Category Archives: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from Underground

First published in 1864 by Feodor Dostoevsky, this novel is approximately 130 pages long. Though short and simple insofar as the story revolves around the innermost thoughts of but one major character, it is also dense. I was constantly trying to figure out what kind of person the narrator was. I was distracted by his outlook and opinions, while I was evaluating whether I believed him to be right, while considering my own thoughts about his thoughts, as I was busy relating (or failing to relate) to what he was saying based on my own experiences. If this is something you intend on reading yourself, then be forewarned: Notes from Underground may provide you with several veritable rabbit holes for deep distracted thought.

The narrator in this novel is unnamed. At first, my impression was that I should imagine the voice to be of Dostoevsky himself. I am familiar with several of his characters from reading other novels, and it seems he was quite adept at developing personalities for his books whose mental and emotional states were often quite extreme. I thought that, maybe, the author was in crisis one day and had to “get it all out”. There is another way to look at it though. Perhaps Dostoevsky left the narrator unnamed not to absolve himself of the beliefs an opinions shared, but to imply that humans in general are routinely preoccupied by thoughts that are simply filtered before we share them with society. Interestingly, even though the novel exists, the narrator claims that he has no intended audience in mind.

So what is Notes from Underground about? It is a bit of a rant. The narrator references narcissism, self-hatred, jealousy, anger, paranoia, and inequalities of class structure. There are themes of superiority vs. inferiority, intelligence vs. stupidity, and camaraderie vs. isolation. The text is rife with contradictions, though it is presented in a way that is paradoxical and realistic. For instance, there is one scene where the protagonist is at a lunch table eating with friends, but his mind is so distant from being present with them that he is only arguably part of the group.

The narrator refers to feeling invisible, “like a fly.” It seems a simple metaphor until the thought is repeated. “They must despise me,” he thinks, “[I] did not expect [my friends] despising me.” The reader has no reason to think that the narrators’ friends do despise him. After all, they have invited him to the lunch and are having quite a time chatting and laughing all around him. Meanwhile, the narrator calls himself an “insect” and grows irritated that they are not annoyed at his insulting them. It is all impervious fun to them, whom apparently do not realize he’s being serious. (But maybe he’s a ‘sensitive soul’, and his friends are a raunchy collective of men who seek humor by demeaning their brothers all in ‘good fun’? Maybe he has a right to be annoyed.)

I was initially inclined to think of the narrator as quite normal. Awhile into the novel, I changed my mind and decided that he was disturbed. Certain details seemed to imply this. For instance, in the beginning of the novel, he talks of a man he passed in the street whom he stepped aside for. (The narrator’s choices were to step aside, collide into the man, or expect the other man to step aside.) The narrator’s choice to move was internalized as an act of self-deprecation, which he then obsesses about. To him, it matters that it was he whom got “out of the way”. The narrator works himself up to give it another go, crosses paths with the same man in the same way, and then he suffers grievously after having stepped aside yet again. This then festers in him for over a decade. ‘Why should it matter whom stepped aside’ I figured, ‘He must be irrational’. (Then again, I remember things that happened to me over twenty years ago which occasionally resurface, and certainly many people seek therapy for similar things.)

I believe that it is too simple to say that the narrator’s mind is diseased. Perhaps he is depressed. Schizophrenic? Just brutally honest with himself? There seems to be a disconnect between the thoughts he has and his ability to question whether his perceptions are true. And, with each negative thought he has, it appears to push him further towards a capacity for malignant behavior. Even when his girlfriend tries to reason with him and explain that he is “upsetting [himself] about nothing”, he struggles to hear her through his own tirade of thoughts. (Though, we know nothing of his girlfriend outside the narrator’s perceptions of her. We know he feels drawn to her, but does he have actual reasons to mistrust her? What has their relationship been beyond that one shared discussion?)

In Notes from Underground, the reader is there to follow along as the narrator spirals downward. (Or does he?) We are witness to each unabashed thought he has along the way, while I found it to be interesting and a bit terrifying. It is charged with emotion and uncertainty. I thought I had the narrator pegged, but now I’m unsure. Maybe what has happened to him started out as a small thing, and then developed into an illness the more isolated he felt. Maybe he is like many of us, terrorized by thoughts we never dare to share with others. Maybe he’s normal. Maybe normal is abnormal.

I didn’t necessarily enjoy Notes from Underground, though I would call it quintessential Dostoevsky. It may seem disconnected and erratic for someone whom has not read his works before. (It may seem disconnected and erratic for someone who has…) What I liked best about it is also what I found the most frustrating: I’m not really sure what I read, even though I’ve thought quite a bit about it.

