The Freedom of Form and the Paralysis of Formlesness: Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke and Dostoevskij’s Notes from the Underground

Maria Kisel, Northwestern University

In an interview given shortly before his death, Witold Gombrowicz mentions Fedor Dostoevskij among his literary influences. Several critics have observed similarities in the works of the two authors. Ewa Thompson links Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke to The Brothers Karamazov, and the short story “Kraykowski’s Dancer” to Notes from the Underground (1979). Bronisław Swiderski posits connections between Ferdydurke and Crime and Punishment (1991). However, beneath the surface plot lines of Gombrowicz’s works lies his lifelong obsession with Form, or rather Formlessness.  There is a striking resonance between Ferdydurke, which Gombrowicz describes in A Kind of Testament as a novel that speaks directly of “the ferocious battle between man and his own Form […] against everything which he appears to the outer world” (1969), and Dostoevskij’s Notes from the Underground,  which also depicts a human struggle against systems and definitions.

Throughout the novel, Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Ferdydurke, battles with forces that have the power to shape and define him. But unlike the underground man, he does not fall into the trap of absolute opposition to all systems, as such unqualified resistance turns into a paralyzing system itself. Paradoxically, he escapes definitions by accepting each one (writer, schoolboy, lover etc.) temporarily, parodically playing it out to an extreme, thereby exhausting and destroying it, and then moving on to the next one. Joey’s perpetual motion from role to role results in playful mock-fighting with his surroundings. This lighthearted dance differs significantly from the underground man’s unyielding duel against world. Joey wins the battle that the narrator of Notes loses. At the end of Ferdydurke, he runs away from his latest role as fiancé, into an open field, while the underground man remains fixed in his “underground hole,” trapped in a form he has imposed on himself. Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke does not merely echo the concerns of Notes from the Underground, but offers a new perspective on the work by creating an “underground man” type who successfully infiltrates the “real world” with his destructive philosophy. Moreover, Joey’s self-aware commentary on his maneuvers in the battle against Form provides a prism through which to understand the underground man’s philosophy, behavior and subsequent failure to reconcile the two. Ferdydurke reproduces the underground man’s battles against the reader, his peers and romantic love. I will discuss each of these parallels to show the illuminating effect of rereading Notes through Ferdydurke.