Contrast Analysis of the Main Heroes of Notes from Underground and Diary of a Madman

January 17, 2022 by Essay Writer

Sample Student Paper on Lu Xun and Dostoyevsky’s Madmen

Mad Protagonists

Matters and issues of the mind have both intrigued and puzzled writers for about as long as people have been writing. Some such writers have explored the inner workings of the mind of the madman, finding this type of character to be the most effective way to express a philosophical view. Two of these writers include Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Lu Xun. Their nameless protagonists from their stories Notes from Underground and “Diary of a Madman,” respectively, display apparent signs of mental illness through the various things that both characters do and say. Beyond this, evidence regarding their “madness” is further reinforced by the use of literary techniques, such as perspective and syntax, as well as its relationship to some of the central themes of the works. From, as well as for, these various reasons, the forms of madness can be observed as a compulsion to over-analyze in the case of the Underground Man and as paranoia in the case of the Madman, as both originating from their respective obsessions.

However, while it is clear that both characters display a kind of mental illness, the two could hardly be more different; Dostoyevsky’s “Underground man,” for example, suffers from such an acute consciousness that he naturally analyzes even the most mundane of occurrences. This leads not only to the confusion commonly associated with this extent of awareness, but also to several overthought conclusions, which are contradictory to the commonsense view. As an example, the first sentence describes him as a, “sick man … a spiteful man,” but only two paragraphs later, he claims, “I could never really become spiteful” (707-708). These types of contradictions cause readers to feel the same agony as the narrator as they attempt to make sense of words whose coherence can only be understood by the man who wrote them. He even formulated a way to derive a type of enjoyment from pain and refused to seek help for his supposedly diseased liver in an attempt to spite the doctors, which not only confirms his overanalytical thought process, but also is likely to serve as a justification for what can best be described as self-pity. It is also possible that he has developed depression through being locked away in his “underground.” In fact, he describes how this condition developed throughout his childhood from his innate lack of emotion to the torment he faced against his unwanted thoughts, helpless to his mind’s obsessions, until he finally was forced to give in to them rather than fight to no end against them.

Rather than an over-stimulated sense of consciousness, the obsessions apparent in Lu Xun’s “Madman” cause him to exhibit many of the symptoms of several forms of psychosis, including paranoia, hallucinations, and eccentric shifts in behavior. For example, he accuses the Zhao family’s dog of giving him, “dirty looks,” and is convinced that those who he passes as he walks down the street give him similar looks (1238). He believes that they whisper and gossip about him, and this drives him to approach a group of children, who he accuses of doing the same thing, and shouts, “Tell me, tell me!” until they decide to flee (1239). He experiences hallucinations as well, such as the, “ghastly crew of people, with their green faces and protruding fangs,” who appear, causing an episode which prompts an acquaintance of his, Old Fifth Chen, to lock him away (1239). In addition, his initial reasoning for the supposed looks he was being given was not at all related to cannibalism, but rather to an incident which occurred twenty years ago in which he, “trampled the account books kept by Mr. Antiquity” (1239). It was not until he heard the story of the cannibalism in Wolf Club Village that he developed incredible anxiety regarding the topic. This instance not only provides evidence for the ease at which he was made paranoid, but it also illustrates the amount which he fabricates, unintentionally, to justify his own suspicions.

