Read an Excerpt
From Deborah A. Martinsen's Introduction to Notes from Underground, The Double and Other Stories
Master psychologist, social critic, and metaphysical thinker, Dostoevsky continually surprises readers with his dramatic and penetrating insights into the human mind and heart. The stories collected in this volume span most of Dostoevsky’s career, yet their protagonists are similar—all of them solitary men living in St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital from 1712 to 1917. St. Petersburg was Tsar Peter the Great’s planned city, his “window on the West.” Yet Peter achieved his vision at great human cost. Located on hostile swampland, this “Venice of the North” was built on the bones of the laborers who hauled granite to shore its riverbanks and canals. Popular rumors of Peter as Antichrist warred with the official version of Peter as world builder and gave rise to a myth of duality that came to surround the city as well as the tsar.
By the mid-nineteenth century, when Dostoevsky began his writing career, Aleksandr Pushkin and Nikolay Gogol had already immortalized St. Petersburg’s duality in verse and prose. In Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman (1833), a devastating flood symbolizes the revolt of the elements against the city and its inhabitants. The flood serves as a backdrop for the conflict between the impersonal, imperial state and a humble individual who loses everything, including his mind, as a result of the natural disaster. Gogol’s St. Petersburg tales focus more on the city as Russia’s administrative and social capital and highlight the disjunction between its attractive appearance and its cruel realities. Dostoevsky evokes his predecessors’ contributions to the myth and provides additional psychological and philosophical depth. St. Petersburg, in the words of the underground man in “Notes from Underground,” “is the most abstract and premeditated city on the whole earth.” In the tradition of Dickens and Balzac before him, Dostoevsky makes his city emblematic of Western urban civilization and also of Russia’s self-consciousness vis-à-vis the West.
The protagonists of these collected stories are all St. Petersburg loners whose isolation marks their alienation from human community and what Dostoevsky called “living life.” They are narcissists who suffer from shame and feel excluded from communities to which they long to belong. They feel inadequate and out of place. They fear rejection or failure, and choose isolation as a defense against their fears. In “The Double,” Golyadkin, whose name derives from the Russian word for “naked” or “insignificant,” voices shame at his very identity: “What a little fool you are, what a nonentity [Golyadka]—that’s the kind of last name you have!” The St. Petersburg dreamer calls himself a “type . . . an original . . . a ridiculous man!” The underground man calls himself “sick,” “spiteful,” “unattractive.” The pawnbroker refuses to defend his regiment’s honor for fear of appearing “stupid.” The dreamer of the final story in this collection calls himself “ridiculous.”
By exposing his protagonists’ deep sense of personal shame, Dostoevsky gives readers a key to understanding their stories. We see that their solitude is their major defense, but not their only one. They also protect their fragile egos by objectifying themselves, dreaming, rationalizing, dominating others, and adopting a shell of numbing indifference. In deploying these standard defenses against shame, they become not only realistic, nineteenth-century St. Petersburg “types” but also our contemporaries.