One of the ways in which the underground man differs from others and isolates himself is through his obsession with literature. As he recalls in part two, he grew up without many friends and spent much time reading. Similarly, he says that much of his time underground is spent reading. As a solitary activity, reading isolates the underground man from others. Moreover, his excessively literary sensibility prevents him from functioning normally in society. He is obsessed with the idea of duels, for example, a dated practice from traditional literature. He imagines challenging someone to a duel in a bar, but then thinks better of it because he realizes everyone will laugh at him for his talking about such literary things as points of honor. And when he actually does challenge Ferfichkin to a duel, everyone does laugh at him. Moreover, Liza tells him that he talks like a book, referring to his highly literary language. The underground man’s preoccupation with literature thus makes him socially awkward. Even when among others, his habit of reading has an isolating effect on him.
Literature does, however, offer one possible way for the underground man to overcome his isolation: through writing. By writing, the underground man can enter into a kind of conversation with a community of readers. While most of the novella is made of his interior monologues, he is able to turn his writing into a kind of dialogue by imagining the responses of his readers and replying to them. The conversational qualities of the underground man’s writing can be seen as an attempted response to isolation, as his writing becomes a conversation with himself and with his imagined readers. However, at the end of part two, the underground man rejects even this community of readers, when he says that he shouldn’t have even written his notes. Thus, literature, writing, and reading remain ultimately solitary pursuits for the lonely underground man. Even when not reading or writing by himself, he is trapped within his fantasy-tinged world influenced by what he has read. But literature is not wholly detrimental. While his obsession with literature tends to isolate the underground man, it can also be seen as offering him a kind of personal escape from his bleak life. And, ironically, it is through the very medium of literature that Dostoevsky is able to communicate these negative, potentially harmful aspects of excessive reading and writing.
Literature and Writing ThemeTracker
Literature and Writing Quotes in Notes from Underground
Of course, I hated all my fellow office-workers from the first to the last and despised every one of them; yet, at the same time it was as if I were afraid of them. Sometimes it happened that I would even regard them as superior to me. At this time these changes would suddenly occur: first I would despise them, then I would regard them as superior to me. . . . All others resembled one another as sheep in a flock. Perhaps I was the only one who constantly thought of himself as a coward and a slave; and I thought so precisely because I was so cultured. But not only did I think so, it actually was so: I was a coward and a slave. I say this without any embarrassment. Every decent man of our time is and must be a coward and a slave. This is how he’s made and what he’s meant to be. And not only at the present time, as the result of some accidental circumstance, but in general at all times, a decent man must be a coward and a slave.
One morning, although I never engaged in literary activities, it suddenly occurred to me to draft a description of this officer as a kind of exposé, a caricature, in the form of a tale. I wrote it with great pleasure. I exposed him; I even slandered him. At first I altered his name only slightly, so that it could be easily recognized; but then, upon careful reflection, I changed it. Then I sent the tale off to Notes of the Fatherland. but such exposés were no longer in fashion, and they didn’t publish my tale. I was very annoyed by that. At times I simply choked on my spite. Finally, I resolved to challenge my opponent to a duel. I composed a beautiful, charming letter to him. . . But, thank God (to this day I thank the Almighty with tears in my eyes), I didn’t send that letter.
Naturally, it’ll all be over after that. The department will banish me from the face of the earth. They’ll arrest me, try me, drive me out of the service, send me to prison; ship me off to Siberia for resettlement, Never mind! Fifteen years later when they let me out of jail, a beggar in rags, I’ll drag myself off to see him. I’ll find him in some provincial town. He’ll be married and happy. He’ll have a grown daughter. . . . I’ll say, “Look, you monster, look at my sunken cheeks and my rags. I’ve lost everything—career, happiness, art science, a beloved woman—all because of you. Here are the pistols. I came here to load my pistol and . . . and I forgive you.” Then I’ll fire into the air, and he’ll never hear another word from me again. . . .
I was actually about to cry, even though I knew for a fact at that very moment that all this was straight out of Silvio and Lermontov’s Masquerade.
For a while I felt that I’d turned her soul inside out and had broken her heart; the more I became convinced of this, the more I strived to reach my goal as quickly and forcefully as possible. It was the sport that attracted me; but it wasn’t only the sport. . . . I knew that I was speaking clumsily, artificially, even bookishly; in short, I didn’t know how to speak except “like a book.”
I felt particularly reassured and relaxed after nine o’clock in the evening and even began to daydream sweetly at times. For instance: “I save Liza, precisely because she’s come to me, and I talk to her. . . . I develop her mind, educate her. At last I notice that she loves me, loves me passionately. . . “Liza,” I say, “do you really think I haven’t noticed your love? I’ve seen everything. I guessed but dared not be first to make a claim on your heart because I had such influence over you, and because I was afraid you might deliberately force yourself to respond to my love out of gratitude. . . No, I didn’t want that because it would be . . . despotism. . . . It would be indelicate (well, in short, here I launched on some European, George Sandian, inexplicably lofty subtleties. . .) . . . In short, it became crude even to me, and I ended by sticking my tongue out at myself.
Perhaps I should end these Notes here? I think that I made a mistake in beginning to write them. At least, I was ashamed all the time I was writing this tale: consequently, it’s not really literature, but corrective punishment. . . . A novel needs a hero, whereas here all the traits of an anti-hero have been assembled deliberately.