Beyond the symptoms which both narrators must endure, the overall disorders from which they stem, or are intensified by in the case of the Underground Man, stem, themselves, from an obsessive manner of thinking. This is evidenced by his reaction to a certain officer who, “would simply trample over people,” as he walked, which proved as evidence, for the Underground Man, that he unrightfully thought himself superior (736). This sense of insecurity from the perspective of the Underground Man was derived from his idea regarding, “spontaneous,” or stupid, people (711). Such people are so as a result of a significant lack of consciousness; they, according to the Underground Man, whole-heartedly believe something without truly analyzing it in all of its complexities and, comforted by the lack of thinking necessary to do this, are driven arrogant by it. This, “spontaneous,” officer would walk through the same street every day, and so, the Underground Man followed this path, initially hoping to enjoy the humiliation it brought, which is already overthought enough, but every time, he jumped out of the way (711). To most, this would have been a perfectly normal, and even intelligent, reaction, but the Underground Man would wake at, “three in the morning,” worrying about this occurrence (736). The Underground Man can be observed to have a predisposition toward acute awareness, which, itself, predisposes him to obsessions, like the one evidenced, that, in turn, intensifies the pain and confusion consistent with this disorder. He resolved to continue straight on his path and bump into the man, which is a perfectly average, even slightly annoying, experience for most. The Underground Man, however, thought so highly of such an action that he suspected great fame as a result and purchased new clothing for it. From this anecdote, the obsessive nature of the Underground Man, as well as its debilitating effects, is expressed, leading the reader further into his madness.

Lu Xun’s Madman also displays obsessions, and, as consistent with several forms of madness, they make up the various reasons for it. This assertion is primarily reinforced by his reaction to the story of cannibalism that was explained by the tenant farmer from Wolf Club Village. Without any proof, he reflects this instance upon the people who he claims were talking about him and giving him strange looks. He writes, “Those people are cannibals!” with, “a shiver running from the top of (his) head,” as obvious expressions of his increasing fear, expressing the extent of his irrational anxiety (1240). It does not stop at emotions, though, but rather, they compel him to research ancient cannibalism at an unhealthy level until it consumes his life, and everything he hears and sees is interpreted as cannibalistic. He even remembers a conversation had had with his elder brother when they were younger as he was teaching him about the classics in which Elder Brother said, “it was all right to exchange children and eat them.” This is certainly a strange thing to say, but, considering the context of the text, and that he was likely conceding to the fact that it was a classic, this is hardly conclusive evidence of cannibalism. He also confuses stories as he confronts his brother about cannibalism as he references the story of Yi Ya boiling his son, and claims that it is evidence that, “people have always practiced cannibalism,” when in reality, this was a singular occurrence mentioned in the Guan Zi, a philosophical text. He even admits that cannibalism was not even mentioned in most of the books he read in saying that, “between the lines…the whole volume was filled with a single phrase: EAT PEOPLE!” (1240). Just based from this, not only can it be seen that he was discarding evidence, seeing only further evidence for his obsession on cannibalism, but also that this factor was inflamed by his resulting lack of clarity of mind. The reason for this, of course beginning from his own predispositions, was triggered by such an unrelated story. These patterns of obsessing over such irrelevant topics to the point of significant distress, as displayed by both characters, can be read as apparent signs of madness.

Their disorders, however while real and lifelike they would have appeared on their own, were reinforced and strengthened by the individual styles utilized by both authors, such as perspective, as well as diction and syntax. Both chose the first-person point of view, Dostoyevsky in the form of “notes” and Lu Xun as a “diary.” This technique, as used in Notes from Underground, for example, allows Dostoyevsky to utilize a very passionate and erratic voice. His repetition of the phrases, “organ stop,” and, “two times two makes four,” allows the Underground Man to appear almost manic as he overthinks the issues of his day (721, 713). The Madman, much like the Underground Man, consistently uses exclamations, such as when he says, “They were trying to kill me,” (1246) as if he were actually reliving the horrific hallucination. This adds to the effects which he displays that are coherent with paranoia. Lu Xun’s manipulation of colloquial language, as opposed to that of Dostoyevsky, causes his narrator to appear even more frantic than he would otherwise. He says, in a serious of short, seemingly unrelated sentence fragments, “Pitch black out. Can’t tell if it’s day or night. The Zhao family dog is barking again,” displaying disorganized patterns of speech in an informal way, even for conversational standards. He also crafts a naive and seemingly ignorant dialect for the Madman so that the reader must piece together his incoherent speech, though he truly has no idea what is taking place. Such is the case when Old Fifth Chen locks him in the study; the narrator is clueless as to why, and, without careful scrutiny, so will be the reader. In direct contradiction to this, the more complicated language of the Underground Man creates the same effect, while allowing for the use of seemingly senseless, over-thought metaphors and ideas which must be deciphered, such as, “two times two makes four,” (713). By writing in the first-person and utilizing a bold choice of erratic diction and syntax, the authors, through the voices of their respective protagonists, are able to attempt, “solving life’s problems by means of a logical tangle,” (728). In other words, they are able to utilize a frantic voice in order to express complex ideas in all their details through the usage of the madman.

