Notes from Underground

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This article is about the novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky. For the novel by Roger Scruton, see Notes from Underground (Scruton novel). For other things with similar titles, see Notes from the Underground (disambiguation).
Notes from Underground
Notes from underground cover.jpg
Author Fyodor Dostoevsky
Original title Записки из подполья
Translator Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1994), Constance Garnett, Jessie Coulson (1972), David Magarshack, Michael Katz (1989), Kirsten Lodge (2014)
Country Russia
Language Russian; English
Genre Novella, Philosophy
Publisher Epoch; January–April 1864
Vintage; Reprint edition
Publication date
Published in English
OCLC 31124008
891.73/3 20
LC Class PG3326 .Z4 1993

Notes from Underground (Russian: Записки из подполья, Zapiski iz podpol'ya), also translated as Notes from the Underground or Letters from the Underworld, is an 1864 novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Notes is considered by many to be one of the first existentialist novels.[1] It presents itself as an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator (generally referred to by critics as the Underground Man) who is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. The first part of the story is told in monologue form, or the underground man's diary, and attacks emerging Western philosophy, especially Nikolay Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?.[2] The second part of the book is called "Apropos of the Wet Snow", and describes certain events that, it seems, are destroying and sometimes renewing the underground man, who acts as a first person, unreliable narrator and anti-hero.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

The novel is divided into two parts.

Part 1: "Underground"[edit]

Serving as an introduction into the perplexing mind of the narrator, this part is split into nine chapters. The introduction to the chapters propounds a number of riddles whose meanings are further developed as the narration continues. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 deal with suffering and the irrational pleasure of suffering. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the moral and intellectual fluctuation the narrator feels along with his conscious insecurities regarding "inertia"-inaction. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 cover theories of reason and logic, closing with the last two chapters as a summary and transition into Part 2.

The narrator begins by discussing war as people's rebellion against the assumption that everything needs to happen for a purpose, as humans do things without purpose, which is what determines human history.

Secondly, the narrator's desire for happiness is exemplified by his liver pain and toothache. The narrator mentions that utopian society removes suffering and pain, but man desires both things and needs them to be happy. According to the narrator, removing pain and suffering in society takes away a man's freedom. This parallels Raskolnikov's behavior in Dostoyevsky's later novel, Crime and Punishment. He says that the cruelty of society makes human beings moan about pain only to spread their suffering to others. He builds up his own paranoia to the point that he is incapable of looking his co-workers in the eye.[4]

The main issue for the Underground Man is that he has reached a point of ennui[5] and inactivity.[6]

Unlike most people, who typically act out of revenge because they believe justice is the end, the Underground Man is conscious of his problems amnd feels the desire for revenge, but he does not find it virtuous; the incongruity leads to spite towards the act itself with its concomitant circumstances. He feels that others like him exist, but he continuously concentrates on his spitefulness instead of on actions that would avoid the problems that so.many concern him. He even admits that he would rather be inactive out of laziness. To the reader, the Underground Man has a contradictory personality because he gives the reader concepts that are commendable, but the reader is repulsed by his actions later in the novel.

The first part also gives a harsh criticism of determinism and intellectual attempts at dictating human action and behavior by logic which the Underground Man mentions in terms of a simple math problem two times two makes four (see also necessitarianism). He states that despite humanity's attempt to create the "Crystal Palace," a reference to a famous symbol of utopianism in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, one cannot avoid the simple fact that anyone, at any time, can decide to act in a way that might not be considered to be in self-interest; some will do so simply to validate their existence and to protest and confirm that they exist as individuals. The Underground Man ridicules the type of enlightened self-interest (egoism, selfishness) that Chernyshevsky proposes as the foundation of Utopian society. The concept of cultural and legislative systems relying on this rational egoism is what the protagonist despises. The Underground embraces this ideal in praxis, and he seems to blame it for his current state of unhappiness.[7] This type of rebellion is critical to later works of Dostoevsky as it is used by adolescents to validate their own existence, uniqueness and independence (see Dostoevsky's The Adolescent); rebellion in the face of the dysfunction and disorder of adult experience that one inherits when reaching adulthood under the understanding of tradition and society.

In other works, Dostoevsky again confronts the concept of free will and constructs a negative argument to validate free will against determinism in the character Kirillov's suicide in his novel The Demons. Notes from Underground marks the starting point of Dostoevsky's move from psychological and sociological themed novels to novels based on existential and general human experience in crisis.

