2 x 2 = 5

I’m not sure if you’ve really met an unlikable character until you’ve met the narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground.” And yet, repulsive as he is, the reader can’t help but pity him and, in strange instances, even relate to him. 

This narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the whole book, begins with a diatribe addressed to an unspecified audience. The narrator rants about the universe and free will, with the air of someone who’s been driven to the brink of insanity by his own unsettled musings. Here, he raises questions that lead him to recount a story from his past, but the story does little to answer any of his questions.

In the narrator’s opening address, he talks about unchanging laws like 2×2=4. At one point, he makes the startling claim that, perhaps, 2×2=5 could be a beautiful thing. It’s shocking. But the narrator isn’t claiming that it’s truth. He’s pushing back against the strict rationalism of his day—the rationalism that tries to explain everything, even human behavior, through unchanging laws and equations. It’s a rationalism that wants to say that everything in the universe is predetermined—that all our choices could be explained and predicted.

Through his narrator, Dostoevsky explores the idea of real freedom. The narrator wants to be able to make a choice merely because he wants it, not because reason or laws of nature demand it. It leads him to make shocking claims about resisting the physical causes of the universe, like when he says: “To be sure, I won’t break through such a wall with my forehead if I really have not got strength enough to do it, but neither will I be reconciled with it simply because I have a stone wall here and have not got strength enough.” Even if resistance is futile, it’s better than being simply an unthinking cog in a machine (as he says many times). 

Eventually, he stops ranting and tells a long and winding story from his early twenties. It reveals some background information, like the narrator’s social oddities and his lack of close companions. At times, he thinks of himself as a hero; at other times, he loathes his very being. He worships himself and disgusts himself. Dostoevsky explores this in the narrator’s way of acting toward old classmates (people that he only acknowledges every so often, when the mood strikes him). He invites himself to a party they’re hosting, insults the guests, feels insulted himself, and tries to chase down the guest of honor so he can slap him. All for the sake of honor—the narrator’s rather twisted sense of heroism.

The narrator’s romanticist side is revealed again later in the evening, when he spends the night with a prostitute named Liza. Taking upon himself the role of a hero (which later devolves into an angry tormentor), he tells her of the horrors she’ll experience as a prostitute, convincing her to leave her life there before it’s too late. But his heroism is merely an egotistical fancy. He can’t, or doesn’t want to, fulfill the image he made for himself that night, so when she comes to him for help later, he abandons her.

It isn’t totally clear, at least to me, what Dostoevsky’s trying to illustrate with this story from the narrator. It gives us a glimpse of what the man used to be, what he was in the earlier stages of becoming a spiteful, arrogant, disillusioned wretch. But surely Dostoevsky is doing more than this with the narrator’s story. 

The story must illustrate or inform some of the questions Dostoevsky’s narrator raises in the earlier part of the book. For one, it gives us a deeper look into the narrator’s character. Perhaps the story illustrates a struggle between his romantic and rational side, like the tension between romanticism and rationalism in Dostoevsky’s society.

Or perhaps the story forces us to ask whether the narrator’s moral corruption, and his spite, are really grounded in his resistance to the determinism of the universe. Does he do these evil things just because he can? If so, it imposes a question for all of us readers. Surely we, too, want to resist this notion of a physically determined universe. But how do we ensure we don’t make unreasonable, evil choices just for the sake of it? How do we maintain our free will at the same time as we maintain our moral integrity?

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