" . . . it's hardly literature so much as a corrective punishment."
While reading Part I of "Notes from Underground," you'll undoubtedly get the same feeling. The first third of the novel is a practice in rambling conjecture, as the protagonist of the novel, the "Underground Man", espouses his thoughts and beliefs on his miserable and embittered life. However, Part II picks up interest as Dostoyevsky presents a short, yet powerful, story of this castaway and how he become so alienated from "real" life.
Without a doubt, the protagonist is a haughty, arrogant erudite who feels himself superior to others. Set in 1860s St. Petersburg, the protagonist immerses himself in Romantic literature and comes to view the world through these unrealistic novels. Yet, in practice he fails to act upon any of the noble ideals set forth in the novels and comes to despise himself. His self-loathing and self-pity manifests itself into a vile existence, where self-delusion and an active imagination takes the place of real social interaction in the outside world. Although the protagonist later derides a prostitute on her doomed existence, it is he who is doomed to an early death with no mourners at his funeral.
While the first part of the novel is a droll treatise on his twisted philosophy, the second part details the protagonist's pitiful attempts at maintain dignity and self-worth. Although he thinks highly of himself, his delusions of grandeur are quickly squashed by those who do not care about his existence, such as an officer who barely notices him as he pushes him out of the way everyday.
Perhaps most disturbing is the protagonist's stance on love. To him, love is not about a mutual respect and caring for each other, but is merely a sadomasochistic game of power and domination. To him, being loved means allowing another to tyrannize and control yourself. The loving relationship must include a domineering partner and a submissive partner. Indeed, the protagonist is incapable of real love and quickly repels any hope of love.
Overall, "Notes From Underground" delivers a poignant psychological case study of an individual far removed from society, who despises everyone and thinks there is a cabal of conspirators to subjugate him to his poverty-stricken existence. Written almost 150 years ago, this novel is still relevant today. Most of us, myself included, have certain qualities of the "Underground Man" espoused in this novel, as it is hard not to become alienated and hardened in modern society. Once again, if you can slug your way through the tedious Part I, you are rewarded in the end.