Introduction

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 Through a detailed discussion of his philosophy, the narrator uses the first part of the novel to explain why he has withdrawn.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

Summary

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...

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