Notes From Underground Notes from the Underground Fyodor Dostoevsky - Essay

Fyodor Dostoevsky


(Short Story Criticism)

Notes From the Underground Fyodor Dostoevsky

The following entry presents criticism of Dostoevsky's novella Zapiski iz podpol'ya (1864; Notes from the Underground). See also, Fyodor Dostoevsky Criticism.

Acclaimed as one of the classics of modern literature for its experimental form and style, thematic complexity, and innovative depiction of character psychology, Notes from the Underground is perhaps the most influential of Dostoevsky's works. The novella consists of "notes" on the philosophy and experiences of a retired, embittered recluse living in squalor in St. Petersburg. In creating the fictional author of the notes, who is commonly designated as the "underground man" by critics, Dostoevsky introduced the anti-hero into Russian fiction and firmly established the archetype of the outsider in world literature. The underground man has been cited as the figurative progenitor of various fictional characters of Franz Kafka, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, among others, and Notes is typically considered the single greatest literary precursor of Existentialist thought. Yet the philosophical dimension of the novella is only one aspect of a work that also fuses sociology, psychology, and politics. Despite these complexities, Notes from the Underground is perceived as principally sounding a theme that reverberates throughout Dostoevsky's writings: that science and materialism, so emphasized in the modern age, are inadequate substitutes for religion, love, and human understanding.

Plot and Major Characters

The notes of the underground man consist of two sections, "The Underground," a theoretical creed setting forth the fictional author's personal philosophy, and "Apropos of the Wet Snow," in which he recollects several experiences of his twenty-fourth year that anticipate his present condition and philosophy. In the course of his diatribe, the fictional author reveals many traits: he is ineffectual, resentful, alienated, ambivalent, introspective, and self-contradictory. Although he claims that his first-person, monologic notes are not written for anyone else, he nevertheless addresses an imaginary audience and anticipates its responses, thus giving the work the tenor of dialogue. In "The Underground," the author attacks contemporary theories on the nature of humanity and refuses to submit to a life defined by laws of reason and science, which he equates with the incogitant passivity of a "piano-key." This denial has led him to acts of perversity and debauchery in the attempt to demonstrate free will and the intangible human qualities that he claims to cherish. The first incident described in "Apropos of the Wet Snow" is an ambiguous encounter with an army officer that the underground man interprets as a personal affront. For two years the narrator plots a revenge that produces equally ambiguous results. The author then relates another story in which he intrudes upon a dinner party held by former schoolmates and proceeds to embarrass himself by insulting the others and flaunting his averred superior intelligence. When the party subsides, the underground man follows his former schoolmates to a brothel, where he asserts his superiority over a prostitute, Liza (also transliterated as Lisa), whom he manipulates with a noble speech and a lofty offer of assistance. Three days later, Liza appears at the underground man's abode, only to realize his meanness and unhappiness. He is humiliated at having been exposed and is unable to accept her consoling love. Shortly thereafter the notes abruptly end, with the underground man purporting that he will write no more; a comment contradicted by the heretofore silent "editor" of the notes who closes the novella by adding that the underground man "could not help going on."

Major Themes

The overall complexity of Notes from the Underground has generated a wide variety of thematic interpretations. Many critics have contended that Notes from the Underground is in one sense a parody of, or response to, Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, an 1863 Utopian novel that propounds a radical socialist philosophy of enlightened self-interest, referred to as "rational egoism." This philosophy asserts the absolute hegemony of reason, insisting that all human behavior is dictated by rational laws of nature. In What Is To be Done?, Chernyshevsky evoked the image of the Crystal Palace, a structure originally constructed for London's 1851 World's Fair, as the ideal of human rationality. The underground man, however, attacks this triumph of science and engineering as a symbol of the absence of spontaneity and freedom. In Notes, critics have maintained, Dostoevsky showed the moral and psychological incompatibility of an autonomous personality and the purely deterministic world heralded by Chernyshevsky and other socialist radicals. The psychological aspects of the novella have also received close attention. Scholars have termed Notes the self-revelation of a pathological personality diversely diagnosed as narcissistic, borderline psychotic, paranoid, compulsive, or repressed. Some critics have found in Dostoevsky's own troubles a basis for the autobiographical, agitated tone of his Notes. Many have held that the novella disparages the narrow intellectualism and overrefined consciousness that Dostoevsky ascribed to Russians who were, in his estimation, contaminated by the corrupt rationalist trends of western European thought. Still others have focused on the underground man as a social type representative of individuals unable to establish a bond with humanity: an anonymous and isolated figure who experiences hostility toward the mechanized and bureaucratic aspects of society. Notes has also been considered an argument for existential choice, and, similarly a protest against utilitarianism, materialism, and positivism. Many of these diverse thematic strains tend to coalesce in the observations of critics who find at the heart of the underground man's desperation Dostoevsky's own distrust of scientific rationalism as a means of illuminating ethical problems and his deeply-felt Christian spirituality. Such critics construe Notes as a condemnation of the spiritual malaise of Dostoevsky's era and a theological cry of despair over modern moral disintegration personified in the unredeemed figure of the underground man.

