Strategies for Teaching Literature 2: Making Dostoevsky Relevant by Heather Porter

Making Dostoevsky Relevant:Teaching Notes from Underground to College Freshmen

by Heather Porter

Relatively little has been said regarding how to teach Dostoevsky’s novels to students. Even less has been said about how to make his work relevant to twenty-first century American students who exist within an entirely different cultural landscape than the characters of Dostoevsky’s fiction[1]. Notes from Underground  is particularly challenging, but its difficulty is precisely what makes it such a necessary text. If handled correctly, Notes can be an effective medium for self-discovery, illuminating aspects of human behavior students may or not may not have already noticed for themselves. While it is still important to place Notes within its cultural and philosophical context in the classroom, it may be more valuable to focus students’ attention on the universal themes of human nature that figure prominently in the text. Modernizing the way students read Notes is essential for enabling them to relate to the Underground Man and see themselves reflected in his words and behavior. This can be accomplished by updating the process of reading the text to reflect how we as a culture read today. Students may be more accepting of the underlying truths of Notes if they are asked to read the text as though it were part of an online interaction.

Before getting too far into how to teach Notes from Underground, it is important to clarify who might be the intended audience for this approach. Students already interested in literature and philosophy may still respond best to traditional methods of teaching Notes, in which class discussion analyzes the novel by placing it within its appropriate historical context and examines its relationship to cultural and philosophical influences (e.g. Western liberalism, positivism, etc.). The ideas presented in this article, however, are geared toward a more challenging student group, that being college freshmen or sophomores in an introductory literature course. Students in this age group are often unwilling to step into unfamiliar territory, which is precisely the reason their introduction to literature should include such a strange and surprising text. Notes is unpredictable, passionate, and sure to catch students off-guard—a combination which could penetrate through indifference in order to educate students about themselves and their own culture, especially if the instructor’s approach encourages them to hear their own voices within that of the narrator.

This leads to another term which must be defined before going further: education. What exactly is the goal of using a text like Notes from Underground in a class for freshmen, most of whom will not go on to be liberal arts majors? R. S. Peters defines education as any experience that creates change, specifically “change for the better” (qtd. in Roberts 402). If presented correctly, Notes can be a powerful vehicle for creating these “gradual, deeper changes in understanding” for all students (Roberts 402), not just those already interested in improving themselves through literature or philosophy. For more reluctant students, however, the connection between the text being read and their lives outside the classroom must be made explicitly clear. To create willingness on the part of students to make these connections, Peter Roberts argues that instructors have a responsibility to prepare students for “the strong poison we are about to ingest” prior to the reading of Notes (403). The excitement of reading a text that comes with such a warning may enhance students’ willingness to allow a deeper level of education to occur while reading, opening their minds to the intellectual and emotional changes both Peters and Roberts declare are the reason human beings seek to learn anything at all.

The idea of warning students prior to reading Notes is not intended as an exaggeration or a “hook” just to get students’ attention, though. Despite the work’s short length and deceptively conversational use of language, it is not an easy novel to read. Though its complexity is what makes the novel such a powerful work of fiction, it also serves to inhibit the participation of readers unused to such an attack. By addressing, one at a time, the “problems,” as they are referred to by Mikhail Bakhtin, of Dostoevsky’s writing, the necessity of changing the way students interact with Notes becomes apparent.

To begin with, the anonymous narrator is unquestionably unlikeable and goes out of his way to remain so to the reader. From the very first page, while speaking of his former career as a “bad civil servant,” he proudly declares his spitefulness toward mankind:

When people used to come to the desk where I sat, asking for information, I snarled at them, and was hugely delighted when I succeeded in hurting somebody’s feelings. I almost always did succeed. They were mostly timid people—you know what people looking for favors are like. (Dostoevsky 15)

In the very next paragraph, however, he negates his own narration by explaining, “I was lying when I said just now that I was a bad civil servant. I was lying out of spite. […] Not only couldn’t I make myself malevolent, I couldn’t make myself anything” (16). How are inexperienced readers to make sense of the jarring, yet intentional, contradictions between the narrator’s versions of himself—one in which he is superior to those around him, receiving pleasure from harassing even the most timid people, and the other in which he is nothing? It is an unusual way to introduce oneself to readers, presenting himself as the type of everyday villain readers are all too familiar with and as an insignificant nobody all at once. Not only that, but the Underground Man highlights the propensity of all human beings to experience the urge to be unkind just for the sake of it when he invites us to share in his contempt of those “people looking for favors.”

