Gospel Notes From Underground
However accomplished and capable, for most readers the Russians—particularly Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy—pose a substantial problem. While they obviously consist of some of the most important literary works in history, they are incredibly demanding reads. So even after the long march through, say Brothers Karamazov or War And Peace, one cannot easily discuss the literary themes. Because of this experience, I recently made my way through Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, for the third time. And thanks to the reading group that I’m a part of, I finally made some sense of this masterful novella. In this post I want to share some of those observations, especially the interplay between power and love.
What’s the Book About?
Notes From Underground is narrated by an unnamed man, taking the form of a memoir—though, very different from, say, Gilead. In the narrator’s own words it is “a long story about how I missed life through decaying morally in a corner, not having sufficient means, losing the habit of living, and carefully cultivating my anger.” He is an “anti-hero,” desperate for recognition and therefore embittered by his pronounced lack of influence or power. This makes him a nastily resentful man, ironically convinced of his own significance.
Every sleight he suffers is brought under his introspective microscope, where they appear monstrous. He cynically scrutinises every word and gesture, forever second guessing the sincerity of others. In the end he is tragically unable to receive love, becoming a warning for all of us.
The second half of Notes From Underground recalls an event 15 years prior to its writing. In a drunken fit the narrator alienates himself at an old school friend’s farewell dinner. As the evening unfolds his unspoken loathing turns into a searing speech. For the narrator has invented countless compounding reasons to hate his fellows, despite their relative civility. Later the group abandon him and head for a brothel. As he follows them, we cannot tell if he is remorseful or seeking further opportunity to rail against them. But when he arrives at the brothel he doesn’t find them. Blind drunk, he forgets his injuries and ends up sleeping with one of the prostitutes. Her name is Liza.
The Desire for Power Resists Love
Liza will present the narrator with a rare opportunity for true love, to be fully known yet unconditionally embraced. It’s what we all truly desire—but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After waking up with Liza, the narrator experiences renewed self-loathing before embarking on an uncharacteristically tender and honest conversation with the prostitute.
However, as soon as he sees that he is able to bring Liza under his spell, he imagines two potential ways this relationship might to unfold: either he will become her messiah, the one to lift her out of the sordid world she inhabits; or he will falsify her hopes and crush her spirit. In each, the narrator is in total control, wielding the power he so desperately desires. Only he is not bothered whether he benefits or breaks Liza with that power. So before rushing from the brothel he slips Liza his address and invites her to visit him.
“Without Power I Can’t Live”
The decision to invite Liza to his home haunts the narrator. For his living conditions are almost as deplorable as her own. Thus his home makes him vulnerable, affording others a peek behind his proud and pretentious facade. But she doesn’t come, at least not immediately. This leads the narrator to conclude she won’t. But then she shows up. And he hates her.
In the heartbreaking final pages, Liza loves him. When the narrator realises what’s happening, as a reader you crave one thing: the humility to allow himself to be rescued, to recognise he needs redemption and love. So we arrive at the great tension in Notes From Underground. Our narrator is confronted with a love that sees him for what he is—not only his unimpressive home but his cruel and hateful heart. Liza knows he only wanted to use her, yet she loves him. She came to save him. The narrator now understands why Liza visited him. It wasn’t because she longed to be saved but because she longed for him to know someone truly loved him.
He writes, “The idea came also into my overwrought mind that our roles had definitely been reversed, she was the heroine and I was just such another crushed and degraded creature as she had been that night.” He cannot bear the thought, disgusted that he might envy her. So he refuses her redeeming love, reclaiming what he desires most at an incomprehensible cost: “Without power and tyranny over somebody I can’t live.” Then he sort of concludes, “I could no longer fall in love, because…with me to love meant to tyrannise and hold the upper hand morally. All my life I have been unable to conceive of any other love.”
The Power of Redemptive Love
Despite seeing the frightening darkness that dwelt in his heart, Liza willingly suffered his derision. Even though he repeatedly sought to subject her to his power and control, she made him the object of a glorious love—a gospel love. Dostoyevsky’s novels often climax with a surprising display of redemptive and unconditional love. Even though this love doesn’t spare his characters from this harsh world, where countless forces conspire against them, it is a love that lifts us out of ourselves. This redeems us from longing to tyrannise others by power. Instead we find a love that sees all of us and sets us free to love others in the same way.