The Archetypes of Outcasts as a Window into Society

December 31, 2020 by Essay Writer

Archetypes are an important foundation for building literary work. As “reoccurring patterns, images, or descriptive details” (Crisp 2), they not only define the identity of an author’s characters, but the course of the plot, the journeys and the tragedies. Archetypes are utilized as a useful tool in order to convey the author’s beliefs as well as bring important issues regarding society or the human condition to light. The archetype of the outcast is one of those tools, albeit far more complex then the usual models of tragic heroes or femme fatales. The outcast lives outside of the norms of society, either being cast out or leaving of his own volition, often coping with feelings of anger towards that world or continuing to rebel against normalcy while unable to function in daily life (Crisp 1). This gives these characters a unique vantage point and, suddenly freed by the constraints of social behavior, they can then scrutinize the details of lives with their “alternative processing” (Crisp 3) and uncover the tribulations developing within society which would otherwise not be noticed with a limited perspective of proper conduct.

19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky understood the importance of this particular archetype. An outcast himself, as a sickly young boy he kept to himself and suffered from epilepsy, causing him to spend his days indoors while other children his age were playing outside (Teuber 3). As he grew older, he became involved with the Petrashevsky Circle, a radical socialist group, and would be imprisoned for his political views and criticisms of the government in a Siberian labor camp for nearly eight years (Mikhaïlovitch 2) before returning to Russian society. This long period of hard labor and isolation would affect anyone and pose a serious challenge to re-integrate back into a society of ideals one does not believe in with a rigid social hierarchy that emphasizes the importance of status and income. Many of Dostoyevsky’s characters are morally or idealistically corrupt. Some are vain, some are greedy, some are selfish, but in order to bring these stories to the harsh spotlight of criticism and challenge this immoral society, Dostoyevsky requires an outcast narrator’s annotations. The outcast may not always be of sound mind or good behavior, but the messages he presents through his adventures, skirting around people of various classes and analyzing their actions, highlight the degradation and venality Dostoyevsky was witnessing in his own life. In The Idiot, Notes From Underground, and A Gentle Creature, Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky implements the archetype of an outcast to strengthen his observation of the corruption of Russian society.

Notes From Underground is the almost existential tale of an unknown narrator living invisible and alone in St. Petersburg whose behavior falls into the outcast archetype as he delves into introspective ramblings of free will and self-interest within society. A former civil servant, a self-proclaimed “sick man” (Dostoyevsky 209; pt.1, ch.1), “spiteful man” (Dostoyevsky 209; pt.1, ch.1) and “unattractive man” (Dostoyevsky 209; pt.1, ch.1), the narrator reflects on becoming an outcast. “They tormented me till I was ashamed: they drove me to compulsions and – sickened me, at last how they sickened me” (Dostoyevsky 210; pt.1, ch.1). He remembers direct conflicts with spiteful officials and the elements of their seediness swarming around him. He resorts to a life in the underground as the only escape from this society because he cannot conform to the norms of such corrupt behavior he witnesses, “taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature” (Dostoyevsky 210; pt.1, ch.1). Despite his nonsensical language, there is a sharp wisdom to the narrator’s words that only those who act without character, foolishly, without morality, will become more successful than intelligent men who only end up limited by their own knowledge. Dostoyevsky’s own beliefs surface with this assertion especially with his own stance against the government for their actions and even resentment for sending him away to a labor camp for his writings.

