Notes from Underground
Notes from Underground
Zapiski iz podpol'ia, which was later translated as Notes from Underground (and also translated as Notes from the Underground), is a first-person novel written in a confessional style, and it is one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's (also known as Dostoevsky) most philosophical works. It is often regarded as a precursor to the existentialist novel. (Existentialism is a school of philosophical thought that stresses the essential freedom of an individual and asserts that truth is subjective and can be arrived at not through rational thought but through personal experience.) The narrator of Notes from Underground remains unnamed throughout the novel, and is referred to by critics as "the underground man." The novel is broken into two sections, the first being the underground man's philosophical discussions of such ideas as consciousness, isolation, and inertia. The second section is written as a narrative rather than in the stream-of-consciousness style of the first section, and the events that unfold therein take place prior to the first section. It relates the events that led to the underground man's literal and metaphorical retreat underground. This section focuses on the underground man's feelings of social humiliation and subsequent alienation, and on his encounter with a prostitute whom he implores to seek a better life. Notes from Underground, one of Dostoyevsky's earlier novels, anticipates themes of his later works. These themes include alienation, despair, and the questioning of the
limits of rationality. These themes are prevalent in Dostoyevsky's most famous works: Prestuplenie i nakazanie (later translated as Crime and Punishment), published in 1866, and Brat'ia Karamzovy (later translated as The Brothers Karamazov, published from 1879 to 1880).
First published as Zapiski iz podpol'ia in serial form in 1864 in the magazine Epokha (Epoch), a periodical that was edited by his brother, Notes from Underground is still in print and available in a 1993 Vintage Classics edition.
Born in Moscow, on October 30, 1821, according to the Julian calendar, or on November 11, 1821, according to the Gregorian calendar, Dostoyevsky was the second of seven children. (Both the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar were used in the nineteenth century. The calendars differ in the way they calculate leap years, though the Gregorian calendar is most commonly used today.) Dostoyevsky's father, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoyevsky, was a doctor. As a child, Dostoyevsky attended boarding school in Moscow. The family left Moscow in 1828 when Mikhail Andreevich Dostoyevsky was granted the rank of a nobleman and he purchased a village estate. After the 1837 death of Dostoyevsky's mother, Mariia Fedorovna, his father enrolled him in a military engineering school in St. Petersburg. Dostoyevsky's father died in 1839. Dostoyevsky completed his education at the academy as an officer. He then worked as a draftsman but retired in 1843 to pursue his writing.
That year, he began his first work of fiction, Bednye liudi, which was published in book form in 1846 and later translated as Poor Folk. The critically acclaimed novel centers on a timid man who attempts to save a woman from an unwanted marriage. Dostoyevsky followed this with several short stories that were psychological as well as political in nature. In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested for political activities, which included his involvement in a group that discussed socialism, freedom of the press, and other related topics. Dostoyevsky served four years of hard labor in Siberia. Following his release from prison in 1854, he spent several years in army service in the village of Semipalatinsk. He continued to write; his work included the novella Selo Stepanchikovo i ego obitateli ("The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants"), published in 1859.
In 1857, Dostoyevsky married the widow Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva. An epileptic, Dostoyevsky's attacks increased following his release from prison, and he used this medical issue as grounds for petitioning for his early return to St. Petersburg. Only gradually were Dostoyevsky's rights—including the ability to retire from the army and the permission to publish—returned to him. He was allowed to return to St. Petersburg in 1859. His feelings of isolation and alienation that developed during his imprisonment and army service informed his subsequent writings. The narrator's paranoia and alienation in Zapiski iz podpol'ia are reflective of the intensity of these feelings. The work was published in 1864 in two issues of the journal Epokha. (The novel was later translated as Notes from Underground). This was also the same year Dostoyevsky lost his wife and his brother.
In 1866, one of Dostoyevsky's best-known works, Prestuplenie i nakazanie was published in serial form in the journal Russkii vestnik. The work was later translated and published as Crime and Punishment. A psychological novel that explores a crime through the criminal's eyes, the novel won immediate critical praise for the precision of its psychological analyses. Dostoyevsky remarried in 1867, this time to a stenographer named Anna Grigorevna Snitkina; the couple had a daughter in 1869. In 1879 and 1880, Dostoyevsky's final novel, Brat'ia Karamzovy, was also published in serial form in Russkii vestnik. The novel was later translated and published as The Brothers Karamazov. The work focuses on the murder of the father of the Karamazov family, and on his sons, one of whom is arrested for the murder. Dostoyevsky died in 1881 (on January 28, Julian calendar; or February 9, Gregorian calendar) of complications from emphysema and epilepsy.
The narrator describes himself as both sick and wicked. Explaining that he is a former civil servant, he contradicts himself repeatedly, taking back what he has said about his wickedness almost as soon as he has said it. He notes "I never even managed to become anything, neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect." He also informs the reader that he lives in St. Petersburg.
The narrator focuses on the issue of consciousness, particularly his own heightened consciousness. He explains that the more highly developed one's sense of consciousness is, the more one realizes there is nothing to do, to seek, to become. Inertia is the result of heightened awareness. The underground man reveals his perception that his intelligence is superior to that of other people, and that this isolates him from society.
The underground man informs the reader that a normal man is quite stupid, but this fact allows him to be capable of action, such as revenge. A highly conscious individual, like himself, is really more of a mouse. The narrator explores the ways in which this highly conscious mouse could be as deeply offended by the actions of another person, in the same way as the stupid man. Yet the mouse understands that to act on the feeling of offense is impossible. Inertia remains the state of a highly conscious individual, even though he is plagued by uncertainty and pain.
The narrator uses the metaphor of a toothache to examine how pain, to a highly conscious person, may be seen as pleasurable, and is perhaps the only pleasure he is able to enjoy in his life. The chapter concludes with the question of whether or not a highly conscious individual can respect himself.
The underground man returns to the idea of inertia and its relation to consciousness. He speaks of how he forced himself to fall in love, or start hating, in order to escape the pure boredom of inaction, yet inertia remains the result. Intelligent men like himself are often left with only their own babbling.
The underground man explores the idea of the "beautiful and lofty." The phrase sarcastically refers to the romantic idealism prevalent in 1840s Russian literature. Additionally, the narrator mocks the aesthetics of the 1860s, in his discussion of the artwork in this section.
- The film Notes from Underground, based on Dostoyevsky's novel and adapted and directed by Gary Walkow, was produced in 1995. It stars Henry Czerny as the underground man and Sheryl Lee as Liza. The cast also includes Jon Favreau and Seth Green. The DVD (by Walkow/Gruber Pictures Production in association with Renegade Films) was released in 1998.
The notion of self-interest is explored, and the underground man questions whether a person may "act knowingly against his own profit." Pursuing the idea of man's actions being related to the laws of nature, the narrator demonstrates that scientific explanations for behavior can result in the view that man "will no longer be answerable for his actions." The consequence, he suggests, is that all actions may be calculated mathematically and there will be no action left in the world. He then rejects this notion in favor of the idea that man acts "as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one can want even against one's own profit."
The underground man discusses the nature of human desires, stating that contrary to the arguments that wanting and free will do not exist, and that human actions can be mathematically predicted, it is, rather, that our desires make us human. Wanting encompasses our whole lives, including our reason as well as our desires. The underground man continues to explore the limits of reason.
The underground man assumes his readers interject with the objection that, if man's desires do not conform "with the demands of science and common sense," they need to be corrected. He questions why such a correction would be necessary. Arguing that man is hampered by his fear at accomplishing the goals of science and reason, the underground man explains why men are inclined both to create and to destroy. Achievement of goals means that a man will no longer have anything to search for; he will no longer have a purpose. The only solution, the narrator maintains, is for man to turn to contemplation, yet the result of heightened consciousness is inertia.