Crime and Punishment

First published on 1 January 1866 by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment is one of the most pivotal pieces of classic Russian literature. There are few titles that are more well known in this genre, perhaps save War and Peace or Anna Karenina. If you are like me though, you heard the name Dostoevsky before you were able to name anything he had written.

I read Crime and Punishment for the first time about two years ago. I finished it for the second time just last month. Currently there are 28 people on Goodreads who claim to be reading it, and 350 who intend on picking it up. Compare this to the currently re-popularized Dune with 115K readers, or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time book Eye of the World (which was made into a television series whose first season just finished airing on Amazon Prime) with 38.6K readers. Crime and Punishment is grossly unloved.

Surely this is not because the themes and material is no longer relevant. Instead, I would propose it has more to do with the fact that this approximately 670 page romp through psychopathy and ethics is somewhat imposing to those who would see it as belonging only to lovers of classic lit. I would challenge this inclination. Given our peculiar intrigue with sociopaths and criminal drama, the antics of protagonist Raskolnikov would probably interest a larger populace than the average reader may think.

It begins with a thought. Raskolnikov wonders what it would feel like to have killed somebody. There is no other motive. It does not matter who. He even has little concern for how, though he’d prefer not to get caught. This crucial lack of planning creates a dynamic situation where the most astonishing thing is that Raskolnikov manages to not only perform his crime, but escapes the scene. It’s all a bit of macabre luck which leads to a tumult of thoughts that then oscillates between rationalizations and doubt. Could it be that his community is “better off” without the murdered individual? Should he turn himself in? Maybe he was meant to get away, and that is why happenstance allowed him to flee.

As the novel progresses, the depth of thought regarding acts outside of the social norm begs a more serious question: what is crime? Who decides what is construed as criminal? From the moment Raskolnikov committed his ‘experiment’, he is plagued by worries of being found out and the desire to confess. Was he ever again a free man, or merely a prisoner of his own mind?

Posing questions like these is one thing that I think Dostoevsky does very well. Characters throughout his novels exhibit extremes in emotion that is at some times manic, but always drives the plot. For instance, Raskolnikov falls ill to his anxiety at one point in Crime and Punishment, and the reader is paused to consider whether to feel bad for him. Okay, if we cannot feel sympathy towards him, then what about his well-meaning friend? His sister? His mother? Raskolnikov is still capable of offering a positive impact upon people around him not much later in the novel. Is he redeemable? Do we excuse his foray as a sociopath, if otherwise innocent individuals can benefit from his remaining in society?

Where exactly do we draw the line between behavior that is preferable, from that which is acceptable, vs. dubiously excusable? How much do the ties of family, friendship, and love bias us? Are the monikers of good and evil appropriate labels for certain people, or simply their actions? And, should we fall prey to our impulses, how should retributions and restorations be defined?

The Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

The rabbit hole of considerations dives deep, though not too swiftly. Kindly enough, Fyodor starts his reader out with contemplation of simpler vices. The very first example we’re given is of a man who has exchanged the money his family needed for food in favor of drink. While inebriated, he laments of his own shortcomings and wails of how unfortunate it is that his obsession with vodka is ruining their lives. Another vignette demonstrates the folly of over-inflated expectations and the cruelty that can ensue from blindly following the crowd.

For those less inclined to self-medicate or are particularly gifted with willpower, there are questions still. How much effort should we put towards salvaging people from the situations they create for themselves? Is it right for the noble among us to suffer on behalf of the selfish and depraved? Even if it isn’t right, does the act of shouldering those impositions not somehow define the “goodness” of those types of people?

I will easily admit that Crime and Punishment is not a simple novel, nor a pretty one. There are a few scenes that I’d say are somewhat grotesque. I’ll say that I doubt our dear Dostoevsky was a very stable man, but also, that his works comprise about 30% of the Russian literature on my radar. The Idiot, The Double, and Notes from Underground are still on my ‘to read’ list, while I’ve been through Brothers Karamazov, The Gambler, and White Nights at least once.

Crime and Punishment is insightful and thought-provoking. Though it may not be considered very light reading, it is nevertheless a worthwhile novel whose reflections of the human soul elicit truths that are often depressing, sometimes maddening, and even a bit horrific. I would recommend it to anyone not shy of looking deep within, and asking themselves who they would be if not for the constraints of the society in which they live.