Fyodor Dostoyevski’s underground man is sympathetic and perhaps even likable primarily because he is self-aware. Many people would consider the certifiably insane person to be more deserving of sympathy because that person isn’t aware of any madness in thought or action, but for others it is the awareness of the affliction that creates sympathy. The lunatic ravings of a madman are undeserving of sympathy because the lunatic is incapable of possessing critical distance. In other words, he has no capacity for sympathy himself. The underground man addresses this issue directly when he writes “What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger”.
This quote comes shortly after the underground man questioned whether any man would do ill if he was fully aware of his own interests. The underground is fully deserving of the reader’s sympathy because he is intelligent and curious and because he presents the possibility of arriving at consciousness. The world is currently in a state in which both people in power and those lusting for power conduct their lives uncritically and without asking questions of or even being interested in the motivation not only in others but of themselves. The underground man may very well be mad, but he is far more willing to ask the tough questions than many people today whose sanity one isn’t even allowed to question.
On the other hand, the underground man runs the risk of losing all sympathy for whatever cause he may have by consistently distancing himself from the possibility of madness by, paradoxically, calling into his question his madness. His continual inquiring of the reader’s opinion of his madness, or whether he is joking, undoes his arguments. When he says that is joking and that knows his jokes are not brilliant, he is begging the opposite effect and it is just as ineffective as the man who says he was merely joking when the reaction to his statement of truth is one of cold emotional detachment.
It is a game to do this; a bet or a wager made in advance. To constantly suggest that one is joking or that one knows that what one is saying is likely to be thought mad is a cheap trick engaged by those not willing to stand forcefully by their principles. When the underground man attempts to ease into the graces of his reader by stating that he is joking or mad before he can be accused of joking or being mad, it is the same thing as the man who believes the opposite of the crowd around him casting off his principles by saying he was only joking when he makes a statement opposite to the majority view. That is certainly not a trait to be admired in anyone, not even an underground man.