Part 2: "Apropos of the Wet Snow"[edit]

The second part is the actual story and consists of three main segments that lead to a furthering of the Underground Man's consciousness.

The first is his obsession with an officer who frequently passes by him on the street, seemingly without noticing his existence. He sees the officer on the street and thinks of ways to take revenge, eventually borrowing money to buy a higher class overcoat and bumping into the officer to assert his equality. To the Underground Man's surprise however, the officer does not seem to notice that it even happened.

The second segment is a going away dinner party with some old school friends to bid Zverkov, one of their number, goodbye as he is being transferred out of the city. The underground man hated them when he was younger, but after a random visit to Simonov's, he decides to meet them at the appointed location. They fail to tell him that the time has been changed to six instead of five, so he arrives early. He gets into an argument with the four of them after a short time, declaring to all his hatred of society and using them as the symbol of it. At the end, they go off without him to a secret brothel, and, in his rage, the underground man follows them there to confront Zverkov once and for all, regardless if he is beaten or not. He arrives at the brothel to find Zverkov and the others already retired with prostitutes to other rooms. He then encounters Liza, a young prostitute, with whom he goes to bed.

The story cuts to Liza and the underground man lying silently in the dark together. The Underground Man confronts Liza with an image of her future, by which she is unmoved at first, but after challenging her individual utopian dreams (similar to his ridicule of The Crystal Palace in Part 1), she eventually realizes the plight of her position and how she will slowly become useless and will descend more and more, until she is no longer wanted by anyone. The thought of dying such a terribly disgraceful death brings her to realize her position, and she then finds herself enthralled by the underground man's seemingly poignant grasp of the destructive nature of society. He gives her his address and leaves.

After this, he is overcome by the fear of her actually arriving at his dilapidated apartment after appearing such a "hero" to her and, in the middle of an argument with his servant, she arrives. He then curses her and takes back everything he said to her, saying he was, in fact, laughing at her and reiterates the truth of her miserable position. Near the end of his painful rage he wells up in tears after saying that he was only seeking to have power over her and a desire to humiliate her. He begins to criticize himself and states that he is in fact horrified by his own poverty and embarrassed by his situation. Liza realizes how pitiful he is and tenderly embraces him. The underground man cries out "They—they won't let me—I—I can't be good!"

After all this, he still acts terribly towards her, and, before she leaves, he stuffs a five ruble note into her hand, which she throws onto the table (it is implied that the Underground Man engaged in sexual activity with Liza and that the note is compensation for her). He tries to catch her as she goes out to the street but cannot find her and never hears from her again. He tries to stop the pain in his heart by "fantasizing", "And isn't it better, won't it be better?...Insult — after all, it's a purification; it's the most caustic, painful consciousness! Only tomorrow I would have defiled her soul and wearied her heart. But now the insult will never ever die within her, and however repulsive the filth that awaits her, the insult will elevate her, it will cleanse her..." He recalls this moment as making him unhappy whenever he thinks of it, yet again proving the fact from the first section that his spite for society and his inability to act like it makes him unable to act better than it.

The concluding sentences recall some of the themes explored in the first part, and the work as a whole ends with a note from the author that while there was more to the text, "it seems that we may stop here."

Ideological themes[edit]

The narration by the Underground Man is laden with ideological allusions and complex conversations regarding the political climate of the time period. Using his fiction as a weapon of ideological discourse, Dostoyevsky challenges the ideologies of his time, mainly nihilism and rational egoism.[7] In Part 2, the rant the Underground Man unloads on Liza as they sit in the dark is a moment in which such a discussion of clashing ideologies occurs. Liza believes she can survive and rise up through the ranks of her brothel as a means of achieving her dreams of functioning successfully in society. However, as the Underground Man points out in his rant, such dreams are based on a utopian trust of not only the societal systems in place but also humanity's ability to avoid corruption and irrationality in general. The points made in Part 1 about the Underground Man's pleasure in being rude and refusing to seek medical help are his examples of how idealised rationality is inherently flawed for not accounting for the darker and more irrational side of humanity. The Underground Mam argues that underlying the gilded understanding of society is what he tells Liza will end up leading her down a calamitous path and ultimately destroy her.[8]

Where the Underground Man places himself in this messy view of society is rather complicated. He is very open about his irrational and spiteful interaction with the world, but he also admits that he understands the pleasure in "a doll to play with" or "a cup of tea with sugar in it" (these being symbols of a non-corrupted society).[9] The important distinction here is that the Underground Man would lie awake grinding his teeth for months after because of such an indulgence in society. The shame displayed here is what separates him from rational egoists and utopian dreamers, but the desire that he sometimes feels to buy into such ideals leaves him on the fringe of society or what can be understood as what drove him underground.

