Living

Literary Anti-heroes: Underground Man and Me

Underground Man might be the most miserable character ever to appear in literature. He’s the kind of character you love to hate and hate to love. He’s a spiteful clown, a thorn in everyone’s side, who provides absurd and comic relief against the corrupted backdrop of mid-nineteenth-century Russian society where wealth and exploitation are idolized. Most of the other characters in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, “successful” characters like Zverkov, derive their power from maintaining the unjust status quo, and they brag about it, which is insufferable to Underground Man, and to me. Zverkov has inherited his aristocratic status along with two hundred serfs; he claims he has droit de seigneur over every young woman in his village. The lackies who fawn over Zverkov are nothing but second-rate character props.

Not that Underground Man is a hero set on righting the wrongs and inequalities of Russian society. He’s a depressed, educated, poverty-stricken hermit who only wants to be loved, yet who willfully antagonizes everyone he meets, including Zverkov and his followers, former schoolmates. Underground Man gets butt hurt and feels insulted over the most trivial things, and his plots to get revenge are ludicrous, dramatic, and quite frankly, funny AF. For example, when Underground Man is about twenty years old, he’s feeling lonely and goes out strolling through the streets of St. Petersburg late at night. He’s passing by a “wretched little tavern” and notices through the window two men fighting with billiard cues. One of them tosses the other out the window.

Underground becomes absurdly jealous. Why doesn’t he ever get thrown out of a window? He, too, deserves to arouse another man’s ire to the point of rage. Underground Man walks into the tavern and is prepared to get involved. Instead, the police arrive, and one of the officers takes Underground Man by the shoulders and moves him out of the way as if he were no more than an object. Underground Man is enraged and confesses, “I could never forgive his moving me out of the way and entirely failing to notice me.” The indignity! The absolute dehumanization of it! Underground Man ruminates on the insult for two years, keeping a stink eye out for the officer, who is observed strolling along Nevsky Prospect on weekends and holidays. When the two happen to cross paths, it’s always Underground Man who has to step aside and yield the right of way, as the officer continues to fail to acknowledge U.M.’s existence.

How to get revenge on the arrogant officer? Underground Man comes up with a plan to bump into the guy. Underground Man will walk right toward the officer, not stepping aside, and the two will bump shoulders, and the officer will have to apologize, an irrational fantasy that only gets worse. In order to execute the “bump,” Underground Man needs the right clothes because other people are sure to be watching, and he wants to make a good impression. He decides on a fine shirt with white bone cufflinks, black gloves (not yellow because the color is too gaudy), and he must have a beaver collar, which is all the rage. The problem is, beaver is expensive, and Underground Man is poor. He borrows against his minimum-wage salary to purchase a collar of cheap German beaver, which wears out quickly but looks “very fine” when it’s brand new.

All dressed up with somewhere to go, Underground Man heads to Nevsky Prospect, but he can’t bring himself to actually bump into the officer. He tries again and again and loses courage, once becoming so agitated, he trips and falls on the sidewalk, but the officer only steps over him. Finally, one day Underground Man closes his eyes and does it! He bumps into the officer, who pretends not to notice, though our narrator is sure he does. Underground Man is ecstatic because, as he says, “I’d achieved my goal, I’d maintained my dignity, I hadn’t yielded one step, and I’d publicly placed myself on an equal social footing with him.” The incident satisfies Underground Man’s need for human recognition and connection for three full months before he starts to feel lonely again and sets out on another ridiculous escapade that leads to an insult-revenge cycle.

Underground Man is not a people person, and he is equally unkind to everyone, punching up and punching down. He’s random, he’s strange, and he’s flat out an outcast. He just doesn’t belong; most of us can identify with the feeling of not belonging at one time or another. His comic desires and behaviors seem like a coping mechanism for his alienation. He wants to stand out; he just wants to be noticed. He lashes out, acts out of spite, and ends up making a fool of himself. It’s easy to imagine Underground Man sitting in his cheap, squalid basement apartment with a candle and a manual typewriter with rats scurrying around him as he types his passive aggressive story.

Along the way, we learn a few things about Underground Man’s past and about the cruelties of Russian society, which explain, to some degree, his ontology. He is simply a man with a rough past trying to find joy in life, and that joy just happens to be fantasies like getting thrown out of a window or getting even with people who don’t even know they’re his enemy. His joy, in my opinion, may not be respectable, but it is poignant, at times humorous, and very, very human.

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