Fedor Dostoevskii's Notes from the Underground and Franz Kafka's The Trial in particular present us with a view of man and human nature which has many traits in common with the philosophies of Soren Kierkegaard and/or Jean Paul Sartre. Select and discuss some of the existentialist themes expounded in the works of either one or both of the two novelists.

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Dostoevskii and Kafka, though not themselves philosophers, had a major influence on the twentieth century philosophical movement which came to be known as Existentialism. Both writers explored themes which are central to existentialist thought. This essay will attempt to explore some of those themes. After a brief discussion of the relation between Kafka's fiction and the existentialist movement I will address some of the common themes of Dostoevskii and Sartre.

Much of Kafka's writing is concerned with,"the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart." (Camus) Many of Kafka's heros are forced to attempt rational decision making in the face of an absurd world. They strive towards some rather vague goal but seem to have little idea of what they should do to achieve it. The land surveyor, K., the main character in The Castle, devotes much time to gaining access to the castle - even though he knows nothing about it. As he gradually learns more about the castle it seems his aims slowly recede, he settles for sending a messenger to the castle and finally for meeting a lowly official in an inn. Every new plan he conceives seems to take him further from his original goal. Joseph K agonizes for days and hours over what he should do to further his case but when he finally reaches a decision, such as firing his lawyer, it produces no obvious benefit. At other times seemingly innocent acts lead to surprising consequences, such as his complaint about his arresting officers leading to their severe punishment. Camus' contention, that the relationship between man and world is essentially absurd, is illustrated time and again in Kafka's work. This is explored near the start of Sartre's main philosophical work, Being and Nothingness:

... [A]t the moment when I ask,'Is there any conduct which can reveal to me the relation of man with the world?' I admit on principle the possibility of a negative reply such as,'No, such a conduct does not exist.' This means that we admit to being faced with the transcendent fact of the non-existence of such conduct.

In other words we have to accept the possibility that there is nothing we can do to render meaning to our relationship with the world. This is the starting point of existential philosophy, James Collins wrote:

Sartre bases his ontology on an acceptance of the absurd. There is no accounting for the morass of being ... The only hope for this sort of ontology is a lucid appraisal of the futility of seeking after truly sufficient reasons.

Many of Kafka's characters could be accused of being over cerebral. Gregor Samsa spends much of the morning procrastinating over getting out of bed, he has spent much of his life putting off action - placing his sister in the conservatory for example. Here we can see a parallel with Dostoevskii's Underground Man who was envious of people who could act without thinking. If he was insulted he could not even be sure of the exact nature of the insult, his active imagination would brood over the insult until it was blown out of all proportion and by this time any act of revenge would seem ridiculous. He could be accused of being too lazy to perform an act of revenge, the Underground Man knows this is not true, even though he wishes it were:

Oh! if only it were out of laziness that I've done nothing. Good heavens, I should have had so much self-respect. I should have respected myself precisely because I was at any rate capable of being lazy; there would at least have been one seemingly positive characteristic in which I myself could have believed. Question: who is he? Answer: a lazy fellow.

The Underground Man scoffs at such a simplistic definition of his own existence. Such a definition of a man would be, in Sartre's terms, in bad faith:

To be sincere, we said, is to be what one is. That supposes that I am not originally what I am.

We could not hope to be 'a lazy fellow', we could merely play at fulfilling the role of 'a lazy fellow' as Sartre's waiter plays at being a waiter. The Underground Man realizes that no simple label would be enough, because there would always be some doubt as to the applicability of any such label. It is because he is conscious that he doubts the certainty of any position, and because of this doubt that he tends to inertia, but he knows that this doubt is essential to humanity. If all doubt were removed, if a scientific utopia were to be achieved and a man's actions were to be clearly defined without doubt then all freedom would be lost and man would no longer be man.

I believe this, I will vouch for it because this whole human business seems really only to consist of the fact that man has been continually proving to himself that he's a man and not an organ stop.

Dostoevskii and Sartre both believed in the fundamental nature of freedom. Sartre argued that it must be a part of our being:

But to be exact, possibility can not in essence coincide with the pure thought of possibilities. In fact if possibility is not first given as an objective structure of beings or of a particular being, then thought, however we consider it, cannot inclose the possible within it as its thought content.

Freedom was rated by Dostoevskii as even more important than happiness, utilitarians and communists sought to remove suffering from the world and make everyone happy while Dostoevskii and the Underground Man rail against this imposition. It was Dostoevskii's opinion that suffering was necessary to man, it was a means of expiating sin and the road to salvation. To give up suffering would be to give up consciousness. Ivan Karamazov puts forward the arguments of the utilitarians and communists in his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. The people readily give up their freedom to the church in exchange for security and happiness, but these people are,"persuaded that they will never be able to be free, because they are feeble, depraved, insignificant and mutinous." Dostoevskii feels that people are not like this, they are individuals, and it is this individual human element that is lacking from Communism (a doctrine which can only be held seriously by young boys, we learn later in the novel). Sartre came to a similar conclusion, he felt that existentialist ideology provided a corrective support to socialist philosophy, placing the individual more centrally within the Marxist project. The parallels between Dostoevskii's journeys through the crucible of suffering to redemption and Sartre's anguished, pre-reflective choice of what he will be should also be noted. They both seem to claim that we are defined by our suffering.