Beyond this, their selection of their specific type of mentally disturbed protagonists would prove as the best means by which the central themes of the two respectively may be expressed. On an individual level, the Underground Man discusses the advantages and the disadvantages of consciousness, arriving at the conclusion that, “being overly conscious (is) a disease,” yet encourages his audience, which he claims will never exist, reducing his work to random mumblings of a bitter old man, to think (710). This, however, is a contradiction, but it is a perfect metaphor for humankind; through this method, the underground man embodies all of humanity. He does so by expressing the contradictory nature of mankind and how humans are able to create thing which they, themselves are hopeless to understand. The Madman, however, is a mentally ill person in society, and as a result, part of his lesson regarding the old system is that it has no room for madmen. In fact, when he returned to his home, “all the people there pretended not to know (him),” (1239). It seemed as though the only one who legitimately cared for his well-being was his elder brother, who taught him the classics and who he accused of being a cannibal as he defended him from the laughter of the town, saying, “Get out of here! All of you! What’s so funny about a madman?” (1245). The mental illnesses assigned to the characters of the Underground Man and the Madman prove to be an effective means of expressing the consciousness and contradictions of humankind as well as the role of madmen in society, respectively. As a result, the small-scale themes of the two stories would best be interpreted from the words of madmen.

On a larger scale, however, both protagonists express unrest regarding their current political system. Dostoyevsky expresses obvious concern for the transformation of society during, “our negative age,” from one of love and humanity to a mechanical one of science and math, while Lu Xun criticizes the blind following of tradition. In this way, they satirize the philosophies of the time by juxtaposing them with those of madmen, the title of “madman” itself even being ironic, in that each narrator believes himself to be one which holds the ideas to save a generation and perhaps future ones. “Save the children,” pleas the Madman in the last words of his journal, arguing against the idea of passing tradition down to your children before they have a chance to think for themselves simply because, “it’s always been like this,” (1246, 1245). The underground man reasons that if society is reduced to, “two times two makes four,” or the mechanical laws of science, all will lose that emotion and desire which makes them human (713). Any system which does not account for individuals and human nature will fail. Beyond being ironic and satirical, these narrators express a minority view, and through the ways the express such views through their barely intelligible speech, the mouths of a madman are the most likely origins of these words.

Through careful analysis of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man and Lu Xun’s Madman, the protagonists of their respective stories, Notes from Underground and “Diary of a Madman,” they can both be identified as “mad,” meant here as mentally ill in some form. While their illnesses are different in nature, they both show signs of obsessions regarding simple facts, and suffer obvious torment as a result of it. The Underground Man proves to be overly conscious to the point at which he realizes that anything he says or does can be contradicted, reducing himself to nothing but, “a sick man…a spiteful man,” (707). The Madman, however, felt an overwhelming sense of irrational anxiety, which he finally justified in assigning it to cannibalism, resulting in even more anxiety and “madness.” They were both vividly presented in the first-person point of view, with the syntax and diction of a madman, further reinforcing this assertion. The reasons which they were chosen to be presented as mad, though, support this conclusion all on their own. The harsh criticism of tradition presented by the Madman and the various insults formulated by the Underground Man against the reduction of society to a purely mathematical and scientific positioning of people are directly coherent with the supposed words of a stereotypical madman. This serves to sarcastically present their ideas as the minority views they are while satirizing the ideological institutions of their times. Most importantly, the actions of the two characters, allow the authors not only to express their ideas in a relevant way, but also to explore the mysterious thing used every day, but seen by none, the complicated human mind.

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