Notes From Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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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 Through a detailed discussion of his philosophy, the narrator uses the first part of the novel to explain why he has withdrawn.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.

Extended Summary

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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...

(This entire section contains 1800 words.)

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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 advantage lies exactly in choosing what is harmful to him? If this is true, then the law that an enlightened man will chose good is incorrect.

Although contemporary, so-called scientific theories claim that wealth, freedom, and peace of mind are some of man’s best advantages, the narrator states that there is one advantage that has been overlooked. This “most advantageous advantage” is man’s free will.

The scientific theories of the time contend that man can be reeducated and learn to strive only for what is good. If scientists can reveal the basic tenets of nature, they can prescribe the perfect actions that man should take. Science will then have to convince man that he has no will. All he has to do is follow the dictates that science has extracted from nature. The narrator states that if this were done, life would become very boring. Everything in life would be plotted out mathematically.

If man is bored, the narrator suggests, he might think up some of the weirdest things to do to offset his boredom. This is a sign of his ungratefulness. Someone would rebel. Others would surely follow. It is man’s free will that would undermine the rational theories that reeducation would forever rid the world of evil. Even if the mathematical formulas could re-create people who only wanted to do good, there would always be someone who might go against his own advantage merely to do something of his own free will. This is so because the most important element of man is his individuality. Man will go against his best interest, even to the point of going completely mad, just to exercise his freedom to choose what to do with his life.

Part II: On the Occasion of Wet Snow (Chapters 1−5)
The narrator flashes back to his early twenties, right before he goes underground.

He is gloomy and already isolated from society. He also thinks that he looks ugly—or at least stupid—and wishes he had a face that more correctly reflected his intelligence.

He is often miserable due to the conflicting emotions inside of him. He sometimes is fearful of others. At other times, he feels superior to everyone. He berates himself for every emotion and tries to cover them up, which only makes him feel worse.

One night, as he passes a tavern, he notices some men fighting. He envies them. He walks into the bar hoping to get into a fight, but he is suddenly picked up by the shoulders by an unnamed officer who wanted to walk past the narrator. Of course, this humiliates the narrator. So he goes home and stews over these emotions, contemplating some way to regain his self-dignity.

The narrator becomes obsessed with the officer and looks for him. He purposefully blocks the officer’s way as he is walking down the street. The two men bump into one another, and the officer moves along without even looking back. However, the narrator is satisfied that he did at least stand his ground.

In his fantasies, the narrator sees himself as a hero. People acknowledge his “perfections.” It is his fantasies that fill him with love and make him want to go out and mingle in society. This is what leads him to Anton Antonych Setochkin’s home. He sits at Anton’s place for a few hours, feels ignored, then goes home satisfied, because he no longer has a desire to be social. He also infrequently visits a former schoolmate, Simonov. It is at Simonov’s apartment that the narrator finds two other former schoolmates (Ferfichkin and Trudolyubov) planning a dinner for a fourth friend, Zverkov. As the three friends discuss the dinner, the narrator insists that he be included. The next night, the dinner is a disaster for the narrator, who is insulted by the other men. He gets very drunk, ends up insulting Zverkov, and the four men leave without him. The narrator tries to follow, but he does not find them.

Part II: On the Occasion of Wet Snow (Chapters 6−10)
The narrator awakens from what he calls a blackout. Then he recalls that he has recently had sex. A young woman, Liza, lies in the bed next to him. For a reason unknown to him, he begins talking to Liza and tries to convince her to leave the house of prostitution. He talks with such emotion that he begins to believe himself and is somewhat elated when he realizes the effect he is having on her. He goes so far as to give her his address.

The next day, the narrator confesses that he is “amazed” by his sentimentality and questions himself about why he gave Liza his address. He has mixed emotions about whether he wants her to show up. One minute he wants her desperately and fantasizes about marrying her, but the next minute he hates and does not want to see her.

When he reflects on the day before, he imagines that Liza probably thinks of him as a hero. But if she finds out how shabby he really is, that image will be destroyed. He goes through his day haunted by her.

The narrator also worries that his servant, Apollon, will insult Liza if she comes to the house. Apollon will do this for spite because he does not like the narrator. The narrator’s fantasies are cut short as he thinks about Apollon, who has been acting very rude. In order to annoy Apollon, the narrator decides to withhold Apollon’s wages to bring him down a notch or two.

Liza finally shows up. The narrator feels ashamed and humiliated because he is dressed in an old, shabby robe. He senses that she, too, is embarrassed because of him. Liza tells him that she wants to leave the house of prostitution. He does not respond. He wants to punish her for even bringing that up. He yells at her, saying she only came to hear more of his sentimental words. He tells her those words were a joke. He had said them to humiliate her. But the narrator looks at her and sees that she understands him, knows that he’s yelling at her because he is unhappy.

They have sex, but it is an act filled with hatred, not love. He needed to dominate her. Liza leaves, and later he runs after her, but it is too late.


Chapter Summaries