The idea of a "crystal edifice" is derided by the underground man. The phrase is used to refer to a metaphorical edifice that is the embodiment of rational ideals, but is also a reference to the Crystal Palace, an actual, physical structure built in 1851 in London to showcase the latest technological inventions of the Industrial Revolution.
The underground man returns to the notion of "conscious inertia," and how this is the only possible course of action. He questions whether it is "possible to be perfectly candid with oneself and not be afraid of the whole truth." He explains that the reason he has written anything at all is because he is bored, and that writing is like work, and work keeps him out of trouble. Stating that the snow outside has reminded him of an incident from his past, he introduces the next section of the book.
Apropos of the Wet Snow
The underground man states that at the time the events in this section took place, he was twenty-four years old. He reveals the extent to which he thinks himself superior to others, stating that his intellect is highly developed and consequently he feels like "a coward and a slave" to be working in his office, with stupid men. He emphasizes the isolating nature of his intellectual superiority, and expresses a desire for the social equality he feels his coworkers do not extend to him. In his isolation from society, he alternately comforts himself with reading, or with pursuing a bit of "debauchery." One night he comes upon men fighting, and wishes to become involved. He fails to do so but finds himself slighted by an army officer, who moves him out of the way in order to pass; the officer takes no notice of the underground man. The underground man's perception that the officer is too socially superior to notice him leaves him desiring revenge. He resolves to bump into the officer while out walking, and then to take no notice of having bumped him. After concocting a plan to accomplish this goal, he eventually achieves his purpose.
The underground man speaks of sometimes repenting his sins, and feeling hopeful for a little while, and of slipping into a dream state in which he feels incredible love. But when the dreams end (he is "incapable of dreaming for longer than three months at a time") he feels the need to immerse himself into society. In one of these states of mind, the underground man resolves to visit a former schoolmate, Simonov, whom he has not seen for nearly a year.
Simonov and two other friends (Ferfichkin and Trudolyubov) are discussing a farewell party they wish to throw for another friend, Zverkov, who is now an army officer about to leave for an assignment. The four men went to school with the underground man. Feeling as if they are ignoring him, the narrator recalls how everyone at school hated him. As the men discuss the party, the underground man grows annoyed; he is being ignored. While it is common knowledge that the underground man and Zverkov were never on friendly terms, the underground man insists that he be allowed to join the party. The men reluctantly agree to include him. The next morning, he frets over what he will wear to the dinner party, and what the others will think of his shabby clothes.
The narrator arrives at the restaurant an hour before the group does (they had changed the time but failed to notify him). Infuriated with what he perceives to be Zverkov's attempts to embarrass him, the underground man mocks Zverkov to the point that Zverkov does try to embarrass the underground man. The other men join in. Despite the obvious animosity between himself and the group, the underground man does not leave. Eventually, the men decide to adjourn to a brothel, and the underground man begs their forgiveness and also asks Simonov to lend him money so that he may join them. Angrily, Simonov shoves the money at the underground man and departs with his friends.
The underground man follows the group. Resolving to get his revenge, he decides that slapping Zverkov's face is the only thing he can honorably do. When he arrives at the brothel, the men are not there. The underground man expresses extreme relief at not having to slap Zverkov. He sees a beautiful young woman, a prostitute, who has entered the room, and he approaches her.
The underground man asks the prostitute her name, and she informs him that it is Liza; he struggles for something to say. Liza is brief and vague in her responses to his subsequent questions. The underground man tells her a story about a girl from a brothel who died and whose coffin he had seen being carried out of a basement. He tells Liza that she too will one day die like the other girl, sick and alone and unknown. He urges her to change her life so she can still "find love, marry, be happy." Liza's response to his speech is somewhat dismissive. He begins again, condemning Liza's life as a prostitute, warming to what he describes as a fascinating game. He speaks of morality, poverty, of what drives young women like Liza to live as slaves. While he begins to feel guilty about his manipulation of her, she charges that he seems to speak as if he has learned these things from a book, and he feels mocked.
Driven by his perception of Liza's mockery of him, the underground man begins his speech-making again, attempting to draw out her feelings of shame, attempting to belittle her, accusing her of enslaving her own soul, as well as her body. He tells her another story, more graphic than the first, about a prostitute who dies from illness. Looking at Liza, he finds that she is crying into her pillow. Rushing to leave, he gives Liza his address before he departs.
Once home, the narrator regrets having given Liza his address. He vows to pay Simonov back, and borrows money to do so. He is tormented by thoughts of Liza. As several days pass and Liza does not appear, the underground man begins to feel relief that she will leave him alone, but he imagines the two of them together, in love. The underground man becomes distracted by his servant Apollon, whom the underground man still has failed to pay. He berates Apollon for the servant's pride. As he is yelling at Apollon, Liza appears.
"Disgustingly embarrassed" by her finding him in this state, yelling and wearing a tattered dressing gown, the underground man invites Liza to sit down. He attempts to explain the situation, and succumbs to a fit of despair. Blaming the unpleasantness on Liza, the underground man admits he is angry with himself, but that "naturally, she was going to bear the brunt of it," so he refuses to speak. Liza breaks the silence, informing him that she wishes to leave the brothel permanently. The underground man finally responds by telling her that on the evening they had been together, he had felt humiliated, and that he in turn had humiliated her. "That's what it was," he tells her, then asks "and you thought I came then on purpose to save you, right?" He continues to rant, exposing his own self-loathing to her. He weeps; she comforts him. The underground man realizes that she has become the heroine and he the humiliated one, and as he grasps his need for power over her, Liza embraces him passionately.
After Liza and the underground man make love, he is impatient for her to leave. As she bids him farewell, he attempts to pay her. When he finds the money she let slip from her fingers before she left, the underground man, feeling ashamed, tries to follow her, but the falling snow has covered her footsteps. He stands indecisively, then decides she will be better off without him having "dirtied her soul." He resolves to retreat underground.
Apollon is the underground man's servant. He speaks little, refusing to ask the underground man about the wages he is owed; the underground man takes this to be an indication of Apollon's pride. Apollon remains calm while suffering the onslaught of the underground's man anger.
Ferfichkin is one of the underground man's former schoolmates who is visiting Simonov when the underground man appears. The underground man seems annoyed with him from the beginning. Ferfichkin is described as "short" and "monkey-faced," and as "a fool" who is both ambitious and cowardly. The underground man also comments that Ferfichkin was his worst enemy even when they were young children. At Simonov's, Ferfichkin is openly rude and aggressive toward the underground man. "But we have our own circle, we're friends," he complains to Trudolyubov and Simonov. To the underground man he comments "maybe we don't want you at all." Ferfichkin's manner with the underground man is just as contentious at the farewell party for Zverkov. The underground man challenges Ferfichkin to a duel, but the whole affair is laughed off by all but the underground man.
Liza is the prostitute with whom the underground man spends the night after he fails to find Simonov, Ferfichkin, and Zverkov after the dinner party. She is described by the underground man as being attractive, but in such a way that the others would not have noticed. Liza endures the underground man's attempts to shame and frighten her away from a life of prostitution. She responds by seeking him out, much to his dismay. Upon her arrival, the underground man is embarrassed that he has been yelling at Apollon, and embarrassed by the shabby condition of the dressing gown he wears. His agitation is obvious, and Liza informs him that she is intent on leaving the brothel. After the underground man rants about his anger with her for having seen him in his current state, Liza runs to him and holds him while they both weep. The underground man cries out: "They won't let me … I can't be … good!" When he has finished crying, she embraces him passionately. After they make love, the underground man watches Liza in the bedroom, sitting on the floor, perhaps crying. As she prepares to leave, the underground man attempts to pay her, and she leaves the money behind before disappearing down the street. Liza is often viewed as a catalyst; it is her story that the underground man is reminded of when he sees the snow at the end of the first section of the novel. She represents human connection, and hope and love, all of which the underground man ultimately rejects.
