In the long history of human development, there were various ways of ideas expression and spreading, but literature was the most systematic and complex one. Through analysis of literary work, it is often quite easy to identify the author, his personality and moral values. It is also easy to distinguish general human values which were predominant in this or that society in a specific period of time. In this regard, transitional character of universal image of hero is the best example of transformation in societal perception of a human individual and his place in contemporary reality. The importance of “hero” image in literary analysis became particularly relevant with the introduction of antihero imagery into literary discourse. In this context, appearance of antihero imagery, as a new embodiment of social subconsciousness and imbalance, showed a new way of promoting traditional and new existential values.
Thus, ideal and real met each other in the image of an antihero. The aims of the present essay are to identify what is meant by antihero in literature and whether the narrator of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”. The answer to this question would be that the narrator is a classical example of an antihero.
The most common misperception of the term “antihero” is the idea that it can be applied for the main evil character in the novel, someone who is considered to be an evil genius or an opponent to the main hero of the narration. In fact, an antihero can be considered as opposition to a hero, who is characterised as a moral individual, who conducts all his actions in the name of greater goodness, unselfish, altruistic and full of virtue to change the world and resolve all human misfortunes (DeLeonibus 437). Until certain extent traditional image of hero is more of an idealistic perception of humanity in its potential development and self-improving evolution. On the other hand, antihero is still the main protagonist of a literary work, but his actions are not driven by idealistic virtues or humanistic values. The main driving motive of his actions is usually personal incentives like material values, revenge, self-estimation, ambitions or any other motives which do not involve common benefits and altruism (Nash 64).
The narrator of “Notes from the Underground” is an antihero. This is confirmed by the very first self-introduction he conducts in the beginning of the narration. He argues that he is “a sick man I am spiteful man. I am an unattractive man” (Dostoevsky 2). From the very beginning the narrator and the author make it clear to the audience that the main character of the story would be nothing of a classic hero of the novel. The narrator just as author realises that something is wrong with him; that he is different from the generally-accepted normality or healthy self-perception and healthy appearance of an individual. This acceptance of once deviation from socially-accepted normality, already speaks of the narrator as a different species. Although it can be argued that the narrator is being simply modest and he is searching for his own way like traditional heroes, further narration proves that he is writing his own code of honour, which is based on actions acceptable and justified for himself, but not for the rest of society (Terras 56).
The whole first chapter of the book is devoted to that self-justification and self-expression of an antihero. This part of the book is also a challenge of the traditional system of values. First of all, the narrator represents a type of scoundrel and a miserable, helpless dwarf. In this regard, he does not only lack any heroic features, realising his miserable state of mind and physiology, he praises it and considers it to be in accord with natural laws. In this context, he argues that he would enjoy being slapped into face. That enjoyment would be “of despair; but in despair there are the most intense enjoyment, especially when one is very acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one’s position” (Dostoevsky 7). Unlike heroes, who struggle for the improvement of a particular situation and changes in the unfair reality, the narrator, as an antihero, simply accepts his miserable situation and acts in terms of that situation. In this context, he does not invent his own justification of his existence but proclaims that it corresponds to true laws of nature and that it is society and others who are wrong (DeLeonibus 437). In other words, he substitutes traditional values with his own; he changes an image of a self-sufficient protagonist for a suppressed, unlucky individual who seeks for revenge upon everyone and everything. From the philosophical perspective, it can be argued that the author wants to get revenge or traditional heroic values for their surrealistic nature, opposing their values by his antihero (Terras 82).
Although the narrator seems to be quite convinced in his self-perception and comprehension of his laws of nature and thus he might not look like an individual in self-doubt and transition, which is characteristic for antiheroes, through the whole novel he is quite unstable, self-doubting and self-contradicting (Nash 73).
Although in the first part of the novel, he seems to be quite sure in his position and his world overview quite stable irrespective of its weirdness and unnaturalness, when it comes to practical fulfilment of his philosophy of life, it becomes apparent that he is a failed individual who has not found his place in life. Although he could have tried to do something right, it simply could not be possible “due to his internal emptiness and general human vacuum inside of him” (Terras 37). In this context, the second part of the story under the name of “Apropos of the Wet Snow” shows a substitution of healthy emotional connections like compassion, love and devotion by hatred, misery, anger and vengeance for the sake of themselves and not even for deeds deserving them. In this context, the narrator is quite eager to stalk and push an officer insulting him, shout at his former colleagues and thus prove his inferior position in contrast to them, then to let himself feel compassion and the right thing in respect of Liza, the prostitute he met (Terras 38).
Although he tried to be nice and rightful concerning her and give a chance to change, as an antihero, he was too damaged and traumatised by his life and submissive position at work to let himself change and be good by societal standards of goodness. In this context, he argued: “They won’t let me I can’t be good!” (Dostoevsky 122). In this context, he acts like a classical antihero – although he realises that he is wrong in his behaviour and that it is against general perception of goodness and morality; he cannot overcome his character and evolve. In this context, it is not only because of his general weakness and inability to change he is doomed to be antihero, but also because of the society he lives in (Terras 51). Although it can be argued that, like most of damaged personalities, he is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions; he is also a product of his society and time. In this context, in fact, he cannot be different because the context of his existence is not different. In that Soviet society, he was given a miserable role to play. Irrespective of his general intelligence and certain professional proficiency, he was denied any identity in that society (Terras 49). Thus, it can be argued that although he would like to be different to evolve into a hero, the narrator would have to remains an antihero, because that is what is expected from him by his society. That society needed an antihero. That society created an antihero.
DeLeonibus, G. “In praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature,
1830-1980 (review)”, Philosophy and Literature, 23.2 (1999): 436-438. Print.
Dostoevsky Fyodor. Notes From The Underground. Los-Angeles: Indo-European Publishing.
Nash Stanley. “Itzik Manger, Foigelman and the Problem of the Antihero”, Hebrew Studies
Terras, Victor. Reading Dostoevsky. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. 1998. Print.