Taking Notes from the Underground

May 6, 2007

I am interested in exploring how Dostoyevsky crafted his novel Notes from the Underground. The way he revealed the main character’s inner life and motivation are extremely effective in this novel. I would divide the story into four distinct sections that build upon one another to reveal the character’s sense of place in the world. The first section opens with the main character philosophizing about life and how others perceive him, the second revolves around the incident with the police officer, the third culminates with the main character inviting himself to the dinner with his old school acquaintances, and the fourth is built around the main character’s interactions with the prostitute. I think that the second section is the integral piece that allows the rest of the story to fit together. This section develops the main character in a way that carries the story away from his professed notions of how things are and ought to be, and allows the later events to appear plausible given his character. This portion gives the reader insight into this person’s character and allows the reader to understand his actions later in the novel.

The second section revolves around an incident where the main character witnesses a fight while passing a tavern in which a person is thrown out of a window. “At another time a scene like that would have made me sick, but this time I envied that ejected gentleman so much that I entered the tavern and stepped into the billiard room thinking: “Maybe I could pick a fight too and be thrown out of the window” (Dostoyevsky 123).

The main character is fighting against the insignificance he feels in life, and is attempting to engage and be a vital part of the action. He wants to be heard, felt, or even hurt, in order to feel that he is actually alive. On entering the tavern, he happens to be blocking the police officer, who simply moves him out of the way before continuing with his work. “He grabbed me by the shoulders and, without a word, picked me up and, setting me down a bit further away, passed by as if I didn’t exist. I could’ve forgiven anything, including a beating, but that was too much—to be brushed aside without being noticed” (Dostoyevsky 123).

The main character dwells on this perceived affront to his vitality by the officer. He spends a disproportionate amount of effort devising scenarios where he can shame the officer. He builds up the incident to monumental proportions until he finally implements a plan to remedy the slight by bumping into the officer on the street and pretending that the officer is beneath his notice. In the process of executing this plan he goes to the extreme of borrowing money he can’t afford from a coworker to purchase a beaver collar for his jacket. When he bumps into the officer, he wants to appear a gentleman. He wants to be perceived as the officer’s equal or superior by the people on the street. The main character goes through a number of these attempts, but always moves out of the officer’s path before actually bumping into him. This only makes him feel more insignificant. When after great effort, he finally manages to physically bump into the police officer; the officer doesn’t even seem to notice. In the story, the officer finally moves away from the neighborhood, but the main character continues to dwell on the event.

Overall this section effectively helps to show the main character’s alienation and sense of powerlessness. He continually obsesses over insignificant interactions with others and lashes out in petty ways to gain respect. I don’t think the later scenarios in the novel would be effective without these elements of the main character’s personality being illuminated. This incidence with the police officer allows the reader to remain sympathetic to a relatively unsympathetic character and to identify with his sense of alienation and powerlessness as he misguidedly lashes out at those around him.

With my own work, I am extremely interested in the strength of Dostoyevsky’s voice in this novel. I am also interested in how he never names the main character. In Stalking America I have also been exploring the idea of not revealing my main character’s name. I think in Notes from the Underground the fact that the main character’s name is never revealed adds to the character’s feelings of insignificance, like he is too insignificant to even have a name. In my writing I don’t want the main character’s name to be revealed, in order to contrast with the readily available fame for the people involved with the reality television story lines. I believe I will probably reveal the main character’s name as an incidental at the very end in order to signify his growth as a character. I like the idea of the power of names.

Note: Just stumbled across somebody else’s write up about Notes…


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