An unnamed officer in a bar becomes the object of the underground man's obssession. One night, when the underground man was out hoping to become involved in a bar fight, the officer finds the underground man blocking his way past the billiard table. The underground man relates how the officer "took me by the shoulders and silently—with no warning or explanation—moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing." While the underground man fails to protest at this time directly to the officer, he later finds that he cannot avoid thinking about the incident and how he needed to avenge himself for this social slight. For several years after, the underground man would see the officer on the street, and he began to follow him. Eventually, he resolves to bump into the officer while out walking, and he concocts an intricate plan to accomplish his goal. Finally, he succeeds, and though the officer seems not to notice, the underground man is sure he is only pretending not to have noticed. The officer symbolizes the social superiority the underground man assumes other people feel they possess.
Anton Antonych Setochkin
Setochkin is the underground man's department chief at work and is described as "a humble but serious and positive man, who never loaned money to anyone." Despite this, the underground man does ask Setochkin to loan him money; he needs it to buy a new fur collar for his coat, so that he may look respectable when he bumps into the officer whom he feels has slighted him. Setochkin does loan the underground man the money he needs. He is also the person the underground man first turns to when he feels the need to interact socially, and in fact is the only "permanent acquaintance" the underground man has. Setochkin lends the underground man money a second time as well, when the underground asks him for fifteen roubles, in order to pay back Simonov for the money he had lent the underground man the night before.
Simonov is a former schoolmate of the underground man. The underground man remarks that, while he does not even acknowledge most of his former schoolmates if he sees them on the street any longer, Simonov seems more open-minded than the others; he is described as independent and honest. The underground man remarks that he suspects Simonov finds him repulsive, but he keeps visiting him anyway. Simonov reluctantly agrees to let the underground man attend the farewell party for Zverkov. At that party, Simonov offends the underground man by acknowledging, without apologizing, that he forgot to send word to the underground man that the time of the party had been changed. He is uncomfortable with the underground man's increasingly rude behavior, but he nevertheless lends him money later in the evening.
Trudolyubov is one of the former schoolmates whom the underground man finds visiting with Simonov. The underground man describes him as a cold, military type of personality who is focused on success and promotions. According to the underground man, Trudolyubov thinks quite little of the underground man. Trudolyubov seems confused by the underground man's insistence that he be allowed to attend the farewell party for Zverkov, observing that the two men were never on good terms with one another. When the underground man begins to cause trouble at the party, Trudolyubov urges him to stop disrupting things, particularly since he invited himself along to the gathering in the first place. By the end of the evening, Trudolyubov has dismissed the underground man as a drunk and as a crazy man.
The Underground Man
The underground man is the narrator of the novel; the story is told entirely from his perspective. He describes himself in the first section of the book as a forty-year-old former civil servant who is sick but too suspicious of doctors to obtain treatment. He has been living alone, "underground," for nearly twenty years. The underground man contradicts himself frequently, and makes it difficult for readers to gauge his sincerity regarding any of the philosophical topics he discusses. Repeatedly he emphasizes his superior intelligence and heightened consciousness. Referring often to the way he presumes he is, or has been, perceived by others, the underground man reveals his deeply rooted sense of paranoia. He additionally describes his intense feelings of alienation and isolation. In the narrative section of the novel, these qualities are demonstrated as well in the underground man's twenty-four-year-old version of himself. Certain that others hate him and seek to offend him, he plots a complex plan to bump into a man who moved him aside at a bar. He invites himself along to a party consisting of men for whom he has no positive feelings, and whom he is certain dislike him immensely. He is almost vicious in the need to cause offense to individuals whom he perceives have offended him (including the unnamed officer, his old schoolmates, and Liza), yet at the same time, he wishes for some sort of social recognition or acceptance from them. After the possibility of some sort of relationship with Liza—a woman who was moved by his words, who sought him out as a friend, perhaps even a savior—is severed by his cruel attempt to pay her for sleeping with him, the underground man finds that he is driven, when in the company of others, to dominate and tyrannize. He longs for peace, to be left alone, he asserts. Having driven Liza away at the end of the novel, he retreats underground.
Zverkov is another former schoolmate of the underground man. He is to be honored at a farewell party that Simonov, Ferfichkin, and Trudolyubov are planning on throwing for him in honor of his promotion and his impending move to another province. Now a successful military officer, Zverkov is described by the underground man as having been a boy whom everyone had liked in school. The underground man notes, however, that he had hated Zverkov, even as a boy, because of his good looks and confidence. When Zverkov and the underground man first see each other at Zverkov's party, the underground man almost immediately feels he is being condescended to. Seeing that Zverkov is being polite and deferential to him, the underground man feels that Zverkov is mocking him deliberately in order to offend him. This sets the tone for the rest of the evening, as the underground man becomes increasingly belligerent with the group, and they become increasingly annoyed with him, particularly since it was he—the underground man—who had insisted on joining them. Zverkov starts to ignore him and begins to entertain the others with stories about women and about his military acquaintances. By the end of the evening, the underground man attempts to apologize to Zverkov, as well as the others, but his efforts are not well received. Zverkov assures the underground man that it is not possible for someone such as the underground man to offend him.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- The underground man is a complex, often abrasive individual. He manipulates people; he seems to seek their company, their friendship, and their respect (as he does with Simonov and his friends, and with Liza), only to push them away again. Write an essay on someone you may know who shares these qualities. Do you feel their interest in friendship is genuine? What might their other motivations be? What personal problems might they have that would prohibit them from developing normal relationships?
- Rewrite the farewell dinner party scene in the first person from the viewpoint of Simonov or one of his friends. How does the individual you selected respond to the underground man and his actions? How does what that character says differ from what he thinks? Does what you wrote significantly change the way the scene would be interpreted? How might the scene be conveyed objectively? Discuss your findings with the class.
- Dostoyevsky's writings were heavily influenced by the philosophical trends and political events of the 1860s. Write a report on Russian Rationalism in the 1860s, paying particular attention to the way this trend grew out of the Romanticism of the 1840s. What types of fiction were other writers, such as Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) or Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) publishing at this time? How were these works alike or different from Notes from Underground?
- In Notes from Underground, the narrator refers a number of times to the "Crystal Palace." Explain in a written or oral report what the actual Crystal Palace in England was, why it was built, what it contained, and what it represented—to the English, to Europe, to the rest of the world. What was the fate of the Crystal Palace?
