Underground Exchanges: The Socio-Economic Organization of Dostoevskij's Notes from Underground

James Driscoll, Harvard University

Dostoevskij's Notes from Underground is often seen as a precursor to the development of existentialist thought. The internal thought processes and psychology of the narrator dominate and explain why this text has received attention as an early example of subjective alienation. Yet, I would argue that Dostoevskij very carefully relates the internal world of the narrator with higher levels of social organization by contrasting the logic of the imaginary ("the world imagined") with the discursive unfolding of the text. This technique is what Wolfgang Iser has called "fictive play." My paper argues that the fictive play at work in Notes from Underground is an early example of what would become one of Dostoevskij's most frequently used narrative strategies.

The lack of discursive development in Part One can be contrasted to the detail in which the narrator describes the world of the Underground. This world is one in which human nature appears as a composition of irrational drives, emotional needs, and exaggerated rationality. This view of human nature not only establishes the narrator's polemical exchange with philosophies of rational materialism, but it also sets the world of the Underground in distinct opposition to the dominant world of Imperial Russian society.

Part Two is orchestrated as a series of clashes between the narrative unfolding of the text and the fictional logic of the Underground world. This "fictive play" is achieved by dramatizing acts of economic exchange where the individual actions of the characters are compared to the logic of the dominant social system. There are numerous examples of this, all of which serve to emphasize the role of exchange in reinforcing class, social and personal hierarchies, for example, at the farewell party to Zver'kov, in the withholding of Apollon's wages, and, ultimately, in Liza's visit to the narrator's apartment. Notes from Underground is, thus, one of the earliest examples of how Dostoevskij used a fictional economy to develop his own distinctive form of fiction-making.