to exist in a system where an officer is perceived to have more value than the common man. He just would not swerve to obtain his sense of being treated equally, and all the theory of equality comes from western enlightenment. As an intellect influenced by it, he becomes oversensitive after he spends too much of his energy focusing on it.Equality is a concept that exists in the description of ideal interpersonal relationships and, crucially, in the utopian world. It is a social state that everybody desires. However, that he emphasizes the notion of equality with such vehemence indicates that it has influenced and changed his personality and social behavior, which implies that he is a rebel of idealism.
Ultimately, the narrator rejects blending in with society, and does not seek the same sense of happiness that others yearn for. His love affair with Liza is another example that proves he avoids the notion of happiness as interpreted by others. In chapter six, he says, “I grew up without a family: that must be why I turned out this way…feeling” (84). This personal judgment of himself prepares him for his later escape from Liza. His emotional confession of his situation touched his sensitive nerve to love, but as his confession echoes Liza’s misfortune, Liza started to pay special attention to him. However, after “seeing her suddenly blush” for what could happen next, he abruptly starts to defend himself by saying, “I am not ashamed of my poverty,” “I look upon my poverty with pride” (106) Poor but noble – this is his self-evaluation which reveals his sensitiveness. Then he “jumped up and ran to Apollon,” and he thinks he “had to vanish somewhere” (106). His sudden departure finally ends his love of Liza, which also proves that he is not only sensitive but also lacks confidence. He is poor, but he finds reasons and defends his poverty, which proves that he is afraid of his future with Liza. Because love is considered a blissful thing and a symbol of an ideal world, he chooses to avoid it and escape.
The “Underground Man’s” failed relationship with Liza, when considered together with his attitude of his life and his social behavior helps to conclude that he staunchly refused to pursue what others would perceive as an ideal world. Everything that marks idealism and betterment he choose to escape from in order to preserve his worldview of free will over happiness. As a philosophical and psychological statement, Notes from Underground expresses an anti-utopian tendency.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes From Underground. New York: Bantam. 1983
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Notes from Underground, completed in 1864, is considered one of Dostoevsky’s most deviously insightful works, famous for its gloomy description of not only the dark historical period but also the […]