The underground man is certainly not the hero of this story. He has grown bitter towards a world that does not seem to want him. His stream of consciousness shifts over the course of the novel, at times lying and exaggerating as an unreliable narrator. In an earlier event before he moves to the underground, the narrator feels that he is made fun of by old school friends, now wealthy military officers, who forget to tell him the correct time for a dinner party. This causes him to feel a deep embarrassment having waited for them and he seeks spite against them. “I hated them horribly, though perhaps I was worse than any of them. They repaid me in the same way, and did not conceal their aversion for me. But by then I did not desire their affection: on the contrary, I continually longed for their humiliation” (Dostoyevsky 262; pt.2, ch.3). In his twisted perception of feeling like an outsider, the underground man turns these men into symbols of the pitfalls of society and he is determined to distance himself from these loathsome people, the same way the outcast archetype rebels against normal life, and the underground man encourages their downfall as he stands idly by to witness their unraveling. “I want peace; yes, I’d sell the whole world for a farthing, straight off, so long as I was left in peace. Is the world to go to pot, or am I to go without my tea? I say that the world may go to pot for me so long as I always get my tea. Did you know that, or not? Well, anyway, I know that I am a blackguard, a scoundrel, an egoist, a sluggard.” (Dostoyevsky 305; pt. 2 ch.9) The underground man finds himself in conflict not only with his own consciousness but also with the ideas of behavior within society. Although he frequently puts himself down and degrades his own persona, the underground man understands that this independence he has is far better than how other people act in civilization, giving up control to a system which restricts conscious decision making. “One circumstance tormented me then: Namely, that no one else was like me, and I was like no one else. I am only one, and they are all” (Dostoyevsky 245; pt. 2, ch.1). He lives as a unique being of his own volition while others swarm together in society and he tormented by this loneliness. He also understands that an even greater point of frustration, beyond his tumultuous sense of solitude, is that no one would ever be able to join him in this realm of conscious freedom, out of either fear or simply an inability to live without control due to being within a restrictive system for so long. “Come, try, give any one of us, for instance, a little more independence, untie our hands, widen the spheres of our activity, relax the control and we … yes, I assure you … we should be begging to be under control again at once” (Dostoyevsky 310; pt.2, ch.10). Now that he no longer has to participate in the rituals of daily life, to conform to standards of behavior that would accompany his social class, the underground man through his narration observes the corruptive oppression which has limited man to nothing more than cowards in the shadow of society or slaves to a system. “Every decent man of our age must be a coward and a slave. That is his normal condition…And not only at the present time owning to some casual circumstance, but always, at all times” (Dostoyevsky 246; pt.2, ch.1). As an archetypal outcast, the narrator becomes cynical towards this world he does not belong to anymore. Dostoyevsky’s work asserts that this system of rigid hierarchy and control brings about nothing but ignorance to those who follow the norms of society. “Just take a look around you: Blood is flowing in rivers and in such a jolly way you’d think it was champagne” (Dostoyevsky 225; pt.1, ch.7).

Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot continues to employ that same archetype of the shunned outcast with a slight variation in which the outsider narrator acts as a sort of Christ-like figure (Taylor 1). Prince Myshkin does not perform any miracles but he possesses a unique innocence and kindhearted idealism which bears a stark contrast against the snobbery, the sinful selfishness, and the greed of the other characters who he meets following his departure from the Swiss mental institution where he has lived for most of his life. Intrigued more by nature than wealth, the prince seeks to find beauty in forgotten things as he discusses at an engagement party at the Yepanchin’s house. “I don’t understand how one can walk by a tree and not be happy at the sight of it! Or to speak with a man and not be happy in loving him?…There are so many things at every step so beautiful” (Dostoevsky 541; pt.4, ch.7). An epileptic and frequently called ‘an idiot’, he plunges into a society corrupted by scandals and shame, controlled by money and marriage proposals, far from tranquil stability he knows. Frequently teased for where he has been and his mental problems, he realizes that he will never be able to integrate into society, the same struggle which surfaces in the outcast archetype. He has no friends, no role in society, and cannot seem to find companionship or a place to which he belongs. “What is in all this beauty for me when every minute, every second I am obliged, forced to know that even this tiny gnat, buzzing near me in the sunlight now, is taking part in all this banquet and chorus, knows its place in it, loves it, and is happy, and I alone am an outcast” (Dostoevsky 413; pt.3, ch.7). One event of sinful corruption he becomes entangled in surrounds the pursuit of Nastasya Filippovna, a reckless beauty, a noble woman and a volatile femme fatale notorious for stringing men along, surrounding herself in controversy. “Nastasya Filippovna was quite capable of ruining herself, and even of perpetrating something which would send her to Siberia, for the mere pleasure of injuring a man for whom she had developed so inhuman a sense of loathing and contempt.” (Dostoevsky 77; pt.1, ch. 4). The prince becomes so entranced by her beauty that he proposes marriage to her and Nastasya is torn between marrying the prince or letting herself be corrupted by her other pursuer Rogozhin. Before she makes the choice to leave with her other passionate lover, the prince confronts her foolishness with a harsh, unflinching perspective. “None of them, none of them here are worthy of your little finger, nor your heart! You are more honourable than them all, nobler than them all, better than them all, kinder than them all, cleverer than them all! There are people here who are unworthy to bend down and pick up the handkerchief you’ve dropped… Why do you humiliate yourself and make yourself lower than them all? Why have you twisted everything in yourself, why is there no pride in you?” (Dostoevsky 115; pt.1, ch. 10)

