The Underground Man in Us


When I was in college I had my literature class for the first time (Yes, I only learned grammar in HS), I remember hating “Notes from the Underground” by Fyodor Dostoyvesky particularly, partly because of the language and partly because I didn’t have the life experience to appreciate the philosophy.

Other than that one summer class, I never really received any formal training appreciating literature, but I slowly began to read classics for fun after I left school. I didn’t read Pride and Prejudice until I was 22. Once I discovered the genre, I was blown away. I didn’t need a Professor or SparkNotes to help me make sense of those masterpieces. I was able to do it by myself because by that time I had experienced those heartbreaks, self-loathing, disappointments and such already. I was finally able to relate to those stories.

A while ago some students of mine showed me their test papers on Chinese literature, another discipline I am very, very unfamiliar of. I took it as a fun challenge and started answering those test questions. To our surprise, I was spot on! They asked me how I did that. I said, “With life experience. There’s no way to get around it. I think it’s a waste of time to force high-school kids on things like that. What do you know?”

As I’ve learned more and more about myself and life in the real world, my mind birngs me back to “Notes from the Underground” time and again. This novella begins to resonate with me when as I become more confident and yet self-defeating at times. The Underground man is narcissistic and despises the world he is in, yet he is shamed of himself or his poverty. He isolates from others by choice because he doesn’t think he could fit in. His pride is a sham to hide his inadequacy. With Liza, we can see his self-sabotaging tendency.

I don’t only see the Underground Man in myself at times. He exists in everyone of us. He is more noticeable in some and less in the other. I think the scene when he rejected Liza was the highest point of the story and also a reflection of many. It gives me so much to think about.

I know I shall be told that this is incredible — but it is incredible to be as spiteful and stupid as I was; it may be added that it was strange I should not love her, or at any rate, appreciate her love. Why is it strange? In the first place, by then I was incapable of love, for I repeat, with me loving meant tyrannising and showing my moral superiority. I have never in my life been able to imagine any other sort of love, and have nowadays come to the point of sometimes thinking that love really consists in the right — freely given by the beloved object — to tyrannise over her.


About Nicky

Nicky English is a journalist, an educator, a podcaster, a couch potato, a dreamer, and a child at heart. Learning is her passion, so is the English language, which she believes is the tool to unlock the door of knowledge. Born in Hong Kong, she received intensive writing training at The University of Iowa, where she double-majored in journalism and political science. Apart from the Hawkeye State, she’s lived in Chicago and Philadelphia. When she was a guest student at Georgetown University, she fell in love with Washington, D.C. She also has a Master of Arts in Communication. A little side note—she cannot imagine a world without her Mac and iDevices. Like many crazy ones, she hopes to change the world one day at a time.
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