The Father in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
“We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.”- Slavoj Žižek.
Having recently read through Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, I felt compelled to write on a latent motif that has gone, so far as I can tell, largely unnoticed, A number of themes and motifs are readily discovered in the story, many of which appear at the surface of the text while others are only discoverable “between the lines”. Of these latter, there is one theme, or rather one figure who wields an invisible but potent influence over the texture of the narrative; namely, the figure of “The Father”. Two things should be noted here. First, The Father does not directly appear in the text but is instead a kind of spectral force whose effects are seen, felt, and heard, yet who is never directly apprehended. Though absent from the text, the Father is nevertheless a commanding presence or disturbance. Second, rather than a singular person or force, The Father in the Underground Man is to be understood as a constellation of fathers, stitched together, whether consciously or unconsciously by Dostoyevsky, the author(ity) and in an important sense, the father of the Underground Man.
To this latter point, although it falls outside the scope of the present essay, I believe it may be worth pointing the reader to Dostoyevsky’s troubled relationship with his own biological father who, in proper Oedipal form, he is reputed to have attempted murdering. Additionally, the theme of fathers (state, religious, and biological) features prominently in The Brothers Karamazov, arguably Dostoyevsky’s greatest written work. This is mentioned so as to provide the reader some modest yet expanded sense of context and perhaps even credulity with respect to the thesis I’ve outlined above. I'm not going to pursue those valences, but one may take what is presented here as a starting point for drawing additional parallel lines and fruitful avenues worth further consideration.
To begin with, we find in part one an extended narrative on the theme of freedom vs. determinism and the overtly existential thrust of this narrative might be broadly understood as fitting withing the cultural phenomenon now commonly known as the death of God which Nietzsche, a reader of Dostoyevsky, will later make famous in the parable of the madman. The existentialism through this section is simultaneously a narrative of regret over the loss of freedom and meaning, but also of their transcendent guarantor, a function which had traditionally been attributed to a divine Father. “…while silently and impotently gnashing your teeth, you sink voluptuously into inertia, musing on the fact that an object cannot be found, and perhaps never will be; that there’s been a substitution, some slight of hand, a bit of cheating…” (Dostoyevsky 10) This passage indicates a recognition that something important has been lost, left behind, or at the very least significantly undermined in the transition from religious to scientific authority, and it is this withdrawal, death, or absence of God in the modern age which constitutes the first manifestation of The Father.
And yet, as just indicated, this loss is not total. The death of God does not entail the absolute death of transcendent authority but rather marks the transposition or transference of such authority from God to the State. By now, most everyone will have heard references to the Russian State as “the fatherland”, but the theological saliency of the metaphor may often go unappreciated. The Russian State, now the locus of divine sovereignty is that to which Russian citizens owe their very lives and allegiances, particularly those who are its wards such as the Underground Man. In part two, we learn that Underground Man had received training in secondary school as preparation for a special job in the civil service and that he abandons the job “in order to sever all ties, break with my past, cover it over with dust.” (48) In doing so, Underground Man rejects the only Father available to him, thus rendering absent the presence of this Father.
Only a few paragraphs prior to the immediately preceding quotation, in an extremely brief passage, we learn something of Underground Man’s lineage. “I’d been sent off to that school by distant relatives on whom I was dependent and about whom I’ve heard nothing since. They dispatched me, a lonely boy, crushed by their reproaches, already introspective, taciturn, and regarding everything around him savagely.” (47) Although no mention is made of Underground Man’s father, or perhaps because of this omission, we are left to speculate as to the circumstances surrounding Underground Man’s origins. What is certain, however, is that Underground Man’s biological father, as with the fathers already mentioned, is absent.
Finally, there is the matter of Liza’s father. While her meaning is not entirely transparent, she seems to indicate the impossibility of returning home, offering “Some are glad to sell their daughters, rather than let them marry honorably” (67) and I suspect we are not to take this as mere rhetoric. The inferred absence or perhaps even tyranny of Liza’s father that might evoke compassion and sympathy in Underground Man, instead gives his malice a sharper edge. Whereas Liza’s responds to her “daddy issues” and societal alienation with sadness, resignation, and even grace, the Underground Man can only act out of cruelty and spite. Liza’s very ability to grieve her loss is what preserves her humanity. The Underground Man seems incapable of such feelings, and thus becomes a mouse.
I will leave it to those better qualified on such matters to fully explicate the precise manner in which (the absence of) The Father exerts its force upon and indicates a constitutive element of Underground Man’s pathology. The purpose of the present effort is far more modest: I wish only to point to the figure of The Father as a literary presence that does not properly exist but nonetheless persists throughout Notes from the Underground. It is a phantasmic force which possesses performative power. Nevertheless, one may be justified in speculating as to the harmful consequences of a Father whose tyranny cannot be directly confronted; there are no fathers to stand against. Indeed, it is the very absence of these fathers, their combined opacity, which makes the influence of The Father all the more powerful. More radically still, it is the destabilizing absence of any fathers which gives birth to a menacing void: The Father, a figure whose cruelty and judgement animates the Underground Man with an enduring maliciousness.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.