In the history of fiction, there exist nameless narrators that are infamous for unreliable storylines. The protagonist in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is an example of an unreliable narrator plagued by disillusionment and bitterness that makes him present a story full of untruths and contradictions. The forty year old “Underground Man” tells the story in two parts. The first part is an attempt by the Underground Man to reach deep into his psych and consciousness, and, find justification for his spitefulness. This monologue delves into the human psyche and its desires. It is a mockery of choice and science. The narrator uses intellectual pretensions to find grounds and justifications of his actions of depravity and the basis of his unhappiness. The story is a scathing criticism of extreme rationalism prevalent in the Russian and European society of the day. It is difficult for the reader to trust the narrator’s intellectualized monologue and his presentation of characters like Liza and Zverkov in the second part of the story. This paper seeks to analyze the Underground Man as an unreliable narrator.
The narrator declares that his story is directed more towards him than to any particular audience. He is writing for himself. Even though the narrator works so hard to present himself as a man seeking to come to terms with his existence, he also at the same time is making an appeal to an audience – the “gentlemen”. He wants to share his pain with the reader. He strives so hard to convince the audience that his bitterness is a result of a world that has embraced reason leaving the elements that make us human behind. The first part of his narration is more than a confession and reflection on human nature. It is a struggle to intellectually decipher meaning out of life and to share this meaning with the audience. The problem though is the way the narrator tells his story and confesses. The reader is never sure whether there is veracity in his utterances. He exaggerates, contradicts and distorts reality. The unreliability of the author is reflected in his observation about human character. He observes that “a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature. That is my conviction of forty years” (Dostoevsky 2). This is an admission by the narrator than he is unreliable. He however, attributes this twistedness of character to circumstances beyond his control.
Despite efforts to hide his intentions and portray his monologue as an act of self-reflection, the Underground Man makes an indirect appeal to the reader. Dostoevsky makes this point in the first pages of the account when he warns the reader that “the author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginaryIn this fragment entitled Underground, this person introduces himself and his views and, as it were, tries to explain those causes which have not only led, but were also bound to lead, to his appearance in our midst” (1). Even though, the reader is aware that they are reading work of fiction, the writer goes to great lengths to say that the account is fictitious. From this point onwards, the reader is called to question the need by the writer to elaborate on something that seems apparent.
The first part of the narrative is a monologue which is addressed to people the narrator calls “gentlemen”. These gentlemen are in this case the reader. The narrator even though he tries to act like and say that he does not care, is concerned about how these gentlemen look at and think of him. He tries to convince the reader that his depictions of human existence and the events that come in the second part is true and worthy of exploration. Thus his strategy involves the use of lofty and intellectual language. He is bent on impressing the reader. The Underground Man is not just addressing the gentlemen. He is involved in a dialogue with them. One can assume that these gentlemen also use intellectualism in their debate or exchange with the nameless narrator. They ask the narrator questions and the narrator’s answers take a philosophical pseudo-intellectual turn. The narrator responds to the gentlemen with laughter, amusement, anger and sarcasm.
The credibility of the narrator becomes suspect at the end of the first section where he is forced to address the question on why he is writing and why he is referring to his audience as “gentlemen”. He admits that he made up all the things he was saying. His justification for making up things is the fact that he has lived for forty years underground. Because there was nothing underground to do, the Underground Man had to make up all the things he was talking about. He admits that he made up everything which makes the reader question the encounter with the officer, the interaction with his friends and Liza in the second section of the narrative. His invention- the people and events he created while underground are creating their own life in literary from. He asks the reader as if he is not questioned with the reader’s presence or how the reader sees him. The question he asks the reader is; “can you really be credulous as to think that I will print all this and give it to you to read too?” The answer to this question is of cause yes. The man is fascinated with the reader. Despite his objections, he is out to impress the reader with his vanity and intellectualism. Even though he says “I am writing for myself, and I should like to make it clear, once and for all that if I address myself in my writings to a reader, I’m doing it simply as a matter of form, because I find it much easier to write like that” (52).
