Often referred to as a novel narrated by the first antihero in modern literature, Notes From Underground is considered by most literary critics as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first great work, the germ from which his later masterpieces would evolve. Notes From Underground was originally published in Russia as a two-part serialized story in January and February of 1864. It was the featured story in the journal Epoch, which Dostoevsky published with his older brother, Mikhail. The story has a rather dismal tone, which might reflect the particularly difficult time Dostoevsky was experiencing when he wrote it. Some of Dostoevsky’s biographers have called this period the lowest point of the author’s life: his finances were disappearing fast, his wife was dying, and his reputation, which had at one time enjoyed the backing of Russia’s liberal reading public, was fading. Dostoevsky’s philosophy was growing more and more conservative, and many of his readers did not like the change.
The most obvious tone of the unnamed narrator of Notes From Underground is a bitter one. He never quite fits in his social environment. At the time the story begins, the narrator has completely receded from society. Through a detailed discussion of his philosophy, the narrator uses the first part of the novel to explain why he has withdrawn. It is in the second part of the novel that the narrator offers examples of his social interactions, those that led to his isolation. However, throughout the story, the narrator frequently contradicts himself and becomes somewhat defensive as he tries to justify his actions.
Notes From Underground is also Dostoevsky’s first clear representation of some of his most intimate reflections on life. However, critics are not sure if the narrator of this novel represents Dostoevsky’s actual beliefs or if he was meant to satirize popular philosophies of the time. What is agreed upon is that the narrator believes that man can just as easily be irrational as he can be rational. And this antihero narrator argues that, perhaps, irrationality might be the more valid state.
Fyodor Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground has two sections, which at first reading are only obliquely related. Part 1 begins: “I am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am a most unpleasant man,” with the narrator, the underground man, then proceeding to demonstrate this negative self appraisal to a hostile, imaginary audience, whom he periodically addresses as “gentlemen.” Part 1 relates the underground man’s cynical views of human nature, especially the human nature of “modern man.” In a sometimes rambling, often cogent monologue, the underground man assaults the constructs of societies founded upon the ideals of rationalism, the philosophy that humans are logical creatures capable of solving any problem, thereby developing the perfect utopian society. The underground man hates such a society since it leaves little room for choice. Making a rational decision, the underground man argues, involves very little of what is at the core of humanity—free will. Giving examples of people in history choosing the irrational over the rational, the underground man demonstrates the contradiction of identity: Making the logical choice brings happiness, yet it does not express freedom. The expression of freedom and of individual identity is bound to the irrational, to do intentionally what is not right. The wrong choice brings suffering. This “negative freedom,” which defines personality and produces suffering, is the paradox of the soul. The...
The narrator, addressing an imaginary group of acquaintances, declares that after many years of life as a rude and spiteful government official, and after many years as a recluse, he is not really bitter in his heart. Something perverse in him, his acute consciousness, has led him to find pleasure in the pain of humiliating experiences. From experience, he advises against intellectual acuteness. The intellectual, he says, when faced with revenge, surrounds himself with a legion of doubts; then he crawls into his self-imposed rat’s nest and tortures himself with petty spite. The direct man, in wreaking revenge, might with dispatch hit his head against a wall, but he will accept the wall. The intellectual will not accept the wall; indeed, he will feel responsibility for the presence of the wall. The narrator declares that he has always had to feign taking offense and that he has had, in the face of life’s transiency, to pretend to love. Life to him is a colossal bore. He can never avenge wrongs done to him because the culprits, the culprits’ motives, and the very misdeeds themselves are all subject to overanalysis in his doubting intellect.
Given another chance at life, the narrator states, he would choose a career of complete laziness, one in which he might revel among good and beautiful things. He declares that even if a man were to know absolutely what things in life are to his best advantage, he will perversely avoid these things. The narrator advances the idea that people may be destined for creativeness, and for this reason, conscious of their fate, they perversely practice destruction to individuate themselves. Perhaps people are fearful of completion, of perfection; perhaps they find final attainment distasteful: Life consists in the attaining, not in the attainment. The narrator concludes his philosophical soliloquy by pointing out that conscious inertia is the ideal state. He provocatively insists that he does not believe a word he has written, that he has written only because the written word seems imposing and dignified. He is oppressed by memories that are evoked by the fall of snow outside.
At the age of twenty-four, the narrator has an inchoate character. He talks to no one. His intense self-consciousness causes him to be vain at one moment and self-loathing the next. He tries to look intelligent and fears any eccentricity in himself. This acute awareness of self makes him lonely, yet he feels superior to others. He becomes a recluse. He reads voraciously and begins to walk the streets at night.
One night, he sees a man thrown out the window of a billiard parlor. In envy, he goes into the billiard parlor in the hope that he, too, might be thrown out. He is humiliated when an officer shoves him aside without noticing him. He returns the next night, but, morally fearful that all the fools in the parlor will jeer at his being thrown out, he does not enter. Dedicated to...
Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground is set in nineteenth-century Russia and reflects some of the prevailing philosophical discourses of the times. As Russia struggles to identify its future, the novel’s unnamed narrator—the Underground Man—presents arguments that are meant to dissuade his audience (probably Russian intellectuals) from leaning toward European scientific and mathematical solutions to human problems. The narrator champions the concept of free will, and he takes his argument to the point of absurdity to make his opinion heard. The narrator is not a very likable character. In fact, he has been dubbed the first literary antihero. The entire novel is told through the Underground Man’s eyes and experience. Although his tale is not always comfortable to hear, the story of the Underground Man showcases Dostoevsky’s deep understanding of psychology and human motivation, well before either of these sciences was developed. Whereas much of Russian literature before Dostoevsky had focused on human action, Notes From Underground is invested in the inner workings of a person’s mind—the Underground Man’s tormented thoughts and feelings.
Part I: Underground (Chapters 1−5)
The unnamed narrator of Notes From Underground is a forty-year-old man who has been living underground for twenty years. Readers can assume that by calling it an underground the narrator implies that he has removed himself from society. Throughout the novel, the narrator addresses his comments to an undisclosed audience, presumably Russian intellectuals.
The narrator begins to describe his former life, a period of time when he was as a mean and rude official. He admits that he took pleasure in being hostile toward others and was pleased with himself when he made other people feel distressed. He quickly denies that he was malicious, though. He just liked to fool around with people. He claims he is an intelligent man, a man who is nevertheless incapable of becoming anything. Only fools, he thinks, become something.
Intelligent men, on the other hand, have “excessive consciousness,” which the narrator refers to as a disease that prohibits action. As soon as an intelligent man thinks of one thing, he imagines its opposite. So as soon as the narrator thinks about taking an action, he comprehends all the reasons why he should not take an action. The narrator also speaks about feeling pleasure when he is feeling most vile. He then states that the reason he is writing this story is to explain where this vile pleasure comes from.
The main topic of this section of the novel is a discussion about science and mathematics. The narrator claims that the normal man (as opposed to the intelligent man) accepts scientific statements as truths. The normal man, he says, will claim there are laws of nature that cannot be disputed. The narrator refers to these laws as a stone wall, which the normal man stops before and does not try to go beyond. The normal man finds peace when confronted with a stone wall, as if he is relieved by its presence. But the narrator says he will not accept the stone wall.
The average man is dull and limited, the narrator states. The limitation is due to the fact that they confuse secondary causes for primary ones. The narrator recognizes the difference between primary and secondary causes. He uses the man of action (the ordinary man) as an example by stating that this type of man uses justice in seeking revenge. Justice is a primary cause, but the narrator says that if he seeks revenge, all he finds are secondary causes, such as spite. He might convince himself that spite is a primary cause, but he is too smart for this easy answer. Since he cannot find a primary cause, the narrator thus takes no action at all.
Part I: Underground (Chapters 6−11)
The narrator’s comments turn to the idea of free will. In order to do this, he first brings up the concept that if man were enlightened, he would no longer commit ruthless acts and would become good and noble. All enlightened men would understand that it was in their best interests to be good. The narrator scoffs at this idea, pointing out all the millions of people throughout history who have done just the opposite. The narrator questions what man’s best interest is. Then he asks an important question: what if a man’s...
Unnamed narrator: The only character in the first part of Notes From Underground is the unnamed narrator. Throughout the novel, the narrator addresses the audience directly through the use of the pronoun you or the noun gentlemen. He does this in a way that it sometimes appears that he is arguing with the audience. He imagines how the audience is reacting to his statements and counters the audience’s arguments. The narrator also counters some of his own arguments, contradicting what he had previously stated or making the announcement that what he had previously said was a lie. The narrator describes himself both physically and mentally and attempts to present his philosophy of life....
Unnamed narrator: The narrator continues his monologue in the second half of this first section of the novel. He remains the only character.
The sixth chapter in this section begins with the narrator commenting on how difficult it is for him to define himself. Since he does nothing and he does this for no particular reason, such as laziness, he cannot even call himself a lazy man. If he could identify himself, then he would also be able to have self-respect. If he defined himself as an idler, one who sympathized with “everything lofty and beautiful,” at least he would have found an activity in which he could perform. But now, in his fortieth year,...
Officer: The unnamed narrator encounters the six-foot-tall “certain officer” in a bar. The officer offends the narrator’s dignity, so the narrator stalks the officer, waiting for an opportunity to challenge him to a duel. The officer is a flat character (i.e., he’s not developed in the story). He merely represents society-at-large.
Anton Antonych Setochkin: Anton, the chief of the narrator’s office, is the only man with whom the narrator has had a “lasting acquaintance.” Anton appears only briefly in this section, and there is no actual dialog between Anton and the narrator. The narrator merely sits to the side while Anton speaks with others. In the narrator’s mind,...
Liza: Liza is a prostitute with whom the narrator has sex. The narrator attempts to convince Liza to give up prostitution because it will wreck her life. He entices her, making her believe he is wiling to take care of her. Liza is the narrator’s one chance to love. She is also the only person who sees through his antics and understands how miserable he is. She knows, too, that despite the fact that he may need it, he does not know how to love. Her knowledge embarrasses and humiliates the narrator.
At the opening of chapter 6, the narrator suffers a blackout. He awakens to the sensation that everything that happened to him that day had actually...