Rejection of Enlightenment in Notes from Underground
Russia was going through a period of transformation in the 19th century. The country’s serfs were emancipated and the Russian citizen’s way of thinking began to change. European enlightenment ideas were having a huge impact on Russia. Philosophers began to preach that application of math and science could fix all of the country’s problems. The idea was that teaching citizens to act according to reason could end a country’s struggles and create a utopian society where all people could live happily. Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Notes from Underground, had a different idea. He strongly believed that no amount of logic predict man’s actions. He thought that man’s free will would always prevent any kind of earthly utopian society from existing. Through Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky makes a statement that man always has a choice to act against the scientific laws of nature.
Notes from Underground includes Dostoevsky’s response to new enlightenment ideas. Numerous times it mocks the ideas of one philosopher in particular: Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky published a novel called What is to be Done? In this novel Chernyshevsky claims that man is born with reason and has a natural inclination to cooperate with other people. He states that the deviants
of society simply departed from natural principles and could be led on the straight path through education and the teaching of a scientific worldview. The concept of this novel was that man would act according to what is in his best self-interest, which would be what is beneficial to society. Dostoevsky believed that this theory would make human behavior pre-determinate, which was not possible. Dostoevsky was a religious man. It was important to him that Russia pertained its original form of Christianity, in which man has the option to choose what his own self-interest is, for better or for worse (Gale 2010, Terrace, Notes from Underground).
The narrator in Notes from Underground is a forty-year-old man living in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky describes this man as living underground, secluded from society. The Underground Man as the narrator is not Dostoevsky nor is he embedded with Dostoevsky’s views; however this character is extremely important. The Underground Man is a complete contrast to enlightenment ideals.
The Underground Man was well educated and very literate. According the enlightenment an educated man would seek everything that was to their advantage. The Underground Man, however, lives in poverty in an unattractive house. He had a solid job until he decided to quit it. He does not really have any family or friends. He lives this way by his own choice. He mentions in his notes that unlike many autobiographies, he will be completely truthful with himself in his writing. It is also important to note when he says “I won’t attempt to introduce any order or system. I’ll write down whatever comes to mind.” (Dostoevsky NFU 562) This shows that the Underground Man will try get to the bottom of true human nature while he makes a mockery of Chernyshevsky and other idealistic philosophers.
One of the first Chernyshevsky’s first points that the Underground Man goes after was that civilized men have an inclination to cooperate with other people. The Underground Man says that these civilizations are only promoting a wider variety of sensations in men. He says that it is to the point where man may even enjoy fighting and spilling blood. He asks his audience to look around the world during time of the 19th century. The period these notes were written was the same period in which Napoleon was engaged in numerous wars, and the United States was in the middle of a brutal civil war. The Underground Man touches on how these men, who are supposed to be some of the most educated in world, are incredibly destructive to their society. He says “Haven’t you noticed that...
Bibliography: Barstow, Jane. "Dostoevsky 's 'Notes from Underground ' versus Chernyshevsky 's 'What Is to Be Done?" College Literature 5.1 (Winter 1978): 24-33. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. "Notes from Underground." The Norton Anthology of World Literature. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2009. Print.
Terras, Victor. "Fyodor Dostoevsky 's Notes from Underground." Dostoevsky 's Polyphonic Talent. Ed. Joe E. Barnhart. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. 173-183. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 134. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.
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