Alienation and Isolation
The underground man's sense of alienation and isolation from society is intense. At times it seems as though he has chosen to isolate himself, and on other occasions his extreme paranoia results in his feeling as though society has intentionally alienated him. He is extremely aware of how different he is, or perceives himself to be, from the rest of society, and this is the main reason for his sense of isolation. Certain that his consciousness is highly evolved while most other men are quite stupid, he seems to feel that his living underground, away from society, is inevitable. The effects of this isolation are witnessed by the reader. The reader sees a man who lives in a world of paradox; he repeatedly asserts one thing, and in the next breath states the exact opposite. As an officer, he was wicked, the underground man tells us. Almost directly after, he informs the reader he has lied to us and that he was in fact "never able to become wicked." He then observes that he is aware that he possesses elements that are completely opposite of one another. The sense of isolation that inspires manic rants in the first half of the novel actually began developing earlier in his life, during the time that encompasses the second half of the novel. The underground man explains early in the second half of the novel that he is tormented by the idea that no one else was like him, and that he is unlike anyone else. After spending months in isolation, he "would begin to feel an irresistible need to rush into society." This usually entailed a visit to the home of his department chief (Setochkin), where he would also endure the company of Setochkin's daughters and their aunt. Upon returning home after such visits, the underground man seeks nothing more than to alienate himself from society once again, vowing to "put off for a while my desire to embrace the whole of mankind." While he seems internally driven toward solitude, he also feels the force of alienation as an external force. This can be observed in his view of time. In several places in the novel, the underground man notes the unpleasant sounds of clocks. Preparing to leave for Zverkov's farewell dinner, the underground man comments that finally "my wretched little wall clock hissed five." Later, upon waking next to Liza at the brothel, he notes that "Somewhere, behind a partition, as if under some strong pressure, as if someone were strangling it, a clock wheezed. After an unnaturally prolonged wheeze, there followed a thin, vile, and somehow unexpectedly rapid chiming—as if someone had suddenly jumped forward." Back in his apartment, after fighting with Apollon and at the moment Liza arrives, his "clock strained, hissed, and struck seven." Time, in these examples, represented by the painful movement of the clocks, demarks the events of his life. The way time is characterized—as hissing, wheezing, strangled—emphasizes not only the underground man's desire to escape real life and retreat underground, but it also stresses his sense of alienation from the world that other people seem to live in rather comfortably. He is driven to his isolation as much as he seeks it voluntarily.
Repeatedly in the first section of the novel, the underground man makes reference to how his highly evolved sense of consciousness, his above average awareness of reality, results in inertia. Action becomes impossible based on the underground man's logic. Being aware of the good in the world, the very act of being conscious of this good, makes the underground man stuck in his "mire." He finds that being stuck in this way actually seemed to him to be his normal state, rather than something he arrived at by chance or decision. He describes feeling humiliated by this condition, certain that he alone experienced it. His awareness of this humiliation leads him to feel as though he has "reached the ultimate wall," and he feels as though even if he possessed the time and the faith necessary in order to change himself, "there is perhaps nothing to change into." The consequence of this line of thinking, the underground man explains, is that "there is simply nothing to do at all." In the second half of the novel, which takes place prior to the first half, the narrator describes the events leading him to this inertia. While he seeks action, it is apparent from the very beginning of this section that the underground man perpetually finds himself in situations that leave him feeling offended and subsequently necessitate the need for revenge. In the course of planning or enacting the revenge, the underground man gets tripped up by his own habit of intellectually dissecting the events that leave him feeling socially slighted. He spends inordinate amounts of time planning to bump into the officer from the bar. He insinuates himself into the group of Simonov and friends in order to prove to them that they are not superior to him; this becomes a lengthy ordeal involving convincing the men to invite him, worrying excessively about the party prior to it, insulting the men at the party only to draw back, silently fuming and pacing for hours, then attacking again, then begging forgiveness. He appears to be taking action, but every action is in fact accompanied by excruciating mental analyses of his actions. In the end, after the underground man's tortured exchange with Liza, which features long periods of pondering what he will say to her and how he will say it and what the likely effect will be, and in which he humiliates her, baits her, sympathizes with her, fears her, confronts her, and humiliates her again, the underground man resolves to abandon almost entirely the bits of action that intersperse his thinking. He longs for peace, for solitude, for the underground, informing the reader that "we've reached a point where we regard real ‘living life’ almost as labor, almost as service, and we all agree in ourselves that it's better from a book." It is inertia, rather than the real living of life, that he seems to want the most.
Notes from Underground is written in what critics describe as a confessional style. The novel is told in the first person from the underground man's point of view. Although he says he writes only for himself out of boredom and that he never intends to publish the work, he nevertheless addresses the reader directly with some frequency throughout the novel, as if certain the work would indeed have readers. The style allows the reader intimate access into the workings of the underground man's mind. The reader is witness to the full range of his paranoia, his self-loathing, his revenge-seeking, his philosophical rants. A drawback of this style is that reality is filtered through the underground man's apparently disturbed mind, making truth a difficult thing to apprehend. The two sections of the novel differ stylistically in that the first section is presented as a stream-of-consciousness, in which the narrator's thoughts are conveyed seemingly as they occur to the narrator, while in the second section, the underground man's recollections are organized in a narrative format.
Divided into two parts, "Underground" and "Apropos of the Wet Snow," Notes from Underground relates events, through the narrator, the underground man, in reverse chronological order. The events of the first section take place after the events of the second. The effect is almost circular. "Underground" dovetails snugly into "Apropos of the Wet Snow" when the narrator, inspired by the falling snow, recalls the events of the second section of the novel. When the penultimate (second to last) paragraph of the second section concludes with the sentiment "But enough; I don't want to write any more ‘from Underground’," the reader is aware that of course the underground man did continue to write. Knowing this, we are naturally drawn back to the beginning of the novel. Yet the final paragraph acknowledges this tendency, stating that the underground man "could not help himself and went on. But it also seems to us that this may be a good place to stop." While the distinct sections of the novel are chronologically inverted, and separated from one another by about twenty years, the effect is not jarring. Rather, there is a definite unity in the way they are linked: the underground man discusses what it is like underground in the first section, and by the end of the second section we learn how he came to take up the underground as he permanent residence.
Russian Philosophic and Literary Romanticism and Rationalism
The second half of Notes from Underground takes place during the 1840s while the first half takes place during the 1860s. Both time periods are significant in Dostoyevsky's life. He was just beginning his career as a writer in the 1840s. During the 1850s, he was incarcerated in Siberia, and then served out his allotted time in the army. When he returned to St. Petersburg, it was 1859, and Russian literature and philosophy had changed significantly during the time he was away. In the 1840s, the prevailing theme of many of Dostoyevsky's works was focused on the romantic ideals of the time. He was concerned with liberal ideas of a socialist utopia. The thinking of the Russian intellectuals during the 1840s was characteristically sentimental and literary. Prison had not only changed Dostoyevsky, but the times had changed as well by the time he was able to return to St. Petersburg in 1859. Many Russian intellectuals now put their faith not in the "beautiful and lofty"—the romantic ideals of the 1840s that the underground man speaks of with such irony in Notes from Underground—but rather in the notion of a spontaneous reason, or rationality, inspired by the moral laws of the Russian Orthodox Church. The more analytical reasoning favored among Westerners at this time was disfavored by many educated Russians, and the idea of Christian Socialism was rejected by some. Rationality among 1860s Russian intellectuals was prized only if its goal remained a spiritual rather than materialistic one. Similarly, in Notes from Underground, the underground man rejects the rational quantifying and cataloging and the mathematical formulation of his desires. By contrast, the Russian socialists of the 1860s put their hopes for the advancement of society in the pursuit of materialistic rationality that focused on technical innovations, that is, they put their faith in the idea of the "Crystal Palace" (a metaphorical edifice that is the embodiment of rational ideals, but is also a reference to an actual, physical structure built in 1851 in London to showcase the latest technological inventions of the Industrial Revolution) that Dostoyevsky derides in Notes from Underground.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1800s: In the mid- to late-nineteenth century in Russia, poverty affects the lives of countless individuals. The underground man is able to keep a roof over his head, but borrows money several times in the book, once to pay a servant, and once to spend an evening out. He is deeply ashamed of his living conditions, and of his tattered clothing.
Today: Following Russia's transition from socialism to communism to capitalism, many Russians today still struggle with poverty. This struggle continues despite the new wealth being created in some sectors due to the nation's oil reserves.
