‘The Unreliable Narrator: Dostoevsky’s Underground Man’ by Yuki Iwama

Hypocrisy is rampant in human nature – we say one thing and do another; we believe one thing and renounce it with one event. This condition seems amplified in Dostoevsky’s Underground Man – a man of ‘high conscious’ and intellect. “To be overly conscious,” the Underground Man writes, “is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.6).  This extreme state of consciousness is the undoing for the Man; perhaps even the main cause of his paradoxical nature. The unreliability of the text stems from this dualism against the backdrop of the reigning school of thought at the time, which was rationalism and utilitarianism – liberals and nihilists were most prolific in the intellectual circles (Pevear in Dostoevsky 2006, p.xii). In this essay, I would like to present the paradoxical nature of the Underground Man, as both character and narrator, and the various embodiments Dostoevsky paints for us in turn – especially in Apropos. But first, I would like to delve into the roots of the Man. Is he as unreliable as the book suggests?

Within the opening lines of Notes From Underground, readers can instantly comprehend the narrator’s ostensible unreliability. The Underground Man contradicts himself within every sentence – an example can be seen when he blatantly states that he is superstitious even though he is “sufficiently educated not to be” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.3). It is abundantly clear that this is a man paradoxical in nature, unable to assert himself over one thing or the other. The Underground Man struggles even to label himself, unable to reconcile his very self to such an ostensible objectivity. Even being labelled a ‘lazybones’ is something that the Man wishes he could give himself to: “…it would be most agreeable to hear that about myself. It means I’m positively defined; it means there’s something to say about me” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.19). This crippling inability to define himself by any means is reflective of the warring philosophies that is presented in the novel. Appearing an irrationalist, the Underground Man’s philosophy could be seen as a direct embodiment of  Dostoevsky’s criticism of the prevalent school of thought of the 1860s, which was of course, rationalist egoism. However, the Man is not without logic, despite his writing process. Scanlan, posits that though the Man is not a rational egoist, he is still an egoist (1999, p.3). The Underground Man’s repugnant character serves as a warning against egoism, which discounts humanitarianism and altruism – which could lead to disastrous effect (Scanlan 1999, p.4). Therefore, though he may appear to be an irrationalist, the Underground Man can instead be seen as an egoist trapped between “two climates of opinion” (a dangerous combination), embodied in the novel in the cynicism of the older man in Underground, and the romanticism of the emotionally driven younger man in Apropos of the Wet Snow (Pevear in Dostoevsky 2006, p.x).

Here, in Underground, we see the end result of the Man’s metamorphoses from youth to age, from romantic to nihilist.  (Though arguably, we could say that Apropos of the Wet Snow reflects the beginnings of the metamorphoses, since the Man is already in a heightened state of mental agony and suffers from bouts of cynicism.) Underground presents the Man immersed in the nihilistic ideology. He is completely misanthropic, cut off from society, and cynical about everything including himself, after years of being ‘underground’. He writes, “…I am living my life in my corner”, (here he refers to the underground), “taunting myself with the…futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become something” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.5). Here is a man who, with his ‘high conscious’ cannot, in good faith, become one thing or another because of his nihilism. He has “never managed to become even an insect” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.6). How could he become anything if he has no choice in the matter? Joseph Frank notes that the Man “seems to be nothing more than a chaos of conflicting emotional impulses; and his conflict may be defined as that of a search for his own character his quest for himself” (1961, p.7). Thus, a man who cannot know himself, cannot be considered ‘reliable’ in any sense, including as a narrator. But, Frank also notes that the novel must be seen “as a whole”; that this unreliability is more than it appears to be (1961, p.4). Pevear posits that the broken and perplexing narration is a “dramatization” of the “unifying idea” of the novel (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.viii). The novel itself, as well as the character of the Underground Man, are embodiments of anti-rationalism and anti-utilitarianism; the rejection of the systematic philosophies that overlooks the fallacies and dissent of human nature. The unreliability is intentional and satiric, revealing a caricature of the Underground Man as an everyman intellectual who has slipped through the cracks of society.

Apropos of the Wet Snow recounts the Man’s disastrous encounters with various characters who are themselves caricatures of Russian society in the 19th Century: the soldier, the schoolmates, the prostitute, the colleagues, and the servant. We see here the Man’s struggle with his metamorphoses and the disparity in thought. The first scene he paints for us is of his office and his relationship with his colleagues. He expresses hatred towards them and crippling insecurity at being too “eccentric” – even though he states that they are “all dull-witted and as like one another as flock of sheep” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.44). He also mentions that he is a “coward and a slave” and that this state of being derives from “natural law”; hinting at the deterministic nihilism that eventually cripples his sense of self and place in society (Dostoevsky 2006, p.44). Here, the Man is stricken with “contraries” in many forms: being highly sociable with colleagues one day and isolated the next; setting them above himself one day and looking down upon them the next; and suffering a bout of “scepticism and indifference” before “reproaching [him]self with romanticism” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.45).

