The conclusion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is a fitting one as is the case in the author’ other books like Crime and Punishment, for instance.
Although it may be a frustrating ending for the reader in that it fails to resolve the themes and psychological dilemmas introduced earlier which seemed to drive the text, even introducing new themes it could not possibly address meaningfully, the ambiguity and fragmentation of the conclusion serves to underscore the narrator’s profound psychological distress.
By leaving the reader with lingering doubts and unresolved questions about the story’s central character, Dostoyevsky masterfully compels the reader to identify with the troubled Underground Man. If the reader can overcome his or her need for a neat conclusion where all loose ends are tied up and which seem to be forced in Notes from Underground, it becomes possible for the reader to understand that all does not always end well or even end at all. Dostoyevsky uses the ambiguous ending of this story in a strategic manner as he attempts to convey the message that an intelligent human being will have a lifelong struggle with dilemmas that can never be resolved. This ultimate theme that is present in both the beginning and end of the story, in effect is the resolution, though it is not likely to be the one the reader might have wanted or expected.
A number of important psychological themes are introduced early in the novel. One of these themes, which persists throughout the text, is the tension between the Underground Man’s sense of intellectual superiority versus his profound self-loathing. The first lines of the novel introduce this theme, as the main character and narrator, the Underground Man with no name, says about himself, “I am a sick man… I am a wicked man…" (1). He goes on to hint at the conflict that besets him and which makes his life miserable, saying “I’m sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am….Now you will certainly not be so good as to understand this" (1). Although the Underground Man is pushing the reader away before the two even really know each other, the reader cannot help but be interested in witnessing this man’s despair and his utter contempt for himself, which is only exceeded but his disgust with almost everyone else.
The reader is prepared, then, for the type of character with which he or she will be dealing, a misanthrope who uses the word “hate" with astonishing frequency, applying the sentiment to “phrases, phrase-mongers, and tight-fitting waists…, gallantry and gallantizers" (77) and all other manner of objects as often as he applies it to people. Despite the Underground Man’s bitter temperament, though, the reader is interested in what will happen to him. After all, most readers can remember a time when they have felt superior yet unrecognized. The difference between the reader and the Underground Man, of course, is that the former is generally able to sublimate that feeling and experience other emotions, while the Underground Man stews in resentment and has a limited emotional repertoire. Will the Underground Man have an experience that changes his views significantly, bringing him back into meaningful contact with society? Might he instead live out his days as a hermit, insistent until the end about protecting the solitude which he prefers? These are the questions the reader asks while in the midst of the novel, hoping they will be resolved at the end.
The fact that these questions are not answered, however, should not come as a surprise to the astute reader, as everything about the Underground is ambivalent. Throughout the novel, he has a difficult time making a decision about anything, and he never seems to advance in being able to act decisively. Characters, especially protagonists, are typically expected to mature and grow over the course of a novel, their mistakes and disappointing experiences serving as lessons for them about how to act differently in the future. The Underground Man, however, never grows. Again, if the reader looks back to the novel’s opening, he or she can find numerous hints that suggest the Underground Man’s resistance to change is entrenched for life. Musing about humanity, the Underground Man says to himself: “[E]ven if you had enough time and faith left to change yourself…you probably would not wish to change; and even if you did…you would still not do anything because…there is nothing to change into" (8). The reader should begin to get the idea, then, that the novel may not be about one man’s growth and the neat resolution of his life’s dilemmas, but about a theme that is far more profound.
The novel ends where and how it does because the Underground Man is resistant to change, but also because he believes that reason alone cannot produce the final resolution. This is why the narrative must trail off even before all of the Underground Man’s experiences have been conveyed and before any of them are really adequately resolved. “You see," he says, “reason…is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity…." (28). In other words, reason alone is nothing and while it may offer some answers, it cannot account for everything and is not an answer and does not offer a final solution. Although Dostoyevsky leaves the plot hanging at the end of the story, he has nonetheless fulfilled his obligation as a writer. By “failing" to resolve the novel in a traditional sense where there is a definite conclusion, the inconclusive ending actually serves as the best possible one, as it reinforces—though does not resolve—the themes introduced in the beginning.