- 1800s: Riga and St. Petersburg are among the largest cities in Russia and employ numerous industrial workers. Both Riga and St. Petersburg, as sizable urban centers, have a significant state presence, with military officials regulating urban life under a tsarist regime. Both cities are expensive for working class individuals.
Today: Riga is now the capital of Latvia, having declared its independence in 1918, although it was later subjected to Soviet domination. By 1994, however, all Russian military troops had left the country. Riga is now becoming an increasingly popular tourist city. St. Petersburg has not been the capital of Russia since 1918; the capital is now Moscow. Referred to as Russia's most European city, as well as Russia's northern capital, St. Petersburg is a major metropolitan center as well as one of Russia's most historic and picturesque cities.
- 1800s: The nineteenth century is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of Russian literature, meaning that, prior to this time, Russians produced little literature that was read internationally. But in the 1800s, writers such as Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and poet Aleksandr Pushkin produced influential literature that is acclaimed worldwide.
Today: Russian literature in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has struggled to distinguish itself internationally. Notable modern talents include Victor Pelevin and Vasily Aksyonov.
- 1800s: Military officers hold a position of some social prominence and power. The military protects and enforces the imperialist rule of the tsar.
Today: Russia is no longer an imperialist country, but a capitalist nation ruled by an elected president. Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia in 2000, and under Putin, the Russian military has been expanded.
Mid- to Late-Nineteenth-Century Russian Political History
Dostoyevsky returned to a different Russia following his imprisonment and military service in more ways than one. Not only was the philosophical and literary climate transformed, but the political scene was entirely different as well. Tsar Nicholas I was the tsar of Russia from 1825 until his death in 1855. Under Nicholas, the secret police watched for any signs of dissent against the rule of the tsar. Censorship over education and publishing was severe and prevalent. Nicholas was passionate about Russian nationalism; he demanded loyalty to the unlimited authority of the tsar and to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Nicholas was succeeded by his son Alexander in 1855; Tsar Alexander II ruled until his assassination in 1881. Alexander sought to reform the
government, education, the judiciary system, and the military. Many of Nicholas's restrictive censorship policies were gradually lifted under Alexander's rule. In general his practices have been characterized as liberal, but he avoided succumbing to the utopian aspirations favored by some more revolutionary Russian intellectuals.
Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground has been praised as a work of incredible literary complexity and psychological depth. Its influence on the literary and philosophical works of later writers has been the subject of many critical analyses. Critics have also noted the ways in which themes of Notes from Underground are developed further in Dostoyevsky's later works. Because the novel is written in the first person, one is invited into the inner workings of the mind of the underground man, and most assessments of the work are in some ways character analyses. Richard Peace, in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground offers an overview of several of these issues, discussing the way the novel, in terms of theme and construction, is the "typical Dostoevskian novel."
Many critics center their studies on the political and philosophical elements of the work. Louis Breger, writing in Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst examines the underground man's critique of the romantic and utopian ideals of his youth, demonstrating the ways in which the underground man's views often reflect Dostoyevsky's. Breger also traces the underground man's assessment of rational, materialist utopias. Through it all, Breger notes, the underground man's combination of self-loathing and his insistence on his intellectual superiority is of the utmost interest to many critics. Peter Conradi, in Fyodor Dostoevsky, like Breger, focuses on the underground man's assessment of both romanticism and rationality; paradoxically, the underground man appears to condemn both, and in fact the underground man's approach to life is characterized by contradiction and paradox. Conradi observes that not only does the underground man seek the officer's respect, he also desires to fight him in order to win it.
Ralph E. Matlaw, in an essay included in a 1969 edition of the novel, establishes the way in which the two-part inverted chronological structure of the novel is a feature of the underground man's psychological issues. Matlaw explains that "through a complex series of psychological and social motivations" the narrator is "driven to the philosophical position enunciated in the first part." Other scholars attend to the affinity between the themes in Notes from Underground and the existentialist thinking of philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Existentialism emphasizes that in the absence of God, or a transcendent force, humans are responsible for their own existence and what they make of it. Existentialist writings are often focused not only on the freedom of this philosophy but also the dread, boredom, and alienation that often accompany it.
Konstantin Mochulsky, in an essay appended to a 1969 edition of the novel, states that "By the power and the boldness of his thought, Dostoyevsky is second neither to Nietzsche nor Kirkegaard. He is related to them in spirit, one of their tribe." Similarly, Robert G. Durgy comments in his 1969 introduction to Notes from Underground that although Dostoyevsky's work preceded the development of existential thought, his writing in Notesfrom Underground introduces the themes of this philosophy. Durgy additionally explains that Nietzsche, having studied the works of Dostoyevsky late in his life, recognized him "as a kindred spirit."
Dominic is a novelist and freelance editor and writer. In this essay, Dominic studies the characterization of the underground man in Notes from Underground.
Given the often pejorative manner in which Dostoyevsky depicts the underground man, readers may initially be uncomfortable with the narrator, the arguments he makes, and the way he interacts with others. Yet despite the underground man's insistence on his moral superiority, despite his spitefulness and his baiting of Simonov and his friends, and even in spite of the underground man's horrendous treatment of Liza, he nevertheless retains some semblance of a sympathetic character. It may be argued that sympathy for the underground man may be roused by the horror one feels in response to the depths of his paranoia. Robert G. Durgy observes, in his 1969 introduction to Notes from Underground, that "psychologists refer to him as the paradigm of the paranoid personality" and that the first section of the novel has been "reprinted in clinical studies of psychotic disorders." It is perhaps easier to sympathize with such an unpleasant individual if we understand that he is, in fact, ill. Furthermore, Durgy notes that the underground man is also of interest to sociologists, who find him "a quintessential expression of urban alienation, a victim of the tragic breakdown in human communication." Whether or not he would admit it, the underground man may be viewed as a casualty of his society. Yet it is not any one of these qualities that makes the underground man an object of sympathy. Rather, the interplay between the underground man's sense of alienation and his paranoia creates a character to whom readers feel drawn (at least as much as they are repulsed by him), and with whom they are able to sympathize. These elements are illuminated in the cycle of events that repeats itself several times throughout the course of the novel. The cycle in which the underground man is trapped begins with his intense certainty of his intellectual superiority, leads to his delusional need for revenge, and ends with his alienation and isolation.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Dostoyevsky's Bednye liudi, which was published in 1846 and later translated as Poor Folk, is an interesting read for those who wish to compare his early works (those written prior to his imprisonment in Siberia) with his later works (those published in the 1860s after his return to St. Petersburg).
- Prestuplenie i nakazanie (later translated as Crime and Punishment), published in 1866, is another of Dostoyevsky's psychological novels. In it, the author draws on themes similar to those in Notes from Underground, including the alienation of the narrator. The novel also employs a similar first-person, confessional style.
- Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia? (1917) is a collection of poetry by Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov (1821-1878). A poem by Nekrasov is quoted at the opening to the second section of Notes from Underground.
- The Russian Empire: 1801-1917 (1988), by Hugh Seton-Watson, offers a social and political history that illuminates the oppressive atmosphere under which Dostoyevsky wrote.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Study (1921), by Aimee Dostoyevsky, was written by Dostoyevsky's daughter. The biography provides intimate, first-hand accounts of the writer's life.
