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Notes from the Underground

Notes from the Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Analysis: Writing Style

Manipulative, Multi-Layered, Iterative, Metaphoric, and of course, Goosebump-Inducing

We'll start at the beginning of our list above. How is Notes manipulative? Look at the narrative technique in Part I, Chapter Seven. The Underground Man tells us that there is one big advantage – the mother of all advantages – for which man will sacrifice everything else, for which he will act against reason. He's talking, of course, about free will, but before he reveals the subject of his discourse, he digresses. A lot. He talks about Cleopatra, Henry Thomas Buckle, the Crystal Palace, the history of the universe. And the whole time we're all, "yes, OK, sure, hurry up" while he goes on and on about how man doesn't want to act according to rules. And then, before we know it, we've "Yes, OK, sure thing"-ed our way into his conclusion about free will. He tricked us. He got us to fill in the rest of his argument before he even finished it himself.

Now read this sentence – not for content, but for structure: "And in particular it may be more advantageous than any advantage even when it does us obvious harm, and contradicts the soundest conclusions of our reason concerning our advantage—for in any circumstances it preserves for us what is most precious and most important—that is, our personality, our individuality." Structurally, the meat of the sentence (subject and verb) are done with right away: "It may be more advantageous than any advantage." That's it. The rest of the sentence serves to qualify and refine this main idea, down to the tiniest specification. Even the specifications have specifications. This is what we mean when we call the style "multi-layered' and even "iterative," since the Underground Man will often repeat the same concept in slightly altered forms. All the time he is refining further and further that which he wants to express. It makes sense, too – first he points out the big picture, and then he gets down to the details. Since much of this refining has to do with metaphors (the mouse, the wall, the Crystal Palace, the chess game, the ant-heaps, we could go on forever), we think we're pretty justified with the "metaphoric" label too.

Oh, and we couldn't help but admire Dostoevsky's sheer literary prowess. Case in point:

What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness.

Now tell us you don't have goosebumps. If that isn't sublime and beautiful, we don't know what is.

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