The opening lines of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864) can hardly be described as inviting: "I am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased." Yet generations of readers have been engaged by the writer's exquisite self-awareness, his extreme ambivalences and his complex understanding of life in a dysfunctional society. The book is a touchstone in literary history, social theory, existentialism and theories of neurosis. In a prefatory footnote, Dostoevsky made the bold claim that, though his narrator is imaginary, "it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed."
Marilyn McEntyre is a fellow at the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is author of What’s in a Phrase? Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause.