Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground

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The utopian society has a long tradition in both philosophical and literary works. The image of a perfect state ruled exclusively by principles of good and righteousness has spurred the imagination of thinkers and writers over the centuries. Perfect harmony and sublime harmony and understanding dominate this state of things where evil is no longer known. In his famous satirical work, Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift identifies and censures the flaws inherent in human nature and the general interests, prejudices and impulses that govern the human society.

Although the traveler explores unknown and fantastical lands, the various societies he encounters are only different versions of the same human geography governed by reason but also by vice. The last visit however takes Gulliver to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a utopian society that lives in absolute harmony and that does not even comprehend the notion of evil or deceit. It is not by accident that this ideal state is inhabited and ruled by horses endowed with the power of reason while man, or the Yahoo, is a base animal that serves the Houyhnhnms.

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Swift shows through this utopian representation that, however miraculous the power of reason and creativity in man, it will always corrupted by vice. Human nature is and will always be paradoxical: while reason has the ability to reveal the truth and weigh good and evil, man’s passions and instincts often prevent him from choosing good over evil. In a very different way, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground delivers a similar message regarding the possibility of a utopian human society.

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The “crystal palace” that the underground man speaks of is a symbol for the impossible, unreachable and vain ideal that the humanity chases. Paradoxically, the same humanity despises this lofty dream because it cannot laugh at it as it would. Moreover, Dostoevsky emphasizes that humanity is not satisfied with perfect harmony and happiness, although it covets impossible dreams. Sufferance is essential to the structure of the individual and, in Dostoevsky’s view, a secret wish of man. Therefore, both Swift and Dostoevsky give similar views of mankind and the impossibility of utopian states.

Reason, which gives man the ability to see the truth and distinguish between good and evil, will always be blinded by passion and impulses. Man is a complex and paradoxical being, endowed with a superior spirit but also with a passionate nature apt to lead him into temptations. Lemuel Gulliver travels through the world and lands on peculiar lands where the inhabitants only appear to be fantastical creatures. In fact, all of them prove to be wonderful mirroring of Swift’s British contemporary society.

Every state that the traveler encounters is governed by people who are the prey of numberless human impulses such as greed, prejudice, egotism, stubbornness, misconception, deceitfulness and violence. The dwarfs in Lilliput and the giants in Brobdingnag are only two representations of humanity at a different scale. Through these two representations, Swift unmasks human vanity and malice. In both of these countries human reason is paired with cunning and vice. The absurd academies of Laputa mock the vain enterprises of the human reason to conquer nature and reality.

Their complicated systems of thought and their absurd inventions and devices only serve to root them strongly in blindness and lies, keeping them farther away from the truth. At the end of the journey, the last of the stops is a utopian land that is antithetical to all the other societies the narrator has lived in. The simplicity of the Houyhnhnms’ society and customs contrasts sharply with the complexity of the human civilization. On the one hand, man is a noble being but also a vicious one. Man is haunted by passions and prone to subjective interpretation of life. Because of this, absolute harmony can never govern a human society.

Updated: Feb 22, 2021
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Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. (2017, May 08). Retrieved from

Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground essay
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