Comparison Of Underground Man And The Brothers Karamazov

In Notes from Underground and “The Grand Inquisitor’ chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky details two characters, the Underground Man, an older man disconnected from society who understands himself to be smarter and of greater consciousness than others, and the Grand Inquisitor, a Roman cardinal who fears of losing his influence in the Catholic Church after the second coming of Christ. Both the Underground Man and the Grand Inquisitor are men with a stern sense of entitlement, who believe themselves to hold more power, in a sense, than the others in the environments in which they reside. In contrast, the men have alternative ways of displaying their strong-minded ideals, with the Underground Man driving himself “underground” into a life of seclusion, believing his profound consciousness to unwillingly alienate himself from society, while the Grand Inquisitor exhibited a powerful public life, serving as a Catholic cardinal trying to influence society through the authority offered to him from the Church.

In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky first describes a man, forty years of age, who, over the course of twenty years, has driven himself further into seclusion, due to his understanding that he’s “always considered [himself] more intelligent than everyone around him… [and] even felt ashamed of it”. Dostoesky describes the Underground Man’s understanding of his consciousness to lead him into an enduring crisis, in which his consciousness countered his ability to be self-assured, or even satisfied, in making decisions. Initially, Dostoevsky leads the reader to believe the Underground Man’s condition to be a horrific illness, however as the novel progresses we understand that his disconnect from society offers him a freedom no one else seems to have. In describing the constant embarrassment his condition offers him, the Underground Man describes that the “bitterness finally [turns] into some shameful, accursed sweetness, and finally - into a decided, serious pleasure” (Dostoevsky 8). In this quote, the Underground Man describes that he takes a pleasure out of his own embarrassment and humiliation because it serves as a representation of an amount of free will that he seems to possess that other members of society do not. He details that “every decent man of our time is and must be a coward and a slave,'' however “that no one else was like [him].” Throughout the course of the novel, Dostoevsky uses the Underground Man’s heightened consciousness to paint a picture of an individual who is relatable, in ways both good and bad, and through this we gain insight on one man’s understanding of his perceived free will, in comparison to everyone else’s deterministic slave-like fate. We learn that the Underground Man has grown to enjoy parts of his consciousness and freedom, however nearing the end of his writings, he offers readers one last question, “which is better - cheap happiness, or lofty suffering?’, and from this we can infer that both abysmal options stem from determinism (cheap happiness) or a sense of free will, or existentialism (lofty suffering).

In opposition to the Underground Man, in a chapter titled “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky writes of a Roman Catholic cardinal that arrests Christ upon his second arrival on Earth, in fear that Christ’s godly work will cause him to lose influence over the church and over the people. When the Inquisitor visits with Christ in his jail cell, he begins to lecture him, about a time in which Satan offered him three temptations, each of which Christ declined. For reference, when the Inquisitor refers to Satan’s temptation for Christ to turn stones into bread, he describes that “mankind [would] run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient...” (Dostoevsky 19), however Christ rejects the offering, enabling mankind to have free will. The Grand Inquisitor views the ideals of free will ultimately as a grievance, insisting that “Instead of taking possession of men's freedom, [Christ] didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever.” (Dostoevsky 20). Throughout the chapter, the Grand Inquisitor reiterates that Christ had the chance to allow security to take the place of man’s freedom, further explaining that the Church has assumed the role of controlling the public by offering them a sense of security, saying “But with us all will be happy and will no more rebel nor destroy one another as under Thy freedom. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us. And shall we be right or shall we be lying? They will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember the horrors of slavery and confusion to which Thy freedom brought them.” (Dostoevsky 21). In essence, “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter exemplifies a Roman cardinals’s perspective that Christ’s appeals to free will is ultimately dangerous for the citizens of the Roman empire, who need a constant sense of security provided by the Church, as they would otherwise revolt against a congregation that does not provide for them.