Malcolm V. Jones, in Dostoyevsky After Bakhtin: Readings in Dostoyevsky’s Fantastic Realism, highlights what makes this situation so difficult for readers:

If we wish to continue reading we have to accept a definition of ourselves we probably […] find uncomfortable and would wish to argue about. At least dimly, therefore we, his readers, are made aware of the hero’s own predicament, though as readers we are doomed to silence. (60)

Readers watch as the Underground Man shifts from one version of himself to another, reflecting the human tendency to waver in our ideas of ourselves and others, creating multiple identities at once as we try to navigate the social spheres in which we act out our everyday lives.

In addition to his repeated contradictions, the narrator’s style of delivering his diatribe against humanity gives the impression he is revealing too many personal details at once, leaving readers uncomfortable and repulsed from the start. He, a “tortured individual, a lonely man who is at odds with the world around him” (Roberts 401), analyzes the seamier sides of human nature down to the most basic instincts in ways that are uncomfortably accurate. Due to the delivery of the narrator’s opinions, however, readers recoil from the “tendencies toward destructiveness and the frailties on show” in the text (Roberts 404), no matter how truthful or applicable to the human experience they may actually be.

So, taking these challenges into consideration, it may be necessary to further defend the choice of Notes in an introductory literature course by acknowledging its undeniable influence over “the modern educated consciousness” (Frank 1). In “Nihilism and Notes from Underground,” Joseph Frank names the Underground Man as “one of the great archetypal literary creations” and argues that this character has been recreated innumerable times in other works not only as a prophet, but also as “a luridly repulsive warning” (1). The ability for readers to view the Underground Man as either of these extremes indicates the scope of interpretation possible depending on the prior knowledge and experience each individual brings to Notes. Students, once they have accepted the abrasive tone of the narrator, will undoubtedly recognize some element within the text that reflects their own behaviors and multi-layered patterns of thought. The key to bringing about this recognition, however, lies in the ability of the instructor to discover methods of delivering the text without completely driving students away. To get students involved in the process of discovering themselves along with the Underground Man, it is necessary to do something to spark their interest. Otherwise, Notes runs the risk of appearing too difficult, too dated, and too irrelevant to a twenty-first century student’s life.

Creating and maintaining interest is crucial in a circumstance which impresses new ways of thinking upon students, which the philosophical nature of Notes is likely to do. In “What is Essential in Teaching Philosophy?” Gerald A. Katuin declares:

Material must be selected and handled in such a way that the student’s interest will be aroused, his curiosity must be stimulated, and then by proper handling of these materials an abiding interest in philosophy and a philosophical attitude toward life can be created. (633)

To achieve the intellectual and emotional changes discussed previously as the purpose of education, students must be introduced to texts that motivate this personal development and alter, as Katuin suggests in this passage, their way of looking at life. Additionally, this heightened awareness should not be a temporary change that is lost once the student has finished reading the text, but rather a lasting alteration that influences a reader’s understanding of the world as a whole. This is the reason for teaching Notes instead of a less complicated, more easily accessible work. Notes has the power to “jolt the reader from his or her intellectual and emotional slumber” and provide an outlet through which students can carefully observe their own instincts and behavior by comparing themselves and noticing their reactions to the Underground Man (Roberts 403). It is crucial, however, that instructors deliver the material in a manner that arouses student interest and keeps readers engaged.

There are many resources available now to make reading Notes an exciting and possibly even enjoyable experience for students with little to no philosophical interest. The internet in particular may prove a useful tool for encouraging students to participate with the narrator in ways previous generations of readers were unable to experience. Asking students to read the text as they would an online interaction—a form of communication in which social conventions are often disregarded entirely as a result of relative anonymity—opens up new possibilities for reader participation and addresses the problems many experience while reading Notes for the first time.

Though Notes was written over a century before the Internet came into existence, the Underground Man exhibits behavior researchers have recently been studying in relation to online interaction. John Suler discusses behaviors emphasized by Internet use in his article “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” defining the term online disinhibition as a psychological phenomenon in which people’s behavior changes, often for the worse, during online social interactions. Anonymity, invisibility, and a minimization of the weight of social status allow users to create personas for themselves which are often quite different from their real-world, “surface personality presentations” (Suler 324). The Internet provides distance in multiple forms, causing users to feel a sense of freedom to express their true or hidden selves.

Through the medium of a novel, the narrator of Notes similarly creates his own identity, full of complex contradictions and aggressive thoughts toward others. Behind the veils of anonymity and invisibility, he feels comfortable sharing his true feelings and responding to those who have driven him “underground.” Upon being ignored in a billiard room, for example, the Underground Man becomes obsessed with the officer who “took [him] by the shoulders and silently—with no warning or explanation—moved [him] from the place where [he] stood to another” before walking past as though he were invisible (Dostoevsky 52). While relating his side of the story, the Underground Man gains power by justifying his behavior to readers as well as to himself:

I was never a coward at heart, although I constantly acted like one. […] It was an agonizing torment, a never-ending unbearable humiliation, caused by the suspicion, constantly growing into clear-cut certainty, that compared to them I was a fly, a nasty obscene fly—cleverer, better educated, nobler than any of them, that goes without saying—but a fly, always getting out of everybody’s way, humiliated and slighted by everybody. (Dostoevsky 53-55)

The narrator exposes two sides of himself simultaneously here, demonstrating the split between “the self that acts non-aggressively under certain conditions [and] the self that acts aggressively under other conditions” frequently seen in online interactions (Suler 325). Both sides of the Underground Man’s personality are frequently on display within Notes, allowing modern readers to draw immediate connections to fragmented behaviors they witness in their own everyday interactions.

