“You cannot take a man who was all struggle,” wrote Tolstoy of Dostoyevsky, after his great rival’s death, “and set him up on a monument for the instruction of posterity.”
To which struggle exactly was Count Tolstoy referring? Certainly not the liberal cause that had condemned Dostoyevsky to spending four years in a Siberian labor camp and six more as a soldier in the army. In his mid-20s Fyodor Mikhailovich had fallen under the charismatic influence of the revolutionary Nikolay Speshnev and joined his secret society. Immediately he was anxious: Speshnev had lent him a large sum of money. How could the young writer ever repay this “Mephistopheles of my own” and escape this compromising situation? Three days after being arrested and placed in solitary confinement, Dostoyevsky tells us, he felt an enormous sense of relief and serenity. Later he would remark: “Penal servitude saved me.”
Such moments of relief, of internal conflict resolved in extreme well-being, feature prominently in Dostoyevsky’s work. Usually they follow a dramatic surrender of pride on the part of a powerful personality: A murderer confesses, or the great man kneels before the holy hermit or the innocent prostitute, though never before having passed through agonies of uncertainty and rebellion. Notes From Underground (1864), however, is unique among Dostoyevsky’s writings in that it begins with a struggle that is long over and that has ended in failure: “I am a sick man…. I am a wicked man,” our anonymous narrator opens his hundred-page monologue. More than any of his other works, this will be Dostoyevsky’s justification for a life that is all struggle.
Notes is organized in two parts: a long statement of the narrator’s present situation and vision of the world; and an account of a dramatic incident in his past. The voice speaking describes himself as a minor civil servant who has retired on the back of a modest inheritance. In short, a nobody. His illness and wickedness, we soon learn, are the result of “consciousness,” which is always and in every form “a sickness.” It led him to be acutely sensitive to the good and the beautiful while interminably choosing to act in an ugly and repulsive fashion. This painful contradiction caused the narrator years of unhappy struggle as he tried to reconcile egoism with moral sensibility. But at last he is worn out, he has “lost any wish to struggle.” More intellectually feverish than ever, he gnashes his teeth in obscurity, consoling himself with the thought that “it had to be so,” that “this perhaps was my normal condition.”
The circumstances in which Dostoyevsky wrote this disturbing incipit are worth bearing in mind. Discharged from the army in 1859 at age 37, he had brought his new wife to St. Petersburg and begun publishing, together with his brother Mikhail, a political and literary magazine, Time. The magazine was successful, the writer’s career on the rise, but his marriage was unhappy. Maria Dimitrievna suffered from tuberculosis and frequently accused her husband of being “a rogue and a rascal and a criminal.” Perhaps to be worthy of her accusations, Dostoyevsky began an affair with the 23-year-old Apollinaria Suslova and took time out to travel in Europe, where he discovered the joys of roulette.