As the second half of the novel opens, following the narrator's lengthy discussions of philosophical themes and his assertions of his highly developed consciousness in the first half of the book, the underground man assures the reader of his superior intellectual development. Yet despite this, he also feels a sense of anguish, and consequently "a hysterical thirst for contradictions, contrasts, would appear, and so I'd set out on debauchery." On one such occasion, the underground man finds himself in a tavern hoping to get involved in a fight. Unsuccessful, he is about to leave when an army officer takes him by the shoulder and moves him out of the way in order to pass through the crowded tavern; he does so without even glancing at the underground man. Years pass, and the underground man still thinks of the officer. A revenge is plotted, focusing on the underground man bumping into the officer in the street. Years of resentment, culminating in a bump in the street, result from the underground man's inflating the incident in the bar into an impugnment of his honor. The response is clearly distorted, but the narrator feels as though he has finally established the "equal social footing" he deserves. Despite what the underground man perceives as success in this matter, he once again returns to his isolation to repent his forays into debauchery. Achieving social equality is so important to the narrator because he feels in many ways superior to most of society, despite his obvious self-recrimination. Yet it is not enough that he has won this duel of sorts with the officer, and revenge will continue to not be enough to soothe his soul and assuage his feelings of alienation as the novel continues.
Following a period of several months of self-imposed hibernation, the underground man ventures out into society again, feeling the need "to embrace the whole of mankind." But the acquaintance to whom he usually turns at times like these, his department chief, happens to be unavailable, so he has to content himself with his second choice, a former schoolmate by the name of Simonov. The underground man arrives at Simonov's dwelling just as he and his friends are planning a farewell dinner for another former schoolmate, Zverkov. The underground man has never been friends with Zverkov. Yet, having insinuated himself into the conversation that Simonov and the others are having, the underground man realizes they have no plans to invite him along. He is about to be ignored, unnoticed in the same way he went unnoticed by the officer earlier in the novel. Hypersensitive to being ignored in this fashion, as it intensifies the feelings he already has of alienation from the rest of society, the underground man insists that he will accompany Simonov and the others, he will join the farewell party for Zverkov. Naturally the others are surprised, and even hostile, but the underground man is nevertheless allowed to come along. Although he frets about the impression he will make, he still shows up promptly, only to discover, when the others arrive an hour later, that they changed the time of the party without notifying him. In some ways, this social slighting of the underground man is understandable: he does not even care for any of the men in the group, save, perhaps, Simonov; and he rudely invited himself along. But what the group has done to him is unforgivable in the eyes of the underground man, and he proceeds to spitefully remain with the party to the end, attempting to make everyone as uncomfortable and annoyed as possible. He even spends hours pacing in front of them, loudly clomping his boots, as they drink and laugh together. He is pained at how they misperceive him. Later, the men adjourn to a brothel, leaving the underground man behind, having scoffed at his challenging of one of them to a duel, as well as having refused his apologies. When they depart, the underground man states that he "stood there spat upon." He feels "tormenting anguish" in his heart. While he has arguably earned all the derision of the other men, the underground man's wounds run deep, and he is driven by the pain of his renewed sense of alienation to seek revenge again, determining to find Zverkov and slap his face. He never gets the chance, because the underground man finds not Zverkov at the brothel, but Liza.
Still stung by the way he has been humiliated, has allowed himself to be humiliated, he embraces how low he has sunk, and approaching Liza, he thinks how glad he is to look so wicked, how happy he is for Liza to think he is disgusting. After they make love, he tries briefly to talk to her, to end the awkward silence. Unsure of why he feels unable to leave, he begins a conversation about a coffin he has seen being taken out of a basement; her responses seem to him rude, reluctant, and then "something suddenly began egging me on." The conversation turns into a game for the underground man, an attempt to manipulate Liza and her emotions, to make her feel small and alone, in the same way that he was diminished by Zverkov and his friends. Sensing her vulnerability, he begins to feel powerful, and he is unrelenting in his attack upon her sense of self. When she seems to challenge him, noting that he speaks as if "from a book," he hears mockery in her tone, and a "wicked feeling" takes hold of him. His speech turns cruel rather than simply superior and judgmental. The underground man senses that he "had turned her whole soul over and broken her heart." Although he thinks briefly of continuing his onslaught, in order to finish his "game," he finds now that he only wishes to escape, but not before he asks Liza for forgiveness and gives her his address. He has taken his need for revenge against Zverkov and the others out on her, having found a way, in his broken mind, to assign her some blame, that she might deserve his attack. He reads rudeness and mockery into her tone, and given that she is nothing more than a prostitute, he will not suffer rudeness or mockery from her. Once home, he fears her, and seems ashamed of his own behavior, but then attempts to justify his actions.
For a little while, the cycle within which the underground man seems to be forever trapped appears to have been broken. With Liza, as with Zverkov and company, and as with the officer, the underground man is pained by the discrepancy between his sense of superiority and his being treated as socially inferior; he is either mocked or ignored by these people. His response, with Liza as with the others, is to seek revenge. Finally, his sense of isolation and alienation is revived and intensified with all three encounters. But with Liza, something is different. With Liza, the underground man doubts himself, doubts the necessity of his revenge taking. He is obsessed with thoughts of her, and what will happen to her, and even fantasizes that Liza has been saved by him and rewards him with her love. When she does come to him, though, he is unable to embrace a human emotional connection that is not based on power. The underground man asks Liza, after he has broken down in a fit of crying, if she despises him. Liza hesitates. The underground man reads her reaction as embarrassment, and as an inability to reply. In that moment, all hope for him is lost. In the moment of her hesitation the underground man rejects the possibility that he could live anywhere but underground, that he can hope for anything except isolation. After that brief moment of her hesitation, he orders her to drink her tea. "A terrible spite against her suddenly boiled up in my heart; … To be revenged on her, I swore mentally not to speak even one word to her from then on. ‘It's she who caused it all,’ I thought."
Liza still tries, nevertheless, to connect with him, telling him how she wants to escape the brothel. Her efforts are futile. He tells her that his attempts to "save" her were motivated only by his desire for power over someone. Enraged at her, he reveals that his fear is that she would think he was a hero, but would then "suddenly see me in this torn old dressing gown, abject, vile." Through Liza, the underground man realizes that the sense of superiority his life has been founded on is faulty, and for this, he will not forgive her. Yet she is still drawn to him, and seeing how distraught he is, she seeks to comfort him. In response to her kindness, the underground man seems to pity her and the way that "she considered herself infinitely beneath me." Liza remains by his side as he sobs, and when he stops, the underground man understands that "the roles were now finally reversed, that she was now the heroine, and I was the same crushed and humiliated creature as she had been before me." Realizing that he envies her this power, the underground man admits that without his possessing this same power over someone, without him having the ability to tyrannize, he can not exist, and after they make love again, he wants only for Liza to leave. Furthermore, he attempts to reestablish his power over her by paying her. In the end, she has gone, and he is once again alone. Unable to truly break the cycle, the underground man retreats once again underground, having attempted to avenge the wrongs that he perceives—through the distorted filter of his own disturbed mind—as having been done to him, and having attempted to reset the scales so that his sense of superiority is balanced by a sense of power (rather than outweighed by social inferiority). Pitiable as the underground man is in this state, any sympathy readers may have for him is now fractured, and part of their sense of sympathy must leave with Liza.
Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on Notes from Underground, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following essay, Pribic offers a brief overview of the novel's themes and provides a discussion of Dostoyevsky's characterization of the Underground Man. Pribic additionally assesses the ways in which the opinions and problems of the Underground Man are relevant in today's world.
Ten decades have elapsed since Dostoevski's death, but many of the problems and ideas elucidated in his novels and novellas are still germane to the reality of our time. The same is true of Dostoevski's polyphonic style, which L. Grossman called "a truly brilliant page in the history of the European novel."