In both Notes from Underground and “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky details two protagonists that are similar, in the sense that both the Underground Man and the Grand Inquisitor believe themselves to possess a well established worldview different from that of the people around them. When the Underground Man states, “Go on, try giving [man] more independence… unbind the hands of any one of us,… relax the tutelage,... I assure you: [man] will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage.” (Dostoevsky 129), this directly coincides with the Inquisitor’s assessment that man must submit their freedoms in order to live their best lives. When explaining to Christ why man should refrain from their free will, the Grand Inquisitor almost directly reiterates the Underground Man’s statements by stating, “the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: ‘Yes, you were right,... we come back to you, save us from ourselves!’” (Dostoevsky 21). In both literary works, Dostoevsky depicts two men who believe that society requires a sense of cheap happiness to maintain peace and order.

In contrast to one another, Dostoevsky characterizes the Grand Inquisitor as a strong, confident leader, who believes he must resist the actions of Christ and his appeal to free will, in order to maintain harmony and order in his society, while the Underground Man lives secluded from society and understands himself to be subservient in comparison to “l'homme de la nature et de la vérité', the man of action. Furthermore, Dostoevsky makes it evident that the Grand Inquisitor believes man to have the option of free will, while the Underground Man believes that “in all times a decent man must be a coward and a slave,'' as this “is the natural law of all decent people on earth”, except for himself. The differences in the level of confidence and assertion the two characters have is also made very clear, as the Underground Man is too afraid to confront a man who bumps into him in a bar, or his only friend who forgets to inform his of a time change, meanwhile the Grand Inquisitor quite literally locks the Son of God in a jail cell and lectures him about what he believes to be wrong doings.

Upon reading both Notes from Underground and “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter, we can understand that both the Underground Man and the Grand Inquisitor are similar in the sense that they both believe themselves to possess a form of consciousness and ideology that separates themselves from that of the average man. We can also understand both characters believe that the concept of free will leads man to a toxic nature rooted in lofty suffering, however Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of existentialism, the theory that man exercises free will and determines his own actions and fate, would lead us to believe otherwise. Upon reading Existentialism is a Humanism, I believe that Sartre would not agree with both the Underground Man and the Grand Inquisitor’s negative views of free will. While both the Underground Man and the Grand Inquisitor believe that man would better serve as a slave to a determined security, Sartre believes “man is responsible for what he is… [and that] the first effect of existentialism is to make every man responsible for his own existence”. In direct contrast to the Grand Inquisitor’s belief that man should rely on the church to offer security and order, in this quote, Sartre depicts that the free man is to assume the duty of maintaining order amongst a people. Furthermore, when Dostoevsky writes “it’s not worth paying any attention to [man] because they mean precisely nothing.” (Dostoevsky 44), Sartre’s view of existentialism directly differs stating “it is we, ourselves, who decide who we are to be…” (Sartre 34). While both the Underground Man and the Grand Inquisitor understand that free will exists, Dostoevsky portrays both characters to believe determinism would be the preferable school of thought to maintain social order and mental clarity, while, in contrast, Sartre believes in free will, and defends an existentialist view of the world.

In conclusion, upon reading both Notes from Underground, and “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter, we gain the understanding that both characters are similar in that they both believe free will to ultimately be detrimental to man. We can also determine that, while both the Underground Man and the Grand Inquisitor have similar ideological views, they differ in the ways that they live their lives, with the Grand Inquisitor living a public life in opposition to existentialism, and the Underground Man living a life of seclusion in the shadows of “the underground” only detailing his ideology to the reader. After reading both works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, we, as readers, are left with one ultimate, unanswered question: “which is better - cheap happiness, or lofty suffering?” (Dostoevsky 128).

Works Cited

  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Books, 1993.
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “‘The Grand Inquisitor.’” The Brothers Karamazov, Publishing, 2017.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism (L' Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme). Translated by Carol Macomber, Yale University Press, 2007.
16 August 2021
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