The reader can tell that the narrator is lying. He wants and needs the reader’s pity but he is too proud to admit it in his writing. Besides denying writing for the reader the narrator even tries to bring Heine and Rousseau into picture to justify his lie. He quotes Heine and says that a “true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie” (Dostoevsky 53). Rousseau is taken as a liar. According to the Underground Man, an autobiograph needs no veracity. He only wants the reader to understand the process of writing an auto biograph which consists of jotting things down as one remembers them. One wonders whether the narrator is serious about his auto biograph. He says that; “I swear to you, gentlemen, there is not one thing, not one word of what I have written that I really believe. That is, I believe it, perhaps, but at the same time I feel and suspect that I am lying like a cobbler” (50). This quote is more than contradictory and it plays into the narrator’s way of trying to fool the reader so that the reader cannot judge him for his thoughts and actions.
At the end of the first section the narrator tries to talk about the purpose of writing. His answers contradict his rants and monologue. He is not just interested in criticizing himself and improving his writing style. He also has strong views about human existence he wants to share with the reader. He plays this down by saying he is not writing for an audience or to make any point which is a lie. He is not just seeking relief from writing. He is preaching.
The ending of the first section provides us with better grounds of judging the reliability of the narrator. In part two, the narrator changes from a monologue about choice, reason, science and spite to a narration about his social exchanges with his friends, the military officer he loathed and Liza. The credibility of the events he recalls in the second section is questioned due to his admission that in writing an autobiography one is bound to recall certain moments and forget the others. This provides room for him to portray Liza and his friends as far worse people than the probably could be. His spiteful nature comes out in his portrayal of his friends like Zherkov. However, one wonders whether these events actually occurred or they are imaginary. It is also possible that Liza, Zherkov and all the characters are creations of the author rather than real. The second possibility is that these events might have occurred but the narrator had to twist the narrative to suite his selfish purpose for writing. The Underground Man says and retracts a lot of information to the point where the reader is called to question his sanity and the reality portrayed.
The narrator is prepared to contradict himself by bringing up false memories from the past. He lies not just to the reader but to himself. One of the contradictory lies he tells comes when he says that for “forty years in a row I've been listening to all your words through a crack. I've invented them myself, since that's all that's occurred to me” (Dostoevsky 30). The image that comes out of his words is that of an observer and an outsider. This makes his depictions Liza questionable. She probably might not have been real. His lies and contradictions does not end here. Despite telling the “gentlemen” that he was a decent man, the narrator goes on to say that “its rude to live past forty, it’s indecent, immoral. Who lives more than forty yearsonly fools and rascalsI myself will live to sixty” (Dostoevsky 31).
Notes from the Underground is full of contradictory and illogical statements from the narrator. The Underground Man does not shy away from saying things that are lofty and meaningless. For example he notes that he considers himself an intelligent man because for the whole of his life, he had not been able to begin or finish anything. But he has had the freedom to choose which he does not take positively. Choice and freedom are some of the major themes in Notes from the Underground and the Underground Man argues against the idea of choice. He says that “there is really no such thing as choice” but in the beginning of his narrative he reports that he was spiteful by choice. It is not predestination that had made him an Underground Man but rather his choice to separate from humanity. Choice is also related to reason, which the Underground Man suggests does not exist.
The fear and dread of being judged also affects how the narrator presents the narrative to the reader. His treatment of his encounters with Liza is that of detachment. He is afraid of looking like an emotional wreck or an individual who had failed in all spheres of social life. His cowardice is apparent in how he deals with the military officer. Another way he deals with the fear of being judged is to label himself a mouse. Thus, he could not defeat or confront the officer. He tries to make up for this by walking into an inn looking for people to fight which he never finds. His friends let him act silly which in turn drives him crazy and Liza becomes his target for all the rage that came from his failures.
In conclusion, the nameless narrator in Notes from the Underground is a good example of an unreliable narrator. His utterances are contradictory. His description of events leaves the reader with more questions than answers. He makes illogical statements that he fail to substantiate and is detached from society.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground. Planet Books. Web June 2, 2015.