Thursday, July 30, 2009

Notes from Underground

In Sigmund Freud’s early work on the Psychoanalysis of dreams, he posited that the manifestation of dreams in an adult is a product of latent experiences as a child. In Freud’s model the ego, the sense of “I”, in an individual is clearly delineated by the preliminary experiences as a child and the establishment of relations between those experiences and the basic emotions of the id. Jacques Lacan expanded on these ideas further such that not only are these experiences crucial to the resulting psychological disposition of the adult, but also of great importance is a period of childhood development, which he referred to as the “Mirror Stage” where the child establishes relations between itself , abstract representations, and its surroundings. These concepts form the basis of the Psychoanalytic method of literary criticism, where a text is viewed as a kind of “lucid” dream-like expression of the author. Drawing on parallels from Freud and Lacan, we demonstrate an elementary example of the techniques of Psychoanalytic criticism on Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”.

Dostoevsky’s short narrative is partitioned into two parts, the first is styled into a “Manifesto of the Underground”, where the narrator, the underground man, delves deep into his own psyche and takes the reader along on the journey. The underground man is a profoundly inverted individual, and we see early on that this state of being explicably stems from a state of conflict. That is to say, the latent expression of the underground man’s demeanor is a direct consequence of his early development. We see this conflict often through out the novel, as the narrator criticizes himself and his writing, yet spitefully protests about changing his mistakes. The underground man has diverging relationships with his coworkers and former classmates, both being repulsed by them and admiring them at times. The reader is able to develop a deeper understanding for the underground man’s precarious state by recalling that he says he “had no home as a child” and that he was sent of to school by “distant” relations. If we consider Freud’s statement that “ the composite structure of the dream work is that of constructing a transitory new concept which is vague and has this comment element as its nucleus”, we see that the underground man’s inability to establish elementary familial bonds as a child (notice he says that he had no home, not house) have transitioned into his adulthood, leaving him incapable of bonding with his peers.

From the Lacanian idea that “we have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification,… the transformation that takes place when the subject assumes and image” we can further understand the mind of the underground man. He is an individual trapped in a perpetual mirror stage, failing to have properly established his own identity relative to his surroundings as a child. We understand this by noting the fact that the underground goes unnamed, that is unidentified, through out the entire narrative. His conflict also expressed this key point, as he frequently finds similarities, as well as dissimilarities, in his own personality and that of his peers. It is prudent to observe that the underground man is constantly seeing his reflection in the mannerisms of others, his identity then becoming a composite of each individual reflection.

The methods of Psychoanalytic criticism are often extended to authors as well. The observant reader will note that this approach has been omitted here. We have done so not only for the sake of brevity, but also because it is superfluous. If we assume, primarily, that the text is a transcendental expression of the author’s dream state, then we have examined the psyche of the author by looking closely at those of his characters. In this way may argue that the underground man is a projection of Dostoevsky and visa versa.


  1. Very nice. I can easily see how this could be much longer investigation. Interesting suggestion there at the end that the two overlap. I would guess that most authors would resist the suggestion that there is a way of examining their psyche by examining that of their characters (at least on such a one-to-one level as might be suggested here). But perhaps they protest too much?