The Man’s growing dissent with romanticism and sentimentality is shown to us through a satirical episode with the literary cliché of the ‘redeemed prostitute’ – which, according to Pevear, is a parody of sequences from Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky’s novel, What Is to Be Done (to which Dostoevsky is replying to through Notes From Underground) (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.xv). After sleeping with Liza, the prostitute, he rants about ‘saving’ her from her fate, but later reproaches himself for being so sentimental and starts to hate her. There are constant referrals to literature within this episode; from Liza telling him his rant sounds something from a book, to the Man becoming angry with himself for giving Liza money (the act being described as being “so bookish”) (Dostoevsky 2006, pp.1256-127). Pevear notes that “one main thematic strand of the book is the underground man’s denunciation of the estranging and vitiating influence of books…”, which leads to him using the word “literary” quite sarcastically (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.ix). However, not only is the episode with Liza, the ‘redeemed prostitute’ a parody of a literary cliché, it can also be seen as a satire on the Man’s ‘high consciousness’ itself.

Coetzee suggests that this intense self-awareness and high consciousness “make the hyperconscious man the antithesis of the normal man. Feeling no basis in certainty, he cannot make decisions and act” (1985, p.216). Here we see l’homme de la nature et de la verite (the man of nature and truth) – a healthy, normal, “undivided man of action”, who, albeit being narrow-minded and stupid (according to the Underground Man), is decisive and holds a certainty of himself and what he desires and his place in society (Pevear in Dostoevsky 2006, p.xix). This particular breed of men (the normal men in fact) is subject to the Underground Man’s scorn and disgust, however he is also intimidated by the decisiveness displayed by l’homme de la nature et de la verite. The example of this type of man is presented in the novel as the soldier, who moves the Man aside in the bar in order to walk past him. The Man, shocked by the soldier’s instinctive and definitive action, becomes obsessed by him and attempts to bump into him on various occasions (when he does, it’s only by accident). Frank notes that the ‘stupidity’ or lesser consciousness of the man of action “allows him to maintain his complacency, and to look on the underground man’s squirmings with unfeigned contempt”; whereas the Underground Man, with his high intellect and consciousness, sees what the man of action does not, and is both spiteful and envious of him (1961, pp.10-11).

So we can see through these examples how the Underground Man’s ostensible unreliability as a narrator stems from his nihilism and struggles with rational egoism, as well as his ‘high consciousness’. However, we must also remember that he is a ‘literary’ embodiment of the main argument made by Dostoevsky against rational egoism – as Pevear states, not only does the author present to us an antihero, but also an “antibook” (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.ix). We must also be aware of the socio-political climate of the time, and how heavily Dostoevsky had been censored in his work. The Wayne Booth model of narrator unreliability states that this unreliability is a “function of irony” – a channel to communicate ideas behind the “speaker” (the narrator, who is the embodiment of the irony itself) (Olsen 2003, p.94). We can see the satirical nature of the novel, especially in the Underground Man’s encounter with the characters in Apropos, and the inherent humour through which Dostoevsky presents them to us. Pevear states that “laughter creates the distance that allows for recognition,” thereby distinguishing the author from the narrator (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.ix). It does not do to presume that the narrator’s argument holds little validity, at his apparent unreliability. One must go deeper than that and read the author’s intentions.

The Underground Man is considered to be unreliable as a narrator, however we see now that it serves a deeper purpose and stems from a deeper psyche. The Man is a character of paradox and warring philosophies, namely the inherent desire for free will, and the core determinism of nihilism. This duality can be difficult to comprehend at times, with such distorted and contradictory writing; however, this presents a channel for the heavily censored Dostoevsky to communicate his ideas to his readers behind the paradoxical speaker. We see here a tragic and satirical novel commenting on the socio-political climate of 19th Century Russia, which, after all these years, can still be applied to contemporary society: the disassociation of the individual and the masses; the struggle between a nihilistic age and the sentimentality of yesterday; and the mania of egoism in a capitalistic society. The Underground Man exists today just as he did then.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015


Dostoevsky, F M 2006, Notes From Underground, Vintage Books, Great Britain. Foreword by Richard Pevear.

Coetzee, J M 1985, ‘Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky’, Comparative Literature, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 193-232.

Frank, J 1961, ‘Nihilism and “Notes from Underground”, The Sewanee Review, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 1-33.

Olsen, G 2003, ‘Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators’, Narrative, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 93-109.

Scanlan, James P 1999, ‘The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 60, no. 3, pp. 549-567.


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