Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground: Confession of a Madman

The memorable words “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man” introduces us to the bitter and misanthropic narrator of Notes from the Underground. Through this underground man, Dostoyevsky warns against the influence of western enlightened thoughts on Russia. The unreliable narrator, a veteran of the Russian civil service, through his distorted ramblings, criticizes logic and reason and enlightened self-interest. This reflects Dostoyevsky's turning away from such ideas after his arrest and imprisonment in Siberia. For the underground man, freewill will triumph over determinism as dictated by logic and reason. And a person will act illogically just to show that she is human and she has a choice.

When an officer moves him out of the way, the underground man becomes a non-being, an object in the path, which is confirmed when he later confronts the officer and the latter doesn't recall what happened. In the eyes of his friends, he is also nobody. They changed the time of the farewell party for one of them but doesn't tell the underground man. And later when the underground man looks for them in a brothel, they have retired with the prostitutes and again he realizes he is a nonentity. Even when he tries to be a hero to the prostitute Liza, he ends up mistreating her and invalidating his own existence.

St. Petersburg (Photo: Graham from London, UK)

The underground man believes he is miserable because he is intelligent and well-read.  He can appreciate beauty, but his reason and knowledge show how unprofitable it is to cling onto such outdated ideals, ideals contrary to logic and maximum utility. He despises utilitarianism but after understanding it, can't get rid of it. Like after being infested by the plague, he will have suffer it until death.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

During the second half of the nineteenth century, most of Europe was worshiping reason and science and so Dostoyevsky seemed like a madman calling out from the wilderness. But today we have seen how reason and science can fail us and we can appreciate Dostoyevsky's warning though it would be as foolish to abandon reason and science and return to pre-modern society. We have moved beyond either/or and in the post-modern world we must grapple with the dialogue between romanticism and utilitarianism, between truth and beauty, between faith and reason, between the individual and the community. Pluralism but not total relativism.

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Santiago hasn't caught a fish in eighty-four days and must set out in deeper waters to end his draught and gain his fellow fishermen's respect and the boy Manolin's admiration. After days at sea, he comes upon a marlin and struggles with it for two days before killing it and tying it to the side of the skiff. But while he is returning home, sharks follow the scent of blood and though Santiago kills several of them, they eventually eat most of the marlin, leaving only the fish's skeleton.

The Old Man

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago struggles though he couldn't win but because to struggle is human. He fights not to overcome, but to assert his humanity and transcend destiny and fate through his determination amid destruction. In his own words: "… man can be destroyed but not defeated." Like Dr. Rieux and his friends in Camus's The Plague, struggling with the plague, while people continue to succumb to the disease. Perhaps Hemingway has seen enough death and destruction while reporting on the Spanish Civil War to understand that at times, a person can only fight without the hope of victory, and he or she must choose either to give up, or to fight and be destroyed. In his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, in accepting the assignment to blow up the bridge, knows he wouldn't survive the task and he didn't. Still, he, like Santiago, chooses to fight. Hemingway in praise of human resolve.

And the Sea

Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable

In his trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett explores the frailty of existence.

In the first novel, the unreliable narrator recounts his decline but through the monologue, the reader learns not so much his past as declining state of mind. From his phrases and sentences, we realize how far he has departed from reality and how little we can trust his words. And even Molloy couldn't trust his recollection of events and his perception of world. In the second part of the first novel, the narrator Moran, a private detective searching for Molloy, follows a similar decline into delusion and his world becomes as unreal as Molloy's. As if they are the same person.

In Malone Dies, an old man confined to an asylum recounts his story and that of a boy named Sapo. But here, as in Molloy, the unreliable narrator conveys not so much the events as his delusion and decline. And we see Malone's death on the last page of the novel through the paragraphs and sentences distorting into fragments to reflect the narrator's last thoughts.

Samuel Beckett

“Lemuel is in charge, he raises his hatchet on which the blood will never dry, but not to hit anyone, he will not hit anyone, he will not hit anyone any more, he will not touch anyone any more, either with it or with it or with it or with or
or with it or with his hammer or with his stick or with his fist or in thought in dream I mean never he will never
or with his pencil or with his stick or
or light light I mean
never there he will never
never anything
any more ” from Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies.

Beckett's Birthplace: Foxrock, Ireland (Photo by Sarah777)

In The Unnamable, the narrator asks " What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed?" As if only a nameless person, perhaps a nonexistent person, can seek to act and to live. The narrator claims to have created Molloy, Malone and other characters in Samuel Beckett's novels, and like them, he also struggles to communicate reality and follows the same path toward non-existence.

Beckett's trilogy is a postmodern fiction, not a meta-fiction but a story where the plot collapses and character and, even more so, style dominates. Through the narrators' babbling and occasional insight, through the fragmented thoughts and distorted sentences, we learn about their psyche, isolated and delusional. And we realize Beckett is describing postmodern men and women.