Acting as this sort of Christ figure, he is not angry with her, instead he wants to teach her about the errors of her own behavior, trying to fix what cannot ultimately be repaired much like the society he is entrenched in. Although everyone views him as completely idiotic due to his anxiety and epilepsy, Myshkin quickly loses his innocence and, in his position as an outsider, sees how twisted the people in this world have become. He should be basking in his elevated rank as a prince but knows that monetary wealth only creates more problems than it corrects. “There’s more wealth, but there’s less strength; the binding idea doesn’t exist anymore; everything has turned soft, everything is rotten, and people are rotten” (Dostoevsky 369; pt.3, ch.4) When he is criticized for expressing his emotions and acting like an absurd idiot by the other noblemen at a party, the prince does not let the mockery hurt him when it enhances his own feelings of isolation. “Do you know, to my thinking it’s a good thing to sometimes be absurd; it’s better in fact, it makes it easier to forgive one another, it’s easier to be humble” (Dostoevsky 545; pt.4, ch.7). He also points out that behaving with humility is far more simpler than the challenges of behaving in such a frivolous, selfish manner such as Lizaveta Epanchin, a doting mother who’s only goal is to marry off her three daughters and is Myshkin’s harshest critic.

Over the course of novel, Myshkin’s world seems to unravel as his symptoms of anxiety and madness begins to return. He not only loses Nastasya, the beauty he idolizes to Rogozhin, but young Aglaya Epanchin who shares his kindness but is ultimately dismissed by the prince in pursuit of his other love and is not permitted to marry him under the tutelage of her mother. The prince finds himself in the same position of loneliness and confusion he experiences earlier in the novel. He may be a prince but his sickly condition causes him to be a poor candidate for marriage, something his wealth can not compensate for. He is cast out by society and, much like the underground man, becomes scornful towards these nobles and their frivolous sense of superiority and their greed for egotism and money. “Why, you are so eaten up with pride and vanity that you’ll end by eating up one another, that’s what I prophesy” (Dostoevsky 206; pt.2, ch.3). His wisdom as an outcast does come true as Rogozhin, in a fit of rage, kills the foolish Nastasya and Aglaya suffers a downfall of her own when she is married to a man who is revealed to not be a noble, causing her family to agonize as well. However, Myshkin cannot escape the thorns of unhappiness he endures from the actions of the other nobility who have passed through his life. Normally kind and innocent, optimistic at the wonders of nature and the potential of man, the harsh crux of society has withered away at him. “I could not bear to see all those preoccupied, anxious-looking creatures continuously surging along the streets past me!…It is their wickedness, their perpetual detestable malice- that’s what it is – they are all full of malice, malice” (Dostoevsky 497; pt.4, ch.4). Myshkin cannot bear the scandals and unhappiness anymore and he has been haunted by the cruelties of society. He has witnessed this corruption and heartlessness and it has scarred him back into his state of isolation as an outcast, mad and alone, in a crowd of vicious nobility.

