Notes from the Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Characters Discussed

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The narrator

The narrator, the “I” of the treatise, a man convinced of his own depravity. A theorist addressing imaginary listeners, his readers, he declares that he will tell only the truth. Ugly in face and misshapen in body, though with an intelligent, even practiced alertness, he was for many years morbidly shy and grotesque in his vices. A government clerk of a mean and vindictive disposition, he declares that he would devote his life to idleness and the creation of beauty could he live again. As it is, he will continue in the same vein, acutely conscious of his intellectual prowess, aware of the pleasure he finds in humiliating himself painfully. He knows himself a pretender (even this autobiographical sketch is in jest), but he is now incapable of feeling. He describes incidents that show his lack of acumen, his inability to love or take action, his despicable indulgence in self-pity, and his consciously depraved behavior. He presents his bookishness, his intense self-consciousness, his inability to follow a line of action, and his masochistic-sadistic impulses as examples of humankind’s perverse nature, which refuses the attainment of perfection or even the striving for it.


Liza (LIH-zuh), a peasant girl come to St. Petersburg, an inexperienced prostitute. As the victim of the narrator’s determined debauch, the rather handsome, strong, contemplative Liza finds in the man’s drunken meanderings a kind of solace. Accepting his admonitions as to the life she is beginning, she goes to see him because she believes that he offers her hope and love. Although his own surroundings are even more distasteful than hers, she insists on unburdening her feeling of love for him. Taking advantage of her tender feelings, he makes love to her and then tells her spitefully that he has no feelings except the desire to wield power, to hold another soul in his hands. Humiliated, she throws back the money he disdainfully gives her and leaves him.

Anton Antonitch Syetotchkin

Anton Antonitch Syetotchkin (ahn-TOHN ahn-TOHN-ihch seh-TOHCH-kihn), the narrator’s immediate superior in a government office, a kind man with a pleasant family and a generous disposition and the one person the narrator seems to respect. Anton lends the young clerk advances on his salary and welcomes the lonely and bookish young man into his home. Evenings spent listening to discussions of conservative politics and mundane affairs cause the young man to postpone his burning desire to embrace humankind, a desire that is as false as his other emotions.


Simonov (sih-MYOH-nof), the narrator’s school friend, a pleasant person who lends him money and occasionally entertains the self-conscious clerk. Simonov allows the narrator to come with other student friends to a farewell party for a mutual friend. Later, he becomes embarrassed at the fellow’s boorish behavior but lends him money to continue the debauch at a brothel.


Zverkov (zvehr-KOHF), an army officer who owns two hundred serfs and is much respected in consequence. Because he is a hale fellow, an amusing storyteller, and a man about town, the narrator resents him. Zverkov, instead of taking offense at the insulting manner of his former schoolmate, declares that such a low person cannot insult him. This haughtiness, coupled with his bragging stories of conquest, infuriates but tantalizes the narrator, who abases and humiliates himself purposely before his old friends.


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Holquist, Michael. Dostoevsky and the Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Detailed readings of several works, including Letters from the Underworld. An introductory text contains information on Dostoevski’s Russia.

Jackson, Robert Louis. The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes

(This entire section contains 191 words.)

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The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. An authority on Dostoevski examines the novels written in Dostoevski’s last twenty years. Links the themes of these most important novels and considers Notes from the Underground.

Jones, Malcolm V. Dostoyevsky: The Novel of Discord. London: Elek Books Limited, 1976. Gives an overview of the complexity, chaos, and discord that are to be expected in Dostoevski. Extended section on Notes from the Underground, and concludes with extensive notes. A serious study of Dostoevski.

Leatherbarrow, William J. Fedor Dostoevsky. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Includes a biographical sketch and chronology of Dostoevski. Has commentary on Letters from the Underworld (also known as Notes from Underground) and his four major novels. Extended bibliography and an index.

Mackiewicz, Stanislaw. Dostoyevsky. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1947. Good companion to other, more critical evaluations of Dostoevski. Examines the women characters of the novels with relevance to the loves of Dostoevski’s life.