By Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Middlesex, England: Penguin Book, 1972
Translated from the Russian original of 1864
123 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2011

Dostoyevsky’s challenging little novel tells the story of a man in his 40s. He is poor, retired with a very small inheritance. He has liver problems and has had them for 20 years. He has never consulted a doctor, having no trust in them.

“Now I go on living in my corner and irritating myself with the spiteful and worthless consolation that a wise man can’t seriously make himself anything, only a fool makes himself anything.”

He lives in unhealthy St. Petersburg, in a small ugly room and has, in the beginning an old woman servant, later has a male servant.

He sees himself, as a man of knowledge and thought, as hopeless since what is simply is and we can’t really know.

People of action are:

1. stupid
2. deceived that they “achieve.”

In the first of the two sections of the novel, The Underground, he is speaking to an anonymous audience, presumably all of us, about the THEORY of his life and insights. His views seem contradictory, even to himself. The whole section is sort of a philosophical rant where he makes claims and then often denies them, as though he is frightened to even hold his own ideas up to his OWN scrutiny.

“Gentlemen, please excuse me for carrying my philosophizing to such absurd lengths – forty years underground, after all! Let me give my fancy free rein. You see gentlemen, reason is a good thing, that can’t be disputed, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s intellectual faculties while volition is a manifestation of the world of life, I mean of the whole of human life including both reason and speculation.”

He challenges the fundamental assumption of rational morality:

“What makes you conclude that it is absolutely necessary to correct man’s volition in that way? In short, how do you know that such a correction will be good for man? And, to sum the whole things up, why are you so certain that not flying in the face of this real, normal interests, certified by the deductions of reason and arithmetic, is really always for his good and must be a law for all mankind?"

Why does he write these “notes”? In part it is contradictory – he seems to want to impress others and to seem learned and “worthy.” Yet, he really doesn’t seem to want that at all, and actually scorns the values and thoughts of others. Yet he writes.

I had to stop and look carefully at that passage in relation to myself. Why in the world do I bother to write these comments on the books I read, setting for myself a target of reading and commenting on about four books each month? It all began strictly for myself. I had written a few such pieces for my students in various courses I taught, but those were exceptions.

However, in 1999 I was reading a novel and noted that one character sounded so similar to a character I had read before. I mentioned this to my partner and she looked over my shoulder and commented that I had read that book just a couple years earlier. I began to realize my memory was fading. So, very unlike the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s novel, I began to write my comments for MYSELF to help me remember what I had read and what I thought about the book. However, eventually I decided to share them with others and began to put them on my web page. People found them and responded, disagreeing with me, thanking me, asking for help with their homework or even asking me to review this or that book. It was fun and challenging. Now it is pure habit, and one I enjoy. While I share many of the analyses and values of the narrator of this novel, I certainly don’t approach life with the level of negativity that he chooses. My life is my own to create and live, but I don’t find that meaningless or degrading, not even burdensome, but very exciting, freeing and stimulating. The histories of the narrator and myself are quite different, I would think that would have much to do with the difference. But that’s a longer story . . .

The second section of Dostoyevsky's novel, “A Story of the Falling Sleet”, is more a narrative of his earlier life. There a two linked episodes, first a long section is of the catastrophic dinner party he crashed which was to honor one of his former work colleagues. He behaves very badly and virtually ruins the party for the others. But, it is one of the few times he acts himself in public.

After the disastrous dinner party he attempts to follow the group to another place and further confront and harass them, but they are not there. He ends up in a painful situation with a fairly new prostitute who is devastated by her situation. He plays the gallant, trying to give her courage to leave her situation and even gives her his address.

The next morning he immediately regrets having given her his address and is simply terrified that she might actually come to him for help, which some three days later she does. He attempts to insult her and make her feel bad, but in the process he reveals his own weaknesses and misery and she loves him even more. Nonetheless, he finally insults her and drives her out. He attempts to justify his own behavior to himself:

“. . . I have felt ashamed all the time I have been writing this Story of the Falling Sleet; therefore it is no longer literature but penal correction. After all, to tell a long story about how I missed life through decaying morally in a corner, not having sufficient meaning, losing the habit of living, and carefully cultivating an angry underground – really is not interesting: a novel needs a hero, but here all the features of an anti-hero have been purposely collected, and most of all, the whole thing produces a bad impression, because we have all got out of the habit of living, we are, all in greater of lesser degree, crippled.”

This “crippling” of which he speaks is to live according to the rules of society or others, and not to be authentic to our inner being, no matter how painful, and even disgusting that might be.

But in the end, he seems to choose to remain in his underground.

I think this is not as sophisticated or successful an expression of Dostoyevsky’s view of the world as he later arrived at in The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment, but many of the themes are in place – the contrast between societal morality and a personally chosen and lived morality which is a difficult mix of reason and gut level feeling. Despite my feeling that Dostoyevsky just didn’t pull off what he was aiming at in this short work, it was revealing and fascinating, if at times painful, to read.

Bob Corbett


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