Self-consciosness Sartre Dostoyevsky Essay, Research Paper
In both Notes From the Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the play No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre, we see that the characters have lost that state of comfort with or acceptance of one’s self that is apparent only before interaction with other people. The self-doubt that comes from interactions with others has diminished their dignity, and they see themselves as, or are mainly concerned with, what view they want or think others to have of them. They are ultimately uncomfortable with their lives, and therefore with the view they believe to project. The Underground Man, not formally named in the story, becomes increasingly conscious of himself throughout his life and it has lead to his ultimate isolation and nihilism. The three main characters in No Exit, Garcin, Inez and Estelle, are all extremely self-conscious of their past actions, which have landed them in a hell in which interaction with other people is the torture, not much different from our Underground Man. Self-consciousness is undeniably one of mankind’s inner turmoil’s, but in what way does it seem to effect us and the characters in the stories?
These character’s sense of self has become totally dependent on the view of others. This is due to thinking about themselves based on how another would view there lives. The Underground Man’s self-consciousness, his constant analysis and revision of his own thoughts and words, is one of the most important elements of the Notes. The Underground Man is very aware, not only of our presence as readers (he constantly addresses us), but of our presence as judges, just as he is everyone else, and was throughout his life. A shameful act is only shameful in the eyes of others, as a man may be content to beat his wife, but will be ashamed of it when others know of it and look down on him for doing so. Though he states otherwise on more than one occasion, the Underground Man does actually care a great deal what we think of him, and actually may be why he is writing them.
This state of hypersensitivity has come about through his having to confront a view of himself he would reflect on compared to others. The Underground Man has come to be the way he is because throughout his life he could not cope with himself in comparison to his surroundings, in that he felt alienated and resentful of it. His childhood shows he was an orphan, which may have started his inacceptance and insecurity. This insecurity would leave him almost friendless, except for Simonov, the only friend from his school days that the Underground Man still speaks to, although the he thinks that Simonov despises him. All social interactions for him were a living hell, as we see when he talks of his early workplace and how he hated everyone, and was hated by all. He tries to rationalize this by saying only fools are content with their existence, and intelligent men like him are doomed to an ill fate such as his.
The characters in No Exit are actually dead, and in a hell quite similar to the earthly hell The Underground man now lives. The Underground Man has ultimately become isolated due to his fear of interaction, while the damned in No Exit face a hell of this exact interaction, but without the option of the sad escape the Underground Man has sought. Instead of the expected fires and pitchforks of popular belief, they find themselves in a room furnished in Second Empire style, in which they face eternity with each other. None of them will admit why they have been damned to hell. Garcin says he was executed for being a pacifist while Inez insists a mistake has been made. It turns out, however, that Garcin cheated and mistreated his wife, Inez seduced her cousin’s wife while living with them, and Estelle cheated on her husband and drowned her illegitimate baby.
From the beginning of the play each character is insecure about if he’s conscious of the situation he’s in our not, depicting the inner battle of feeling good about one’s self against what your conscious tells you. Garcin insists, he knows what the Valet is up to and that he’s quite conscious of his position. Inez, being a self-proclaimed “damned bitch”, immediately thinks the torture is separation form someone named Florence, who turns out to be the lover she seduced. However, she is quick to say that this wont work, and that Florence was tiresome anyhow, showing her self-consciousness of what she did and her petty attempt to be rid of it.
Each of them are constantly aware of each other as judges of themselves, which in turn drives them mad and is their torture. Garcin is always trying to see what his old coworkers are saying about him back on earth, clearly showing his insecurity and self doubt in the eyes of others even when he’s dead. There are no mirrors, which catch many of us looking into them to reassure ourselves. Estelle is constantly paranoid of her physical appearance in front of others, and is frantic without any mirrors. This torture directly attacks her self-conscious. She is unable to cope with her self-conscious the way she’s used to, by looking into a mirror at her beauty, reassuring herself. Here there is no escape form the anxiety her self-conscious is causing her. Garcin tries to cope with his torture first by asking the other two to keep silent, a way out of interaction so that one may attempt to forget about trying to prove oneself, but fails as the other two eventually continue to talk. Secondly he seeks comfort in Inez, asking her to assure him he is not a coward. Both are attempts to bring about some sort of interaction that will rid him of his burdened self-consciousness, something the Underground Man does as well.
When the Underground Man goes to the diner with his old acquaintances from school, he is attempting the same thing. He seems to think that by immersing himself in “life,” he might somehow put himself back into society, and in some way regain his dignity. On the way there he fantasizes about making friends with them and living happily ever after, but also fantasizes about punching Zverkov, who is not friendly with him. He again tries to liberate himself from the nihilist he is becoming when he tries to persuade Lisa, the prostitute he sleeps with, to give up her profession, as it is killing her both mentally and physically. However, he is unable to play this role for long, and when she visits him, he lashes out at her, and says he was just trying to humiliate her.
The reason they cannot escape the torture of their existence is because they have been overly self-conscious for too long. Eventually, the freedom one experiences when he or she is not afraid of how they look, or what they do in life, is curtailed by the fact that they are so self-conscious that they have limited there actions, and are too removed from society. In the case of the three characters in No Exit, they too are limited in their actions in that they can only attempt to be rid of their torture, but each attempt fails.
So we leave the characters in this state forever. The Underground Man, as it says at the end of the story, will go on writing more and more notes, but we may stop reading at that point. As for the three in hell, the cannot escape, and even when the door to their room is opened, Garcin cannot leave because he has not yet freed himself from the inner torture of his self-conscious. The alienation the Underground Man feels towards society is complete, and his self-conscious keeps it that way, he cannot escape it. He has become incapable of action for fear of humiliation, and anger at this fact. The three in No Exit must deal with their past in full, in front of each other, and therefore cannot escape their torture, for this is exactly what angers and frustrates them.
Our characters are doomed to live a battle of self-consciousness versus satisfactory existence, in which satisfactory existence can never prevail because they are not satisfied with the life they lived, in truth they are quite ashamed of it, and have come to be so only through being placed in a situations in which they must talk of their shameful actions with other people, or live feeling ashamed of their actual existence. It is this very interaction with people kick-starts the self-conscious into self-reflection, and it is the same one that will torment our characters forever.