Critical Reception

Notes from the Underground was a pivotal work for Dostoevsky for its inauguration of themes prominent in his later novels and its introduction of the acutely self-analytical, spiritually torn hero, who is a prototype for many other of his characters. However, the importance of Notes extends far beyond its significance in Dostoevsky's career, as evinced in George Steiner's estimation of the novella: ". . . when the traditional literary elements in [Notes from the Underground] have been set aside, and when close affinities to Dostoevsky's other works have been noted, the profound originality of the thing continues to assert itself. Chords previously unheard had been struck with admirable precision. No other text by Dostoevsky has exerted more influence on twentieth-century thought or technique."

Vasily Rozanov (essay date 1906)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, translated by Spencer E. Roberts, Cornell University Press, 1972, 232 p.

[A Russian journalist, philosopher, and critic, Rozanov married Apollinaria Suslova, the former mistress of Dostoevsky, when Rozanov was twenty-four and Suslova was forty. His Legenda o velikom inkvizitore (1891; Legend of the Grand Inquisitor), a study of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, introduced a new critical approach to the author and aided revival of interest in Dostoevsky. In the following excerpt from a 1906 translation of the third edition of that work, Rozanov stresses the high value placed upon free will in Notes from...

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J. Middleton Murry (essay date 1916)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Critical Study, 1916. Reprint by Russell & Russell, 1966, 263 p.

[In the following excerpt, Murry asserts that the narrator of Notes from the Underground, who he considers the tortured victim of his own heightened consciousness, is Dostoevsky's rendering of himself]

[In The Insulted and Injured Dostoevsky] sets down only what he saw and felt: What he thought he hid close within his heart, while he sought the way of unburdening his deeper soul, which was his passionate mind.

And within a year or two, after The House of the Dead had been written, he ventured to reveal something of that which was...

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D. S. Mirsky (essay date 1926)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Age of Realism: The Novelists (11)," in his A History of Russian Literature Comprising "A History of Russian Literature" and "Contemporary Russian Literature, " edited by Francis J. Whitfield, Alfred A. Knopf, 1949, pp. 245-90.

[Mirsky was a Russian prince who fled his country after the Bolshevik Revolution and settled in London. While in England, he wrote two important histories of Russian literature, Contemporary Russian Literature (1926) and A History of Russian Literature (1926). In the following excerpt from the 1949 condensed edition of A History of Russian Literature, Mirsky extols Notes from the Underground as a work that...

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Vladimir Nabokov (essay date 1940)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fyodor Dostoevski: 'Memoirs from a Mousehole'," in his Lectures on Russian Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, pp. 115-25.

[A Russian-born American man of letters, Nabokov was a prolific contributor to many literary fields. In the following excerpt from his lecture on Notes from the Underground, composed in about 1940, Nabokov derisively summarizes the plot of the novella, noting with displeasure Dostoevsky's use of generalities and his diffuse literary style, but applauding the humor, particularly in Chapter Four of the book's second section.]

The story whose title should be "Memoirs from Under the Floor," or "Memoirs...

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Eugene Goodheart (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dostoevsky and the Hubris of the Immoralist," in The Cult of the Ego: The Self in Modern Literature, University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 90-113.

[In the following excerpt, Goodheart examines the sources of the narrator's paradoxical vitality in Notes from the Underground.]

Notes from the Underground (1864) inaugurates Dostoevsky's great creative period. There are anticipations of the underground man in earlier work, but he emerges full blown as a type for the first time in Notes. He haunts Dostoevsky's major novels in a way that makes it impossible to come to grips with them without first settling with him and with the tale that he...

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Edward F. Abood (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground," in Underground Man, Chandler & Sharp Publishers, 1973, pp. 13-29.

[In the following essay, Abood analyzes Notes from the Underground as Dostoevsky's critique of nihilism and portrayal of the irrational psyche of the neurotic man.]

Notes from Underground is a philosophic polemic in the form of a personal journal. Dostoevsky portrays the author of the "notes," the unforgettable Underground Man, in the actual process of writing his journal; Underground Man, in turn, is directing his notes to imaginary interlocutors, with whom he carries on a simulated philosophical debate. Although they...