Writing style[edit]

The unreliable narrator is used in the entire story. Although the novel is written in first-person narrative, the "I" is never really discovered. The novel's style is also linked to the St. Petersburg Tales in which there is an unreliable narrator. The writing style is very dense and at times difficult to understand. The sentence structure can at times seem "multi-layered" the subject and the verb are at the very beginning of the sentence before he title goes more in depth with the narrator's thoughts. The narrator sometimes even repeats a lot of the same concepts.[10]

When the narrator would say that he is "underground", he would be speaking metaphorically; he is not actually underground. Rather, in chapter 11, he refers back to his inferiority to everyone around him and describes listening to people like "listening through a crack under the floor".

The Stone Wall is one of the symbols in the novel and represents all the barriers of the laws of nature that stand against man and his freedom. Put simply, the rule 2+2=4 angers the Underground Man because he wants the freedom to say 2+2=5, but that Stone Wall of nature's laws stands in front of him and his free will.

Political climate and legacy[edit]

In the 1860s, Russia was beginning to absorb the ideas and culture of Western Europe at an accelerated pace which nurtured an unstable climate in Russia. There was especially a growth in revolutionary activity accompanying a general restructuring of tsardom where liberal reforms, enacted by an unwieldy autocracy, only induced a greater sense of tension in both politics and civil society. Many of Russia's intellectuals were engaged in a debate between those supporting the West and Slavophiles, respectively importing or rejecting European radical and liberal thought in applying it to Russia's particular social reality. Even though in 1861, Tsar Alexander emancipated the serfs, Russia was still very much a post-medieval, traditional peasant society.

However, when Notes From Underground was written, there was an intellectual ferment on discussions regarding religious philosophy and various 'enlightened' utopian ideas.[11] Dostoyevsky, however, along with his notable contemporary, Soren Kierkegaard, rejected such ideas for proto-existentialist themes.

Most importantly, the legacy that the work leaves is a challenge to and a method of understanding the larger implications of a utopian society.[1] Utopianism largely pertains to a society's collective dream, but what the Underground Man troubles is this very idea of collectivism. The point of the Underground Man is that the people will ultimately always rebel against a collectively perceived idea of paradise; individuals dreaming of a utopian image such as The Crystal Palace will always conflict because E of the underlying irrationality of humanity. The challenge of an enlightened society laid the groundwork for later writer. The work thus earned the title of "probably the most important single source of the modern dystopia".[12]


  1. ^ a b Kaufmann, Walter (1956). Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian Books. p. 52. 
  2. ^ "The views that brought Chernyshevsky to this vision were close to utilitarianism, meaning that actions should be judged in terms of their expediency. Naturally, utilitarians assumed that we can know the standard against which expediency can be measured: usually it was economic well-being. In Chernyshevsky's rational egotism, utlitarianism as a method coincided with socialism as a goal: in essence, it is in everyone's individual self-interest that the whole of society flourish." Notes from Underground By Fyodor Dostoyevsky page X in the introduction by Robert Bird [1]
  3. ^ Furst, Lillian (March 1976). "The Romantic Hero, Or is he an Anti-Hero? Studies in the Literary Imagination". Studies in the Literary Imagination. 
  4. ^ Paris, Bernard (2008). Dostoevsky's Greatest Characters: A New Approach to Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and the Brothers Karamazov. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 
  5. ^ and it was all from ennui, gentlemen, all from ennui ; inertia overcame me. Notes from Underground ch5
  6. ^ Chief among them is the Underground Man, who confesses to his own inertia (inercija), defined as "conscious-sitting-with-arms-folded" and also criticises the his supposed antitheses, men of action and men of nature and truth for their active, machine-like existence.
  7. ^ a b Scanlan, James (1999). "The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground". Journal of the History of Ideas. 
  8. ^ Notes From Underground Part 2 "Apropos of Wet Snow" Chapter 6
  9. ^ Notes From Underground Part 1 "Underground" Chapter 1
  10. ^ Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1973). Problems in Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis. pp. 150–159. 
  11. ^ Wanner, Adrian (1997). The Underground Man as Big Brother: Dostoevsky's and Orwell's Anti-Utopia. Penn State University Press. p. 77. 
  12. ^ Morson, Gary (1981). The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 130. 

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