I really, really wanted to love this book. It’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky for crying out loud! Yet, while there were aspects of Notes from Underground that interested me, I think somehow I might have missed the point. Existentialism – I should know by now to avoid it at all costs. Live and learn, eh?
Told from the perspective of a bitter, nameless narrator living in St Petersburg, Notes from Underground is set into two parts. The first is a monologue, where the narrator critiques society, the pleasures of suffering, and as always, our favourite, the concept of free will. Part two, named Apropos of the Wet Snow, is the ‘story’ part of the novel, depicting his life as a lower-class man who has conflicting interests in being a man who wants to belong, but believes he is too intelligent to truly fit in.
If I’m being brutually honest, while Notes from Underground is considered the ‘original existentialist novel’, I felt that other authors have explored similar themes in a far more concise, entertaining and provocative way. Sartre, in The Age of Reason, discusses the concept of free will, but in a way that is not only linear and thought-provoking, but actually translates to the feelings of the everyman. Orwell, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, creates a character that is so obsessed with living outside of society and above societal’s rule that he eventually becomes stricken and downcast in his own poverty. Both of these authors explore similar themes that Dostoyevsky does, but in a way that is clear and at times even witty.
As a reader, I feel that I have to agree or resonate with the reader in some way, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be ‘likeable’ characters per say. Palahnuik’s characters are often downright abhorrent, and even Salinger’s famous character, Holden Caulfield, is a pain in the neck – but I still like them, or want them to succeed.
I didn’t have this connection with the faceless narrator in Notes from Underground. Perhaps I missed the greater point of his message, but he simply came across as a bitter man who believed that his intellectual capabilities made him superior to those around him. First, I know people like that (don’t we all?) and generally whenever they speak, I have the urge to either punch them in the nose or…well, punch them in the mouth. They don’t impress me, they don’t interest me, and perhaps most ironically, despite their apparent braininess, they never actually teach me anything. Second, the faceless narrator comes across as an odious character who creates the problems around him, and uses them as an excuse to hide from the potential he has a human being, and the joy that he could actually have in his life. He is so downtrodden by what he believes ‘life’ is that he fails to actually experience his own. Throughout the second part of the novel, he feels inferior to his old high school friends because they have more money than him – yet he does nothing to remove himself from the pitiless situation he has placed himself in. He smirks that he is smarter than those around him, yet he fails to understand the importance of interacting with other people, social skills and just generally being, well, nice.
Though Dostoyevsky uses his narrator as a tool to discuss larger issues, to me, he simply came across as an example of what is sometimes wrong with our society, and while things may have changed in the hundred odd years since Notes from Underground was written, people like him remain. In a world where so many people have so little, where oppression, class, gender and sexuality are illogical precursors to who should succeed in life, his narrator came across as self-indulgent and too wrapped up in the syntax to see the greater picture. Perhaps this was one of the points that Dostoyevsky may have made, and it has simply flown right over my head (when it comes to philosophy, it wouldn’t be the first time), but regardless, his tale wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. Give me likeable, give me despicable, give me downright murderous, I don’t care, but at the very least, a character has to have a purpose.
Have you read Notes from Underground of Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Are you a fan of existential philosophy? Let me know!