Notes from the Underground was written in 1864. It stands at the threshold of Dostoevski's post-Siberian period and includes in rudimentary form the fundamental ideas and aesthetic principles which underlie his subsequent major novels. The protagonist, the underground man, is the archetype of all underground men. His troubles are generated by the predicament of his generation, caught up in the toils of conflicting ideologies, none of which succeeded in fructifying and transforming real life. "Today we do not even know where real life is … we do not know what to join, what to keep up with, what to love, what to hate; what to respect, what to despise," says the underground man at the end of his confession.
Assuming that creative literature constitutes a major expression of thought and response in a given period, the underground man may be considered a socio-historical phenomenon; yet Notes itself is, in the first place, a work of art, not an historical document. However, Dostoevski, who throughout the entire novel does not interfere with the underground man's stream of consciousness, adroitly closes the gap between fiction and reality in a footnote which reads: "people like the author of these notes may, and indeed must, exist in our society, if we think of the circumstances under which this society has been formed."
Let us now examine which of the underground man's problems and views are still applicable in our time.
The underground man's most conspicuous traits are acute intellect and heightened self-consciousness. These faculties make the protagonist extremely sensitive toward himself and critical of the surrounding world. They make him doubt and contradict everything, and, at the same time, they intensify his egocentrism and his vanity to such an extent that he loses the capacity to understand others objectively and begins to judge people only by his own consciousness. "Now, it is absolutely clear to me, because of an infinite vanity that caused me to set myself impossible standards, I regarded myself with furious disapproval, bordering on loathing, and then ascribed my own feelings to everyone I came across," confesses the underground man.
The underground man's solipsism also corrodes his emotional life. He becomes unable to commit himself and can no longer reach out to and affirm the other's self. Thus, from time to time, the underground man retreats into the world of dreams as a substitute for love and friendship. He plays this game so well that he takes it for reality; he sheds tears and suffers. But none of his dreams ever materialize, and the underground man remains an unfulfilled dreamer.
The underground man spends twenty years in self-imposed seclusion; he listens to his own consciousness and torments himself, to the brink of insanity. He indulges in self-destructive analysis; he engages in polemics with himself and other consciousnesses and draws the entire surrounding world into the process of self-awareness. Then he reveals himself and explains his views in a confessional utterance which, according to him, is mercilessly sincere, for the final truth about an individual can be given only by the individual himself. Since the confession is not intended for publication, the underground man does not embellish anything; neither is there a single flash of remorse in the entire work. "Doesn't it seem to you, ladies and gentlemen, that I am repenting of something before you, that I am asking for forgiveness for something? I am sure that seems so … But I assure you that I do not care if it seems so to you," says the underground man.
The first part of the Notes is a conglomeration of many views and ideas which never develop into a full narrative. Using interior dialogue, the underground man delves into his own consciousness, seeks assessments of himself and anticipates what others will think about him. In the next moment, he annihilates his own definition and shatters the final judgment of his fictitious discussant. He constantly strives to keep one step ahead of his interlocutor and creates loopholes for himself that enable him to continue the dispute as long as he wants and to cut it off whenever it pleases him. His entire train of thought is a vicious circle, consisting of thesis and antithesis without a synthesis.
The underground man begins his confession with a complaint about his poor health. He is aware of his illness but refuses to ask for medical help simply out of contrariness. "I know very well that I am harming myself and no one else. But, it is out of spite that I refuse to ask for the doctor's help. So my liver hurts? Well, let it hurt even more!" The protagonist continues to live in Petersburg, although he knows that he cannot afford it financially and that the climate is unhealthy. He annuls the ruthless sequence of cause and effect with inertia and opposes the mechanistic inevitability of the laws of nature with his whimsical will. "Where are the primitive causes for any actions, the justification for them? … I deliberate but the result is that every primary cause drags along another cause that seems to be truly primary, and so on and so forth, indefinitely …" And he concludes his reasoning, "The best thing is to do nothing at all, conscious inertia is the best. A toast to the mousehole!" The underground man dreams of a useful and worthwhile life, yet the first thing he does after leaving school is to give up his position and break all ties with the past. He longs for the sublime and the beautiful, but, just when he is most conscious and capable of refinement, he behaves abjectly. In the office, the underground man is rude and mean with people and makes them feel miserable, yet he soon detects that there were many elements in his nature that are just the opposite of wicked.
The underground man painfully senses the disparity between his character and its manifestation under given circumstances, but he goes on destroying his emotions with his intellect and annihilating his rational considerations with his whimsical will. He cannot change, for only a fool can make anything he wants of himself. Finally, the underground man reaches the point where he no longer discerns what is right and what is wrong, whether he believes what he is saying or is just telling a pack of lies. He begins to consider this as the normal state; he even derives pleasure from it. And he draws the conclusion that everything is all right as long as he is aware of it. Thus, the underground man's self-awareness absorbs all other features of his character, dissolves and devastates all concrete traits of his image, until nothing is left but utter inner alienation. But, at the same time, he longs for at least one defining feature. He would not mind if someone were to call him a sluggard. "How awfully pleasant it would be to hear this about myself. That would mean that I am clearly defined, that there is something to be said about me."
The underground man's relationship with his fellowmen is marred by the same contradictory elements that are active in his personality. That brings him into conflict with not only himself but the external world as well. Aware of his keen intellect, the underground man considers himself superior to his fellowmen, yet he immediately develops an inferiority complex and retires into his mousehole when he has to face normal men. In his hole, he plunges into never ending hatred; he thinks up all kinds of humiliation and prepares vengeance, knowing all the time that there has been no humiliation; nor is there anything to be avenged. The vicious circle of these polemics goes on and on, until the underground man brings it to a sudden end.
In his self-absorbed reclusiveness, the underground man rebuts the affirmation of another person's consciousness. There is no "we" in the underground man's thinking; there are only "I" and "the others." The majority of these others is, according to the underground man, stupid and narrow-minded; they resemble one another like a flock of sheep, have no capacity for inventiveness, and think and express themselves in prefabricated patterns.
The others are repugnantly vicious and immoral. They humiliate, hurt, and bully one another; they look down upon others as if they were houseflies and use them as doormats. They judge one another by their clothing and professional success and not by their moral qualities. But, no matter how arrogantly they behave, how deeply they wallow in mud and vices, they will feel no pangs of conscience, for they are not even aware of their depravity.
The others are also hypocrites. They pretend to be honest and sincere, but all they have in mind is trying not to lose sight of the useful. They rave about the sublime and the beautiful but are rogues at the bottom of their hearts. They speak of ideals but would not raise a little finger to actualize these ideals, for they would never jeopardize their careers by standing up against the well-established order of society.
Now, how can an intelligent man function in a society comprised of members who are corrupt, immoral, hostile, and cruel? To this the underground man has three answers to suggest. First, one may, against his better judgment, accept the world, with its inanities and contradictions, and become a spineless creature like the others. Yet, since an intelligent man cannot keep out his conscience, he will loathe himself for this deliberate self-deception. Secondly, one can continue the struggle for truth, although that will entail never ending clashes with the others and with society. Finally, man may realize that there is no remedy to his situation and, as a result, retire into ab[s]olute inertia.
Because of his critical and negative attitude toward his fellowmen, the underground man is unable to establish a close relationship with the others. Love, commitment, and forgiveness are alien concepts to him. He hates his distant relatives who had brought him up, because of their nagging and because they had dumped him in a boarding school[.] He never communicates with his schoolmates, nor does he make friends at work. Once, a nice, yielding boy becomes his friend. But the underground man begins immediately to rule his mind[.] He instills in him contempt for the others and forces him to break with them. When he finally has full possession of the boy, he hates and rejects him. "It was as though I had only wanted his total friendship for the sake of winning it and making him submit to me," says the underground man.
