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The most gripping aspect of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing is his characters’ compelling internal struggle. No matter how shocking or far-fetched his characters’ struggles may first appear, one quickly discerns that these struggles are precisely those with which we all continually grapple. Dostoevsky’s depiction of these struggles, however, are taken to the extreme, making them initially appear incomprehensible.
The Underground Man himself is a metaphor for one who is suffering from a hyperconscious state of mind who endures a vicious circle of logical to illogical thinking. He vacillates between being a superior thinker to being as insignificant and invisible as a creeping insect. As noted in class, Plutarch writes that “You are a God only insofar as you recognize yourself as a man”. This reinforces society’s general conception that one who lives as a bookworm comprehends nothing about real life. Likewise, some people hold that one who experiences life actively but has no book knowledge is missing out on the finer (that is, intellectual/philosophical) things of life. Therefore, as Plutarch and Dostoevsky suggest, one must live amongst one’s fellow man and have healthy interaction with others as a prerequisite for gaining any ground toward self-transcendence or ‘godliness’.
The Underground Man delves into the question of how much control each individual has over his/her freedom, including freedom of choice. Victor Frankl maintains that freedom is a choice that can be cultivated; correspondingly Davis postulates that radical reflexivity can ensure the fruition of personal self-enlightenment and emancipation. Along this same line of thinking, the Underground Man alludes to the fact that there is an important purpose to his taking up pen and paper: “…Why, why exactly do I wish to write? If it’s not for the public, then wouldn’t it be possible to remember it all in my head without transferring it to paper?” (Dostoevsky, 39). His persistent questioning points to the possibility that he does have a desire to change, to achieve moral understanding through having healthy human relationships. Taylor believes “…that we can grasp our lives in a narrative” (Taylor, 47). He expounds further along this vein: “…Making sense of one’s life as a story is also, like orientation to the good, not an optional extra; that our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going” (Ibid.). According to this viewpoint, each person has the potential for personal growth, change and development. Most notably, each of us may choose to seek out this growth and development. If one chooses to live in isolated complacency and not seek out personal betterment, like the Underground Man, then that person will only ever know perpetual, cyclical stagnation.
The Underground Man’s personality is paradoxical. On one hand, he feels a need to be a part of a positive social camaraderie, even to have love. At the same time he loathes others and strongly conveys that people, in general, are a waste of his time. The Underground Man relays a clear contrast of his own thinking pertaining to the power (or lack thereof) of love: “…When there is love, you can carry on living without happiness. Even in grief life is good, it’s good to be alive in the world however you live” (Dostoevsky, 88-9). In the very next breath, he continues to say “You and I…we came together…just now, and during all that time we didn’t exchange a single word, and afterwards you started looking at me like a [scared] wild animal; and I did the same to you. Is that really the way to love…it’s simply repugnant, that’s what” (Dostoevsky, 89). The Underground Man is oscillating between having faith and not having faith in the power of human relationships and/ love, unable to let himself fully trust in the goodness of others for fear of being disappointed beyond recovery.
The ideas noted above point to the fact that a person cannot live with his/her head always in the clouds anymore than s/he can live a wholly unreflected life. This hypothesis is not new. In the Torah (Old Testament), for example, it is written that Jacob stood out as the best model for future generations. More than his father or grandfather before him, Jacob was able to maintain a strong sense of identity as well as an unfaltering faith in God and his fellow man. He was able to achieve this faith not only when living within his own community, but also when he lived as a stranger in an unfamiliar land as an advisor to the Pharaoh.
Despite the fact that there are moments wherein the Underground Man is close to self-transcendence, as when his “…heart turned over” (Dostoevsky, 117) upon Liza’s offering him a generous, forgiving love without expecting reciprocation (in parallel to God’s love for mankind), he is not able to let himself love or be loved, falling back into his status quo. Even though the character of the Underground Man may seem unrealistically extreme, the paradoxes and internal wrestling he deals with are very similar to the conflicts that many of us take entire lifetimes to sort out.
his same conflicting contrasts, paradoxes, and internal wrestling are those that many of us take a lifetime to sort out.
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