Solitude in Literary Fiction

Notes From the Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky's 1864 Notes From Underground has been called the first existential novel. While obvious literary forerunners in sentiments of angst from Job to Goethe's Werther preceded him, Dostoyevsky crystallizes in a single work what would become characteristic elements of the existential novel centered on an alienated protagonist given to tangled  interior interlocutions and obsessively lured by the world, by destructive social entanglements.

The self-described "anti-hero" in Notes is a restless, resentful, and involuntary solitary. But the unnamed narrator has no way out of the frame of mind in which he finds himself. The very first line reveals the depth of his isolation.

I am a sick man. I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.

He reflects upon his forty years of life.

I couldn't make myself anything: neither good nor bad, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now I go on living in my corner and irritating myself with a spiteful and worthless consolation that a wise man can't seriously make himself anything, only a fool makes himself anything. Yes, a man of the nineteenth century ought -- indeed is morally bound -- to be essentially without character. A man of character, a man who acts, is essentially limited.

We are far distant from the pious angst of Job or the romanticism of Goethe's hero. Dostoyevsky has pinpointed his century's malaise, elaborated by successive 20th-century writers: Kafka, Pessoa, Camus, Sartre, Hesse. The narrator, an unnamed and faceless government clerk in a useless office from which he has resigned because of an inheritance he has already consumed, is not merely the opposite of a hero but a veritable insect. And no one can be more than that, he declares, while alternatively struggling to prove that he is more and alternatively slips back to his trapped situation.

Of the narrator, Dostoyevsky has written:

The tragedy lies in his consciousness of his own deformity. ... I am the only one to have depicted the tragedy of the underground, made up of suffering, self-torture, the consciousness of what is best and the impossibility of attaining it, and above all the firm belief of these unhappy creatures that everybody else is the same and that consequently it is not worth while trying to reform.

But Dostoyevsky himself was drawing out a possible, indeed, not unique, response to his era. The novel is a response to the bourgeois optimism of the 1863 novel What is to Be Done? by Nicolay Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky believed that society is improved by blossoming human nature, by faith in the reasonableness of realized self-interest.

The narrator of Underground eagerly overthrows Chernyshevsky's line of thought. (The same Chernyshevsky inspired Vladimir Lenin to publish in 1901 a pamphlet with the same title, concluding that the mass of people were inadequate to the task of self-consciousness.) But Dostoyevsky's narrator is too embittered by a lifetime of suffering and belittlement, from childhood and schooling, at the hands of that class of young gentlemen prigs and bullies nurturing their future positions in society by wrecking their cruelty on others.

If the narrator knows that he is innocent and the victim of injustice so many years, why does he now wallow in degradation? He knows this much: that "all spontaneous people, men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited." So our antihero does nothing. Everyone calls him lazy; he owns that he lacks "volition." But reality differs: the respectable attain their positions effortlessly, ruthlessly, calling their work the work of "reason" and the "laws of nature." Everyone who accepts their argument admires them and apes their smugness. But not those in the underground. The narrator refuses to accept it, to bend to it, though he suffer humiliation after humiliation. That is why he declares:

It is best to do nothing! The best thing is conscious inertia! So long live underground!

Although I have said that I am green with envy of the normal man, I wouldn't like to be him in the circumstances in which I see him (even though I shall not cease to envy him, all the same.) No, no, the underground is better, in any case. There one can at least ... Bah! The fact is I am lying even now! I'm lying, because I know, as sure as two and two make four, that it isn't the underground that is better, but something different, entirely different, which I am eager for, but which I shall never find.

And that is the dilemma of the solitary: too worldly-wise to trust the "normal" man or woman, but achingly clinging to an interdependence on them. For the narrator, obsession is dysfunction, the acting out of his bitterness or resentment in a social circle. Whence, not unpredictably, as with Dostoyevsky's protagonist, the world of social intercourse is an utter fiasco. This acting out is the content of the second part of the novel, which need not be followed, as an instant, painful and absurd, of the involuntary solitary trying to deal with the world and his own confused emotions. Without losing this desire for fitting into the world, no matter what has driven on out of it, there will be a multitude of psychological ills to haunt the buffeted and tortured ego.

Solitude, underground, doing nothing in that social sense of action, is better in the long run, because there is nothing else, there is nothing to be done. But clinging to the hope, the dream, for "something different, entirely different," keeps the solitary sane, even if it will never be found.