Whose Notes from the Underground?
This post was inspired by a comment and question that Byron at “Nothing New Under the Sun,” made to one of my recent Dostoyevsky posts. Byron asks, “Does Dostoyevsky agree with his narrator?” The question has been gnawing at me ever since, so I decided to read up on some the relevant critical views on the subject. Though I am no Dostoyevsky expert, the following position presented by Joseph Frank in essay simply entitled, “Notes from the Underground,” is rather persuasive (which means I should nuance my previous posts). So thanks, Byron, for asking this question, as through it my understanding of Dostoyevsky has benefited.
After discussing a number of views of various literary critics, and pointing out Dostoyesky’s own hints at what he is doing in his footnote 1 of the text itself, Frank sums up his take in the following paragraph:
“Notes from the Underground has been read as the psychological self-revelation of a pathological personality, or as a theological cry of despair over the evils of ‘human nature,’ or as a declaration of Dostoyesky’s supposed adherence to Nietzsche’s philosophy of ‘amoralism’ and the will to power, or as a defiant assertion of the revolt of the human personality against all attempts to limit its inexhaustible potentialties—and the list can easily be continued. All these readings, and many more, can plausibly be supported if certain features of the text are singled out and placed in the foreground while others are simply overlooked or forgotten. But if we are interested in understanding Dostoyevsky’s own point of view, so far as this can be reconstructed, then we must take it for what it was initially meant to be—a brilliantly Swiftian satire, remarkable for the finesse of its conception and the brio of its execution, which dramatizes the dilemmas of a representative Russian personality attempting to live by the two European codes whose unhappy effects Dostoyevsky explores. And though the sections have a loose narrative link, the novella is above all a diptych depicting two episodes of a symbolic history of the Russian intelligentsia” (pp. 219-220).
This is not, however, to say that aspects of Dostoyesky’s own life and experience are not present in his fictional character. “As the underground man belabors his own self-disgust and guilt, was not Dostoyevsky also suppressing his self-condemnation as a conscience-stricken spectator of his wife’s death-agonies, and repenting of the egoism to which he confessed in his notebook?” (p. 219).
 As Frank points out, in footnote 1 of Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevski provides a clue to his audience as to the “satirical and parodistic nature of his conception.” However, the strength and passion Dostoyevsky’s character overpowers or clouds the nature of the work as a satirical parody, which often results in a straightforward reading.