In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the underground man claims that he is inactive. It is this so called “inaction that I found interesting and I was reminded of the underground man while I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s easy, “Existentialism is a Humanism. ” The underground man is totally aware that he alone is responsible for his choices, or lack thereof, and suffers the anguish of his choices before he even makes a decision. This is precisely what causes his inaction and provides him with existentialist qualities. The underground man is sub-consciously, an existentialist, in terms of Sartre’s essay.
To make the subject clear, this is how I interpreted Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism. ” The three biggest points that struck me pertain to: “Man is nothing else but that of which he makes himself”, “man is anguish”, and “man is condemned to be free”. (Sartre, 1940) The first point only makes sense to me because of its truth. I chose to go to Simon Fraser University to pursue a career that pertains to the World Literature program. This choice alone is what will construct me into the person that I will become. The second point is the result of the first point.
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Unfortunately, my decision to attend SFU has resulted in loss of sleep, lack of funds and a diminished social life. Thus, I am in anguish. Finally the last point and probably the most controversial point is that I have the freedom to make the decisions I make. For instance, today I had the freedom to totally change the subject of my essay. Despite the anguish it has put me through I changed my topic (twice) and now here I am writing about the underground man and existentialism. I have argued with people on this subject; I will say, “We are all free to make the choices we want. When I say this the odd person will counter that thought with, “what about people in the third world, they have no choice but to live in their slums and scrape by. ” But that statement is incorrect, those people have the freedom to run away, although the outcome might not be favourable for them, they still have that freedom. There is no pre-ordained written law that tells these people they must stay in their slums and die hunger, disease or any other treacherous ailment. On that thought, it is even incorrect to state that the underground man is inactive; he has the freedom to decide to be inactive in his society.
The underground man in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is an absolute head case and I am flabbergasted that he even managed to get Liza into his house. However, one can see from his Quixotic (I thought I made up that word) adventures in “Apropos of Wet Snow” why he is the way he is in “Underground. ” He used his freedom to make poor decisions and perhaps the poorest of them all being the decision to treat Liza like a whore and put money into her hand. Unlike myself and most other people I know, the underground man is unable to deal with the anguish he provides himself with when making a decision.
He even claims that after the insult to Liza that he “almost fell ill from anguish at the time. ” (Notes from Underground, 90) He recognizes this anguish and I believe that he also recognizes the fact that any decision he or anyone else makes will result in having to deal with the anguish as a result of that decision. This is essentially why he remains inactive. The underground man is also aware that he is the way he is because he chooses to be. Although this is hard to prove because the underground man is constantly lying; I think that the fact that he is telling us that he is lying makes us aware that he is aware of who he is.
The line, “however, the ‘notes’ of this paradoxical list don’t end here” (91), gives me the feeling that the underground man has no intention of changing who he is for this is the way he chooses to be. What this all adds up to is that the underground man is disgusted with what man is doing with their freedom. It is apparent that the self conscious underground man is aware that people are reading his notes. Although I have no concrete evidence I think the underground man is inadvertently trying to make his readers stray from the norm and conformity of the mid and upper classes.
He asks his readers, “what sort of free choice will there be when it comes down to tables and arithmetic? ” (23) This is the biggest and foremost hint to me that he believes that not everything is governed by science and that man has the freedom of choice. In essence, this gives the underground man existentialist qualities without him even knowing it; or perhaps he does. Despite of this argument, I think it would be rather easy to apply existentialist qualities to any character from any novel. I believe this is due to its universality.
Really it all makes sense because when it boils down to it. Humans have complete control over their lives, they may choose to believe in a pre-ordained path, but is it really pre-ordained or does a person sub-consciously lay out their own future? I guess this is the question that can never be answered and just be thought upon. In the end however, I personally do not think it matters. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001 Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman, Meridian Publishing Company, 1989