There are a number of possibilities for using the Internet to draw additional connections for introductory readers. Depending how far an instructor wishes to take this connection (and how much time they are willing to spend with a single text), teachers may wish to employ more creative ways of exploring Notes, including changing the method of delivery entirely. For example, the first-person narration—as well as the fact that Notes is in the public domain—opens up the possibility of breaking up the text and presenting individual chapters or groupings of chapters as blog posts. Delivering the text in this format addresses the frustration previous generations of readers have felt, in which they are “doomed to silence” with no way to combat the narrator’s hostile assumptions of them (Jones 60). The very nature of a blog allows for interaction. Take, for comparison, the political blogs of The Huffington Post or The National Review, in which writers offer social commentary and receive comments from readers building on or arguing against the original post. Here, as well as in similar blogs, an exchange occurs in which a distant yet sometimes incredibly passionate voice shares an opinion for a wide audience, inviting and expecting reader participation—an interaction which sometimes yields rather brutal results.

In a class blog set up to replicate this type of exchange, students would read as many chapters as the instructor chooses to group into a post. Their assignment, in addition to reading the text, may be to comment on each individual excerpt in order to realize and express their own reactions to the narrator’s assertions about human nature. In the process of responding, it is entirely possible students will tap into their own bifurcated personalities—online vs. real-world—exposing the similarities between themselves and the “spiteful, insecure, overly-sensitive” Underground Man  they find so distasteful (Roberts 398).

Whether or not a simulated blog is the correct direction in which to move, it is clear something needs to be done to make Dostoevsky’s novels more appealing and accessible to modern audiences. Readers today, though existing within entirely different cultural circumstances, will undoubtedly find themselves within the pages. However necessary Notes is, though, readers have been experiencing this work and running into the same difficulties for over a century. New technologies can be manipulated to address these complications and deliver Notes through a familiar medium that reflects how modern audiences take in and interact with information. With a little creativity on the part of a knowledgeable instructor, it is possible to get even the most reluctant readers, specifically college freshmen, excited about Dostoevsky.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground and The Double. New York City; Penguin Classics, 1981. Print.

Frank, Joseph. “Nihilism and Notes from Underground.The Sewanee Review. 69.1 (1961): 1-33. Web. 23 Dec. 2013

Jones, Malcolm V. “Notes from Underground: The Discovery of ‘the Underground'” Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin: Reading in Dostoyevsky’s Fantastic Realism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 59-73. Print.

Katuin, Gerald A. “What is Essential in Teaching Philosophy?” The Monist 30.4 (1920): 631–636. Print.

Roberts, Peter. “The Stranger Within: Dostoevsky’s Underground.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 45.4 (2013): 396–408. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Suler, John. “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 7.3 (2004): 321–326. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Annotated Bibliography

Bakhtin, Mikhail. M. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984. Print.

Bakhtin is a strong presence in the study of Dostoevsky. Throughout this book, he discusses the narrator of Notes as someone who understands every aspect of his personality to a degree that debilitates his existence in the world. He “eavesdrops” on others’ conversations about him in order to see all of his own faults clearly (53). This is what makes him such a complex, difficult character; there is nothing readers can say about him that he does not know or expect himself. This source is useful for understanding just what makes Notes a challenging novel, helping instructors know what to address when teaching this novel to students.

Frank, Joseph. “Nihilism and Notes from Underground.The Sewanee Review. 69.1 (1961): 1-33. Web. 23 Dec. 2013

In the article that changed the direction of Dostoevsky scholarship, Frank analyzes Notes from Underground from Dostoevsky’s point of view, as he feels most critics focus on the novel’s “cultural significance” (2) rather than taking into consideration the author’s purpose in writing it. He acknowledges the accepted interpretation of Notes, which claims Dostoevsky responded to Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? and the radical Socialists by illustrating man’s proclivity toward evil impulsiveness in the actions of the Underground Man. Frank claims this reading is only partially accurate, stating Dostoevsky’s assault is much more subtle than previously supposed. By including elements of Nihilism into the Underground Man’s existence, Frank argues Dostoevsky was able to create a satirical character who never grows or develops into anything other than what he already is, a “parodistic persona whose life exemplifies the serio-comic impasse” of nineteenth-century Russian philosophy (5).

