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...