The only person who is capable, at least temporarily, of standing up to the underground man's self-destructive consciousness is the prostitute, Liza. The underground man meets her after a disastrous evening with some former schoolmates and begins to take out his own humiliation on her. The short-lived relationship with Liza is a fine example of the vicious circle in which the underground man's diabolic consciousness spins. In order to intimidate Liza, the underground man concocts a macabre funeral story about a prostitute. Then, noticing that the story does not touch Liza's heart, he shifts the center of gravity to a more sentimental matter. He raves about the beauty of family life, the mystery of love, the rosy cheeks and miniature nails of babies. This time he succeeds. He gives Liza his address, immediately regretting the move, since he is not sure whether he really wants her to come. At home, the underground man daydreams about rescuing Liza and turning her into a fine, intelligent woman who would, of course, fall in love with him. When Liza finally and unexpectedly arrives, she finds the underground man in a rather anti-heroic situation, snapping like a vicious dog at his servant. In a blind rage, the underground man shouts at Liza that he has lied to her, that he wants only power and a role to play. He reveals his perverse and selfish character and then screams that he will never forgive her for having witnessed his nervous breakdown and for having listened to his confession.
When the underground man finally realizes that, despite all he has said, Liza intuitively understands that he is a very unhappy creature, he is furiously drawn to her. In order to shake off Liza's domination, he destroys his image in her eyes with a devilish act. He makes love to Liza and then, sending her away, slips a five ruble bill into her hand.
The underground man explains his stupid and spiteful conduct in a summarizing statement: "I could not fall in love because, for me, loving meant bullying and morally dominating. I have never been able to imagine any other way of loving and have reached a point where I think that love consists of a voluntary concession by the object of my love and my right to bully it."
Liza's departure signals the final break with the outer world. It is symbolized in the squeaking and bang of the heavy apartment door and the dead silence and darkness of the street, which is covered with wet, yellowish snow. The inner and outer alienation of the underground man is now complete.
The underground man's polemics with himself and the others are tightly interwoven with his ideological views. One of the principal ideas set forth in the dispute with socialist utopianism is that man is not a final quantity upon which stable calculation may be made. The equation 2 × 2 = 4 is inapplicable to mankind. Man wants to be free and will try to overturn any rules that are forced upon him. He does not want to become a piano key or an organ stop. He will reject the well-engineered crystal palace, because the absolute order of it would destroy his creative freedom. In a world in which everything is planned, life will become extremely boring; there will be no doubts, no suffering, no chaos, no destruction.
The underground man also argues with utilitarianism, which was rather popular in the 1860s. It is self-deceiving to assume that man will do only those things that lie in his best interest. One may shower upon man all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness, and give him economic security. Still, he will give it all up, just to inject his lethal fancies into all the soundness. Man will never stop doing nasty things; he will not become good and virtuous only because it is in his interest to do so. And he will send reason and all things useful and beautiful to hell, just to establish his right to the most abstract wishes.
Another idea propounded by the underground man, on various occasions, is that man has an aversion to seeing his desires fulfilled. He likes to view his objectives from a distance and enjoys the process of achieving more than the goal itself. He is almost afraid of reaching the goal toward which he is working. Achievement means stagnation, the end of desires and wishes. Man is not an ant, which considers the anthill its ultimate goal. His life is an uninterrupted drive for new goals.
The last idea advocated by the underground man is that man does not mellow under the influence of civilization, does not become less bloodthirsty or less prone to war. Through the centuries, man only becomes more vicious, more bloodthirsty, creating an ever greater variety of sensations. In the past, man slaughtered, without any pangs of conscience, those he felt had to be slaughtered. Today, man considers bloodshed terrible, yet he continues to practice it, on an even larger scale. The tyrants of our time are so numerous and familiar to us that they are not even conspicuous. Their methods are so savage and horrifying that they push all the cruelties of barbarous times into the background. Men "fight and fight; they are fighting now, they fought before, and they will fight in the future."
The predicament of the underground man and the problems and ideas he touches upon are all human and universal; they transcend societies and time periods. One has only to look around to find numerous glaring parallels in our century. During the past hundred years, man's intellect has performed miracles in technology and the sciences, but the technical process has not really freedman; it has only brought closer the era of the well-engineered crystal palace. Most of all, man has failed to match his scientific virtuosity with moral and ethical understanding, and little has been done to improve human relationships. As before, man is plagued by divergent ideological, political, and social concepts. The age-old question of good and evil is still a matter of arbitrary interpretation, and the need for truth is not strong enough to prevent man's imagination and train of thought from being perverted into bias and prejudice. Men are still vicious and cruel; they expose one another to unjustifiable hardships and to the most incomprehensible situations, far removed from ordinary life. Finally, if one scrutinizes past historical developments, one might draw the depressing conclusion that man learns nothing from history; he is still fighting, fighting, fighting. And yet, despite physical and spiritual imprisonment, man continues to cherish his individual freedom and employs a great part of his ingenuity to guard against interfering elements. Thus, in conclusion, it can be said that the three possibilities for survival given by the underground man apply to our time as well: agree to everything and become a spineless creature; fight for the truth and one's own views and suffer; or withdraw and retire into the underground.
Source: Rado Pribic, "Notes from Underground: One Hundred Years after the Author's Death," in Dostoevski and the Human Condition after a Century, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, Frank S. Lambasa, and Valija K. Ozolins, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 71-77.
Breger, Louis, "The Death of Maria: Notes from Underground," in Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst, New York University Press, 1989, pp. 181-209.
Conradi, Peter, "The Double and Notes from Underground," in Fyodor Dostoevsky, Macmillan, 1988, pp. 21-41.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Notes from Underground, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Classics, 1994.
Durgy, Robert G., Introduction, in Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Serge Shishkoff, University Press of America, 1969, pp. VII-XXII.
Jackson, Robert Louis, "Notes from Underground: Origins," and "Notes from Underground: Analysis," in Dostoevsky's Underground Man in Russian Literature, Greenwood Press, 1981, pp. 19-30, and 31-48.
Matlaw, Ralph E., "Structure and Integration in Notes from Underground," in Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, University Press of America, 1969, pp. 181-203.
Mochulsky, Konstantin, "Notes from Underground," in Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, University Press of America, 1969, pp. 129-49.
Peace, Richard, Introduction, "Commentary to Notes from Underground Part I," and "Commentary to Notes from Underground Part II," in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Bristol Classic Press, 1993, pp. V-VIII, 3-35, and 36-68.
Pevear, Richard, Foreword, in Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vintage Classics, 1994, VII-XXIII.
Anderson studies the patterns of migration in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, exploring the trends and the reasons for migration. Liza in Notes from Underground migrates from the city of Riga to the then-capital of Russia, St. Petersburg.
Flath, Carol A., "Fear of Faith: the Hidden Religious Message of Notes from Underground," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1993, pp. 510-29.
Flath maintains that within Dostoyevsky's novel is the author's insistence on humanity's need for Christ.
Kaufmann, Walter, Existentialism from Dostoevksy to Sartre, Penguin, 1975.
Kaufmann explores the philosophy of existentialism, beginning with the treatment of the subject in Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and discussing the impact of Dostoyevsky's works on later philosophers.
Meerson, Olga, "Old Testament Lamentation in the Underground Man's Monologue: A Refutation of the Existentialist Reading of Notes from Underground," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall 1992, pp. 317-22.
Meerson identifies the similarities between the underground man's speeches and passages in the Christian Bible's Old Testament and explores thematic parallels between the works.
Titova, Irinia, and Paul E. Richardson, "Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky," in Russian Life, Vol. 49, No. 6, Nov.-Dec. 2006, pp. 52-62.
The authors of this article offer a brief biography of Dostoyevsky that includes discussions of his major works.