The Meek One portrays a much darker, twisted aspect of the outcast archetype and the harmful effects of entering the life of one who lives in self-declared isolation. Dostoevsky’s narrator, a disgraced military officer and an owner of a pawnshop, begins the novel with his dead wife’s body still in his living room for grieving after she commits suicide. Now that he has returned back to a life of little interaction and solitude, he becomes obsessed with a “terribly young” (Dostoevsky 320; pt.1, ch.1) girl with eyes “blue and dreamy” (Dostoevsky 320; pt.1, ch.1) who visits his shop every day with items to sell. Like a moth bumping against a glass window trying to reach the light within a house, the man tries to learn more about her believing that “the kind and meek do not resist long, and though they are by no means very ready to reveal themselves, they do not know how to escape from a conversation” (Dostoevsky 321; pt.1, ch.1). He not only takes advantage of her impoverished state, but as he seeks to study this case of struggling in the lower class, and he is willing to manipulate and take advantage of a girl trying to survive in society.

The pawnshop owner meets the archetype criteria just like Myshkin and the underground man. He lives alone, he is rejected by society due to his shunning from the military, his behavior is outside of the social norm, and he does not seem to belong to any real rank or identity yet he lacks the kindness and admiration of beauty seen in the prince or the nonsensical ramblings of the underground man. From the beginning with the suicide of the first wife it is clear that this man is not only an outcast but a danger, ready to burn anyone who gets too close to the world he has created for himself. The pawnshop owner receives so little contact with other people that he immediately attempts to involve himself further in the world of the young girl and, through bribery, discovers the details about her life. “…her father and mother were dead, they had died three years before, and she had been left with two disorderly aunts: though it is saying too little to call them disorderly…She had been living in slavery at her aunts’ for those three years..weighed down as she was by the pitiless burden of daily drudgery and that proved something in the way of striving for what was higher and better on her part!” (Dostoevsky 324; pt.1, ch.1)

By deciding to uncover her private life, the man witnesses the seediness and the turmoil that plagues the lower classes. The girl is abused by her aunts who are greedy for money and “scheming to sell her” (Dostoevsky 324; pt.1, ch.1) to a fat shopkeeper who “had ill treated two wives aand now was looking for a third”(Dostoevsky 324; pt.1, ch.1), determined to escape the exploitation and find a better life for herself. Her problems reflect the same issues felt by other Russian people struggling to survive in poverty. For a single shining moment, the pawnshop owner appears as a sort of shopkeeper, offering to marry her in order to silence her aunts and get rid of the other disgusting suitor but even then he takes satisfaction in frightening her. “I had good enough taste not to proceed to enlarge on my virtues…I saw that she was still horribly frightened, but I softened nothing; on the contrary, seeing she was frightened I purposefully exaggerated” (Dostoevsky 325: pt.1, ch.1). Instead of wishing the best and wanting to take care of this girl, he finds amusement in her fear and embraces this animalistic behavior that has grown without society’s parameters of propriety. He is far from a knight in shining armor; the man perpetuates the same abuse the girl had before. “I went on being silent, with her especially I was silent, with her especially…Taking her into my house I wanted all her respect, I wanted her to be standing before me in homage for the sake of my sufferings” (Dostoevsky 329; pt.1, ch.1) He treats her cruelly for the sake of his own pride, relishing in his dominance of the situation. He knows the girl has no other place to go and seems to use her almost as a vessel for all of the disappointment he has felt in his life. “Why, I too, have been unhappy! I was abandoned by every one, abandoned and forgotten, and no one, no one knew it!” (Dostoevsky 329; pt.1, ch.1). Like the archetypal outcast he feels scorned by the world and now he can take those angry thoughts and inflict them on a naïve new wife.

