Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is divided into two sections- I: Underground and II: Apropos of the Wet Snow. The first section is set in the 1860s when the narrator has retired on a small inheritance and is now forty years old. The second section is set in the 1840s. Dostoevsky stated that he considered Gogol to be one of the major influences on his work, and that comic connection is apparent in Apropos of the Wet Snow–one of the funniest, meanest things I’ve read in some time. It’s also this second section that led to a split of opinions and some lively debates at home. But more of that later.
In Apropos of the Wet Snow, the narrator is twenty-four years old. He is employed and claims that his life is “already gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.” Indeed it’s through this character’s social interactions that his many problems become clear. While he spends most of his time at home reading, his “debauchery” takes place at night. In one of the episodes described by the narrator, an unknown officer causes him a great deal of distress:
“I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently-with no warning or explanation-moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could even have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me.”
The narrator enraged by his treatment then stalks the officer with some notion of revenge. I’m not going to spoil this for any potential readers out there, but the narrator’s attempts to get noticed, strike back or somehow or another get even with the insult is hilarious. In dealing with the officer, the narrator builds the insult in his mind, and he builds his revenge in a similar fashion. As the narrator obsesses on the officer and the insult, the revenge becomes more fanciful.
In one of the sections of Part I Underground, the narrator discusses the “mouse” who seeks revenge, and it’s in the impassioned details that he seems to go a bit overboard:
“The wretched mouse, in addition to the one original nastiness, has already manged to fence itself about with so many other nastinesses in the form of questions and doubts; it has padded out the one question with so many unresolved questions that, willy-nilly, some fatal slops have accumulated around it, some stinking filth consisting of its dubieties, anxieties, and, finally, of the spit raining on it from the ingenious figures who stand solemnly around it like judges and dictators, guffawing at it from all their healthy gullets. Of course, nothing remains for it but to wave the whole thing aside with its little paw and, with a smile of feigned contempt, in which it does not believe itself, slip back shamefacedly into its crack. There in its loathsome, stinking underground, our offended, beaten-down, and derided mouse at once immerses itself in cold venomous, and above all, everlasting spite.”
So when I arrived at Part II and read of the narrator’s tireless attempts to enact “bold” revenge on an officer who sees him as less than an insect, it was easy to understand that the narrator is the “mouse” in pathetic and hilarious action. This creates an interesting result, for as readers we now understand that the narrator is still chewing over this incident from the distance of twenty bitter years. Dostoevsky’s decision to place the two sections of Notes From Underground out of chronological sequence is brilliant. We first see the middle-aged narrator as a lonely, bitter and thwarted human being who bitches about his smelly servant. Then through Apropos of the Wet Snow, we see the narrator as a young man with many problems, scheming of ways to not pay his servant. The nonlinear structure of Notes From Underground reminds me of A Hero of Our Time.
In another section, the narrator details an evening spent with some other young men, old “schoolfellows” of his acquaintance. They treat the narrator “as something like a quite ordinary fly.” Hearing of a planned farewell party for another old schoolfellow, Zverkov, the narrator invites himself along–in spite of the fact that he’s obviously not welcome and he doesn’t have the necessary funds to contribute to the evening’s meal. Shamelessly, he invites himself, gets drunk, and makes a complete arse out of himself.
Another major section concerns the narrator and a young prostitute named Liza. The narrator tells Liza the tale of a consumptive prostitute who was worked by her madame until she died. The tale, ladled on with thick detail about the typical brief shelf life of a prostitute, would seem to take the shape of a morality lecture with the narrator hinting that Liza should get out of the whorehouse while she still can:
“At any rate, in a year, you’ll be worth less,” I went on gloatingly. “So you’ll go from here to somewhere lower, another house. A year later–to a third hose, always lower and lower, and in about seven years you’ll reach the Haymarket and the basement. That’s still not so bad. Worse luck will be if on top of that some sickness comes along, say some weakness of the chest…or you catch cold, or something. Sickness doesn’t go away easily in such a life. Once it gets into you, it may not get out. And so you’ll die.”
But the narrator isn’t out to save Liza’s soul; he has another much more devious plan in mind while he waxes on about love. It’s this section of the story that led to the Great Debate at home. I argued that the narrator set the stage for a game in which–no matter the outcome–he could not lose. When Liza arrives at his flat, he’s either going to get free sex or having broken through her hard, self-protective shell, he’ll wallow in the enjoyable prospect of robbing Liza of any illusions she may have of ever being loved or being treated like a human being. Either way the narrator wins. Free sex or glee at the manipulation and humiliation of another human being.
The ‘other’ argument was that the narrator ‘missed’ the opportunity for love–an idea which does not fit the cynicism of Apropos of the Wet Snow.
Finally, while Notes From Underground isn’t the Dostoevsky novel we all hear about, this was a wonderfully funny and extremely entertaining read.