Franzen, Axel. “Does the Internet Make Us Lonely?” European Sociological Review 16.4 (2000): 427–438. Print.

Franzen conducts a study to examine whether the Internet brings people closer together or creates further distance. He responds to a previous study, in which the Internet was found to decrease relationships between families and social networks, causing an increase in loneliness. This study negates these findings, arguing instead that the Internet provides an outlet which increases the strength of communication. Though the Underground Man uses a different medium to deliver his narrative, connection to the concept of Internet-induced loneliness is  worthwhile. He seems to use his writing in a way similar to what Franzen describes, justifying himself and his actions anonymously to readers as a form of communication.

Jones, Malcolm V. “Notes from Underground: The Discovery of ‘the Underground'” Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin: Reading in Dostoyevsky’s Fantastic Realism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 59-73. Print.

This chapter also discusses the hero of Notes, examining how he speaks to the narrator. He attempts to pinpoint the source of frustration for readers, stating that tension is caused by the narrator’s expectations for his readers, against which we are unable to argue. Jones responds to Bakhtin’s analysis of the narrator, addressing aspects of the novel Bakhtin left out, such as the nihilism apparent in the Underground Man’s voice and the loopholes he creates for himself through his use of language.

Katuin, Gerald A. “What is Essential in Teaching Philosophy?” The Monist 30.4 (1920): 631–636. Print.

Katuin examines why philosophy is a necessary subject in schools, arguing that it facilitates growth in every facet of a person’s life. He discusses current problems with teaching philosophy, claiming that the current method covers too much that is irrelevant to students’ lives. He states that making students interested in the subject is the most important priority because the motivation to think philosophically will cause students to view the world differently. One of the most important things I took from this essay was Katuin’s discussion of how to teach philosophy to students who are indifferent or opposed to the subject, which is what a professor teaching Notes in an introductory literature course is likely to face. To make students interested, he advocates stressing the social or ethical concepts of philosophy, as these questions directly affect students every day.

Lapidot-Lefler, Noam, and Azy Barak. “Effects of Anonymity, Invisibility, and Lack of Eye-contact on Toxic Online Disinhibition.” Computers in Human Behavior 28.2 (2012): 434–443.

Lapidot-Lefler and Barak focus on three factors—anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact—that contribute to disruptive online behavior, such as flaming. The authors define flaming as hostile behavior toward others in online situations (434). The article includes a study which tests each factor to determine which factor contributes most to toxic disinhibition. The results indicate that lack of eye-contact is the strongest contributor to aggressive online behavior, followed by anonymity and unidentifiability. Though using a different medium, the narrator of Notes employs anonymity and invisibility while aggressively relating his personal philosophy and history. The parallels could be drawn between the narrator and the way people behave online in order to highlight truths within the text.

Roberts, Peter. “The Stranger Within: Dostoevsky’s Underground.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 45.4 (2013): 396–408. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Roberts analyzes Notes and attempts to justify its use in an educational setting. He argues that students will benefit from exposure to such a strange and disagreeable narrator once they attempt to see themselves reflected in his words and actions. He provides a definition of the word “education” (402), stating that any educational experience should provide “change for the better” (402). He claims the strangeness of Notes is especially helpful for getting students to think critically about their own selves and culture, arguing that the narrator’s actions make readers so uncomfortable because it exposes the capability of all people to behave similarly. Beneath the surface, he says, the novel is uncomfortably familiar, a fact which requires professors to prepare students prior to reading it.

Suler, John. “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 7.3 (2004): 321–326. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Suler differentiates between benign disinhibition, which is considered harmless or even helpful, and toxic disinhibition, which is exhibited by a person’s acting out aggressively online. He discusses people’s online behavior and the difference between online personas (and what causes people to create these personas) and their real-world behavior. The article then goes on to describe the causes of difference in online behavior, such as “dissociative anonymity” (322), invisibility, asynchronicity, “solipsistic introjection” (323), “dissociative imagination” (323), and “minimization of status and authority” (324), analyzing each in detail. Suler concludes by discussing the impact of the internet on the self. Comparing the reading of notes to online social interaction may heighten awareness of the reader’s self, initiating further exploration of the many dimensions of the human personality.

[1] Scholarship exploring the connection between Dostoevsky’s major themes and modern culture is lacking, though it is not altogether nonexistent. For more on Dostoevsky’s influence on modern politics, for example, see Kuniyuki Nishimura’s “E.H. Carr, Dostoevsky, and the Problem of Irrationality in Modern Europe” (International Relations 25.1, 45-64) or Nikita Roodkowsky’s “Dostoevsky: Seer of Modern Totalitarianism.” (Thought 47.4, 587-98).

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