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A. Boyce Gibson (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cellar and the Garret," in The Religion of Dostoevsky, SCM Press Ltd., 1973, pp. 78-103.

[In the following excerpt, Gibson observes the Christian component of Notes from the Underground.]

There are few documents in literature which look less Christian than Notes from Underground. The sick self-consciousness of the writer, his exasperated cynicism, his withdrawal from the world of action (for which he has nothing but contempt), even his exquisitely nasty brand of humour, put him in the category of repudiators and unbelievers. Yet as an introduction to the developed worldview of one who confessed and called himself Christian, they are...

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Isadore Traschen (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Existential Ambiguities in Notes from Underground," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 363-76.

[In the following essay, Traschen questions the notion of the underground man as an existential figure.]


Like the work of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground anticipates many of the ideas which we nowadays call existential. I believe, though, that there has been some confusion in getting at the existential qualities of the central figure, the man from underground. I think a case can be made for a pretty strong modification of the usual assessment.

Before we get...

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Julia Annas (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Action and Character in Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground," in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3, Fall, 1977, pp. 257-75.

[In the following essay, Annas interprets Notes from the Underground in light of analytic philosophy, as a work that probes the subject of irrational action.]

Notes from Underground was written with a specific purpose in mind: to answer Chernyshevsky's novel What Is to Be Done?1 And many features of Dostoyevsky's work can only be understood when we bear in mind its specifically Russian setting. The narrator is a romantic idealist of the forties transformed into something rather...

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Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Notes from the Underground," in Genres in Discourse, translated by Catherine Porter, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 72-92.

[In the following essay, originally published in French in 1978, Todorov explores Notes from the Underground as a semiotically complex text that, in addition to being polemical and parodic, critiques master-slave and self-other ideologies.]

In a bookshop my hand just happened to come to rest on L'Esprit souterrain, [Notes from the Underground] a recent French translation. . . . The instinct of affinity (or what shall I call it?) spoke to me instantaneously—my joy was beyond...

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William J. Leatherbarrow (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Enlightened Malevolence: Notes from Underground," in Fedor Dostoevsky, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 63-8.

[In the following essay, Leatherbarrow discusses the underground man as Dostoevsky's unredeemed personification of human perversity and absurdity.]

Dostoevsky's two-pronged attack on the ethics of reason and the insubstantial "solutions" of romantic idealism reaches its polemical climax in Notes from Underground, published in 1864 and written under appalling personal circumstances. Dostoevsky's first wife, Maria Dmitrievna, was dying, yet the author was obliged to continue work in order to provide material for the journal Epoch, which...

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Malcolm V. Jones (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (1864)," in The Voice of a Giant: Essays on Seven Russian Prose Classics, edited by Roger Cockrell and David Richards, University of Exeter, 1985, pp. 55-65.

[In the following essay, Jones investigates the nature of the underground man and examines the relation of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground to the philosophical currents of the modern period.]

Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, published in 1864, is well-established among the classics of modern European literature. Nearly 100 years after its publication the American scholar Joseph Frank wrote:


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Donald Gutierrez (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground: Self-Degradation as Revelation of Self," in The Dark and Light Gods: Essays on the Self in Modern Literature, The Whitston Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 2-26.

[In the following essay, Gutierrez studies the implications of Dostoevsky's underground man as the prototypical literary depiction of modern self degradation.]


In a passage from Section VI of A Treatise of Human Nature entitled "Of Personal Identity," Hume begins his famous attack on the conception of the self: "If any impression give rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same thro' the whole...

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J. Brooks Bouson (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narcissistic Vulnerability and Rage in Dostoevsky's. Notes from Underground," in The Empathic Reader: A Study of the Narcissistic Character and the Drama of the Self University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 33-50.

[In the following excerpt, Bouson offers a psychoanalytic reading of Dostoevsky's "paradoxalist, narcissistic" underground man.]

A narrative suffused with rage, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground depicts a character who provides a strategic point of entry into the troubled selfhood of Tragic Man. Suffering from shaky self-esteem, "neither a hero nor an insect" (130), the Underground Man is a spiteful individual who...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Amoia, Alba. "Notes from Underground (1864)." In Feodor Dostoevsky, pp. 167-74. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1993.

Offers background biographical information and a thematic analysis of Notes from the Underground.

Beatty, Joseph. "From Rebellion and Alienation to Salutary Freedom: A Study in Notes from Underground." Soundings LXI, No. 2 (Summer 1978): 182-205.

Argues that notes presents "a deeper, more satisfying account of freedom than that of rebellious, irrational caprice."

Behrendt, Patricia Flanagan. "The Russian Iconic...

(The entire section is 1254 words.)