The science of psychology comes in for criticism from both Dostoevskii and Sartre, both found it ludicrous that the nature of man could be somehow predefined or constrained by a collection of psychological theories. This is extremely evident in The Brothers Karamazov when, at the trial, the rival advocates put forward equally plausible psychological motivations for the actions of Dimitry Karamazov, and each draw wildly different conclusions. The whole arrest and investigation has occurred under the direction of the doubtful psychological theories of public procurator, Ippolit Kirillovich. Both lawyers end up appearing as vaguely comic characters, vain and self-glorying rather than seekers after truth, and this, together with the 'judicial error' that is the result of the trial, is a definite indictment against 'psychologism'. Sartre argued that it was our actions as humans that defined human nature, not the other way round. He expresses his ideas in Existentialism and Humanism:

... [F]irst of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.

Dostoevskii and Sartre recognised that man is not a static collection of attributes, beliefs, desires and so on, but an ongoing process. Dostoevskii frequently highlighted the contradictory drives present within an individual character - for example: love and hate; a passion for creation and a passion for destruction. It is the continual interplay between these contradictory passions which is essential. For Sartre we have the unending nihilation of the in-itself to create the for-itself, a process terminating in death. If we are a process of existence then our future is not bound by our past. A decision made yesterday does not necessarily affect an action today. Sartre chose the example of a gambling addict, a vice familiar to Dostoevskii, to illustrate the point. A gambler may one day decide to never gamble again, he realizes that it would be best for him and his family for him stop gambling. The next day he walks into a Casino and his decision means precisely nothing:

What the gambler apprehends at this instant is again the permanent rupture in determinism; it is nothingness which separates him from himself; ... The not- gambling is only one of my possibilities ... I must rediscover the fear of financial ruin or of disappointing my family etc., I must recreate it as experienced fear.

This fear needs to be experienced now, it needs to be sustained by a conscious effort. This is a process, living fear continually renewed, rather than a fixed state. What this means is examined by Sartre with reference to the emotion of sadness:

If I make myself sad, I must continue to make myself sad from beginning to end. I can not treat my sadness as an impulse finally achieved and put it on file without recreating it, nor can I carry it in the manner of an inert body which continues its movement after the initial shock. ... If I make myself sad, it is because I am not sad - the being of sadness escapes me by and in the very act by which I affect myself with it.

When the Underground Man starts to ask where man gets his passion for destruction and chaos he comes to the conclusion,"because he is instinctively afraid of achieving his aim and completing the building he is erecting." He goes on:

At any rate one notices something awkward about a person whenever he has achieved such an aim. He loves the process of achievement, but not so much the achievement itself, and of course this is terribly amusing. In a word, man is comically constructed; and obviously there is a joke in all this.

This should be compared with Sartre:

Human reality is its own surpassing toward what it lacks; it surpasses itself toward the particular being which it would be if it were what it is. Human reality is not something which exists first in order afterwards to lack this or that; it exists first as lack and in immediate, synthetic connection with what it lacks.

If we take the task of erecting the building as a metaphor for human existence we can see why man should fear the completion of the task, the only way to complete the task is in the death of the project, and the project is man. Sartre draws the rather pessimistic conclusion:

Human reality therefore is by nature an unhappy consciousness with no possibility of surpassing its unhappy state.

In a short essay it is impossible to explore all the themes concurrent in the work of Dostoevskii and Sartre, this has been a brief glimpse into the shared sensibilities of the two. For all their commonalities it should be noted that there are some major disagreements between their ideas, most obvious that Dostoevskii believed in God and the salvation offered by religion while Sartre was an atheist. Although Dostoevskii believed that we would be morally bankrupt without God (Ivan's exclamation 'all things are lawful') it is interesting that the two arrived at a similar position with regards to morality. Dostoevskii's 'Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being' is mirrored by Sartre's 'And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men'. It is fitting that they should both arrive at this same conclusion.


H J Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers. Routledge, 1997.

Cliff Notes on Notes From Underground. Cliff Notes, 1995.

Cliff Notes on The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Cliff Notes, 1996.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (trans. David McDuff). Penguin, 1993.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground (trans. Jane Kentish). OUP, 1999.

Franz Kafka, The Complete Novels (trans. Willa and Edwin Muir). Vintage, 1999.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (trans. Hazel E Barnes). Routledge, 1998.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism (trans. Bernard Frechtman) appearing in Classics of Philosophy, ed. Louis P Pojman. OUP, 1998.

© Robert Crowther