The girl and the man’s relationship begins to switch roles of power as more truths about the pawnshop owner’s life surfaces. “There were no quarrels, but there was silence and- and on her side a more and more defiant air. ‘Rebellion and independence’, that’s what it was…Yes, that meek face was becoming more and more defiant. Would you believe it, I was becoming revolting to her?” (Dostoevsky 331; pt.1, ch.4). The pawnshop owner craves control beyond his solitude and although he jeers at his wife, it is clear that he does not like how little authority he has over her and resorts to degrading comments as an attempt to reaffirm his role as a husband “Allow me, I knew that a woman, above all at sixteen, must be in complete subordination to a man” (Dostoevsky 322; pt.1, ch.4). It seems as though being around the pawnshop owner has changed the girl. She takes on a lover, a member of the man’s former regiment, without any regard to her marriage and even “laughs in his face at his declarations of love” (Dostoevsky 337; pt.1, ch.5). The man with his antisocial behavior and poor treatment has stripped away her gentle nature, leaving only a scorned woman in the wake of his selfish actions and yet she is stuck with him as his wife. This is another reflection on society and the woman’s role. The girl cannot simply leave this unhappy marriage; she is stuck suffering in it because she has no other options with her low status.

The turbulence of their entangled lives takes a toll on the wife and she is sick for the rest of the winter. During that time it is seen once again how the narrator’s focus is not on his wife but on his past suffering. “It is true my comrades did not love me because of my difficult character…Oh, I was never liked, not even at school! I was always and everywhere disliked” (Dostoevsky 346; pt.2, ch.1). As an outcast, he has never had to concern himself with another person other than himself and he frequently dwells on the events which casted him out of society in the first place. In the end, just like with his first wife, the man’s cruelty and harsh nature corrupts and destroys as his second wife also commits suicide. The man loses the only person who occupies space within his mind but cannot believe it: “No, it was all a moment, only an irresponsible moment. A sudden impulse, a fantasy!” (Dostoevsky 359; pt.2, ch.4). Like Myshkin, he now finds himself in the same position of isolation as he was experiencing at the beginning with the loss of his first wife. He does not wish to accept that his own narcissism is to blame and instead, in a burst of frustration, laments on his solitude. “Men are alone on earth- that is what is dreadful…I cry the same, though I am not a hero, and no one answers my cry…Men are alone – around them is silence – that is the earth!” (Dostoevsky 361; pt.2, ch.4) Although the pawnshop owner craves attention, it is clear that he will never belong in society and he can damage those who attempt to breach his position on the outskirts of civilization. His experiences reflect not only the corruptive power of pride and self-obsession but the desperate suffering of the lower class at the mercy of destructive powers which far outrank their poverty.

Dostoevsky’s work asserts that idea that only through the eyes of an outcast can the real problems within society be uncovered. As seen in Notes From Underground, the outcast may not always be of sound mind yet can still discuss the perpetual human conflict between free-will and surrendering power to higher states of decision making. In The Idiot, small sicknesses tarnish whole reputations and although the kind outcast interacts with those around him and presents himself as a member of society, he ultimately finds himself in a solitude within his own beliefs, similar to that of the underground man, as the gluttonous vanity of the upper class tears itself apart with scandals and shame, leaving behind only wasted madness. A Gentle Creature warps this outcast into a more negative light, showing the importance of that isolation when attempts at behaving normally in the daily world bring only cruel, undeserved pain and suffering. No matter how hard these characters try, they cannot escape the confines of their outcast life. Whether they have left of their own volition or driven out, these outcasts always find themselves on the outside looking down at other lives caught up in a tangled Russian society of arranged marriages, property, abuse, and extreme poverty. These outcast archetypes do not belong only to one class of character. Dostoevsky’s characters are multi-faceted and complex in the way that does not make them heroes, rather dark and terrible yet human in their moments of naivety. The archetype of the outcast brings these societal issues to the forefront, but does it in a way uniquely his own, fuelled only by his loneliness and his madness.

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