Notes from the Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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One of Dostoevski’s most interesting and original works, Notes from the Underground represents the real beginning of his literary greatness, even though the earlier novel Poor Folk had already made him famous. Translated into many languages many times, this work is more widely read than perhaps any other late nineteenth century short novel or story. The “underground man” has become a literary archetype, and numerous modern movements have claimed Dostoevski’s creation as their spiritual progenitor. The story consists of two parts. In the first, the underground man gives a long monologue that encapsulates his philosophy, while in the second part, adventures from his life are recounted. Together, these halves form a whole psychological portrait, making a powerful statement against the possibility of rational social progress.

By noticing that the underground man tyrannizes everyone around him, one sees how easy it is for superficial and sentimental people to be corrupted by a strong personality. Thus, the story expresses a pessimistic vision of humankind as weak, too self-centered ever to experience joy, and prone to the agony of solipsism. The essence of the underground man’s meaning lies in his assertion that, as far as he is concerned, the world can go to hell, just as long as he gets his tea. Moreover, Notes from the Underground is a political polemic aimed at reforming Russian society, with its endless wavering between Western European ideas and the “Russian soul.” The recounted adventures in the second half of the story are symbolic representations of episodes from Russia’s dislocated past and present. These recollections reveal that it is not really the underground man who has a problem with true identity: It is Russia itself. By extension, Notes from the Underground is also a renunciation of Dostoevski’s own past. The author, through the narrator, derides his previously held optimism and joyful feelings, and he replaces them with pessimism, hopelessness, and despair. Something ugly had arisen in Dostoevski’s spirit, and he felt compelled to give it expression, no matter how venomous it might be.

Above all, there seems little doubt that it is a full-blown attack on the particular positivist philosophy of Dostoevski’s day, a philosophy holding that human beings are rational and capable of creating a better society for everyone through material progress. The underground man’s spiritual isolation is the result of positivism’s failure to make any material progress at all, and his self-disgust is an agonized cry of protest against it.

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