Tagging Speech in Notes from Underground: a Journey Through Layers of Reality

When I first began working on using XML and TEI to tag Notes from Underground as an inexperienced coder, I was lulled into a false sense of security by the first half of the novel. Sure, I still had plenty of tagging difficulties, including a family of dentists, a mythological bird nobody had heard of, and a crystal palace that suddenly became a chicken coop and a mansion, there was hardly any speech to tag in the first half, as it was just the lonely Underground Man reflecting and ranting about society and life. This all led me to finish tagging the first half of the novel at what I can only assume to be a record pace for preliminarily tagging Notes from Underground (if anyone else has, let me know and we’ll compare times), and feeling overly confident heading into the second half of the novel. But oh boy, was I in for a big surprise. 

Part 2 of the novel introduced an actual narrative, not just rambling reflections and dissatisfaction with society. Don’t be fooled into thinking those aren’t still there, of course they are, it’s Dostoevsky after all, and moreover, it’s their presence there that made tagging Part 2 an uphill battle for me. Of course, there were no actual spoken conversations in Part 1, only imagined ones. It was very easy to tell that these were imagined and which did not contain more than one layer of reality; these conversations were all in the Underground Man’s head, and although there were imagined characters speaking with each other and with the Underground Man, they were straightforward, were easily identifiable as thought, and who was speaking to whom was clear. However, Part 2 introduced real dialogue, and as the Underground Man becomes more and more erratic and irrational  in his interactions with society, his speech also reflects this. 

One of the most difficult aspects of tagging speech in Notes from Underground was the scene in which the Underground Man, having humiliated himself at the Hôtel de Paris in front of Zverkov, Simonov, Trudolyobov and Ferfechkin, makes his way to the brothel in order to challenge Zverkov to a duel (he at least this is the plan, but the night goes much differently than he intended). In this scene, there are two characters who interact with spoken dialogue–the Underground Man and the sledge driver. However, their conversations don’t go much further than the Underground Man being every Uber (or in the 1800s, sledge) driver’s worst nightmare and the sledge driver putting up a meek defense against his erratic behavior and verbal and physical abuses. The Underground Man does, however, have quite the imagined conversation with himself, as he agonizes over his decisions that night, from going to the dinner in the first place, to antagonizing his company, to following them to the brothel. However, it isn’t only he himself that is speaking in his head. It is his imagined enemy, who may or may not be Zverkov, an imagined audience of him fighting the aforementioned enemy, and an imagined version of himself who is less cowardly and more socially adept. 

When it came to tagging this particular scene, I had a nightmare of a time. Firstly, I am a non-native speaker of Russian. Secondly, there were absolutely no verbs preceding or succeeding the speech that could help me determine whether or not they were imagined or spoken out loud. The most difficult paragraph is pictured below.

As you can see, there are no verbs such as говорил (he said), крикнул (he screamed), думал (he thought), etc. to indicate whether or not the speech is aloud or not. Furthermore, the one verb that does indicate that the speech is aloud (закричу [I will scream]), is in fact not indicating out loud speech, as it is part of a hypothetical conversation happening in the Underground Man’s head. This hypothetical conversation led to one of the most confusing days in my existence as an undergraduate research assistant. One of the challenges that I faced when determining whether or not the speech was spoken or thought was that the Underground Man did previously say some of his inner thoughts out loud in Part 2. Therefore, I was in for a challenge when it came to tagging speech as out loud or not. Luckily, I was able to, with help from the rest of the team, decide concretely that the speech was in fact thought and not said, as it was in between two spoken commands to the sledge driver, to which he provided no response, and also because at this point in the novel, I had become accustomed to the Underground Man’s patterns of speech and thought, and thought speech best fit the description of this particular passage. 

Another interesting thing about this passage was the use of the <seg> tag to indicate that the direct speech from the Underground Man (#um) to his imagined enemy (#imvrg) is imagined. This was done on my second pass through Notes from Underground, and was used to indicate that the recipient of the speech was not in fact in existence, that it was merely a figment of the Underground Man’s imagination. And since there were multiple points in the novella where this occurred, we decided it would be interesting to tag them in order to see what percentage of the Underground Man’s speech was said to an imaginary recipient. 

Different layers of speech and reality are not uncommon in Dostoevsky’s works, but occur especially frequently in Notes from Underground. When I worked on the initial tagging for the novella, I came across many challenges when encountering these layers, particularly in Part 2, in a scene where the Underground Man is simultaneously giving commands verbally to a real person and having an entire imagined scenario full of speech to nonexistent people in his head. These challenges are, however, what make the project exciting and fulfilling to work on. Dostoevsky was by no means a straightforward author, and digitally tagging his novels is shedding new light on his literary complexities and structure. I feel very honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to work on this project and with such a wonderful team. 

Eden Zorne is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, where she majors in Slavic Languages and Cultures and European Affairs and minors in History. In May 2022 she worked on the Digital Dostoevsky project as an RA as part of the Jackman Scholars in Residence program.

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