Historical Context

Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature
The nineteenth century produced some of Russia’s greatest literature and is often referred to as the Golden Age of literary accomplishment. Some of the more prominent Russian writers of this century include Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), and, of course, Dostoevsky.

Pushkin, known best as a great poet, was considered a radical liberal writer, who, like Dostoevsky, spent many years in forced exile for his themes of social reform. Pushkin died in a duel with a man he accused of having an affair with his wife. One of his best-known works is Eugene Onegin (1833), a novel written entirely in verse.

Lermontov, the son of a nobleman, was also a poet, who died in a duel. Like Pushkin, Lermontov was also exiled. A Hero of Our Time (1840), Lermontov’s collection of stories, is considered a Russian classic and one of the first Russian novels to delve into human psychology.

Gogol, a playwright and novelist, was known for his satire and his realistic and sympathetic fictional characters. Gogol is credited for having stimulated the Russian literary movement away from poetry toward prose. He became the standard for Russian novelists to follow, including Dostoevsky. Gogol’s most famous story, written in 1842, was called "Overcoat". At one point, Dostoevsky honored Gogol and Gogol’s story by making the statement that he and other Russian novelists all came out from under Gogol’s overcoat. Gogol’s most famous novel is Dead Souls, also published in 1842. The idea for this story was given to Gogol by Pushkin.

The most well-known of this group of Russian writers, especially to Western readers, is probably Tolstoy, whose masterpieces include War and Peace (1865–1869) and Anna Karenina (1875–1877). Tolstoy was also a philosopher, whose works on nonresistance inspired a following of believers of what would be coined Tolstoyism. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were said to have been influenced by Tolstoy’s...

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Literary Style

In this novel, the author alludes (or refers) to important material outside of the story. For example, the phrase that is often repeated by the narrator, “the lofty and the beautiful,” comes from an essay by Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who was very popular in Dostoevsky’s time. The phrase “L’homme de la nature et de la vérité” comes from French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. There is also a reference to Charles Darwin, Napoleon, and the U.S. Civil War. And finally, there is the mention of the Crystal Palace, which is an allusion to Russian author Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utopian novel What Is to Be Done. For Dostoevsky’s contemporary audience of nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals, these allusions would quickly be recognized and add depth to the novel. Properly researched, the allusions can enhance twenty-first-century readers’ understanding of the story as well.

Direct Address to Audience
It is rare to have a narrator in a work of fiction directly address the audience. The narrator in this novel talks to the audience so much that it is almost as if the audience were an invisible character. The narrator never specifically names the audience but insinuates that they are an educated group of people who are familiar with the works of prominent literary and philosophical authors. Often, the narrator addresses the audience with the word gentlemen. But on occasion, he includes ladies too. Generally, though, the word you is the most frequent form of address.

Not only does the narrator address the audience as if he were talking in their presence, he also thinks for them. He makes statements and then assumes what their responses will be. Other times, he even argues with them, making statements he thinks the audience might make and then providing further...

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Compare and Contrast

  • 1860s: A schism has developed in Russia between the political liberals and the conservatives, threatening to tear the country apart. The liberals look to the Western industrializing nations and want change, while the conservatives look to Russia’s peasant history and want to return to its roots, a time of idealized simplicity. Fearful of revolution, the tsarist government cracks down any hint of rebellion through stringent censorship and arrests.

    2007: Russia struggles between creating a democracy and a free market economy and a strengthening of communism. The former Soviet Union has been splintered into Russia and fourteen independent countries, with military and terrorist confrontations coming from places such as Chechnya, which wants to be independent. Mysterious deaths of journalists who speak out against the government go unexplained.

  • 1860s: Duels are a well-accepted manner of settling disagreements as well as defending one’s honor in Russia and throughout the Western world. A duel was originally based on the assumption that God would not allow an innocent man to die. To challenge someone to a duel and to face that challenge is considered a manifestation of honor and courage.

    2007: In the United States, the settlement of disagreements is often resolved in court through a lawsuit. Lawsuits against doctors, teachers, and bosses for personal injury, prejudice, and sexual harassment are some of the more common cases. Money, not usually honor or courage, is the frequent signifier of having won or lost.

  • 1860s: Russian literature is enjoying one of its most honored time periods, as it crests the era that will later be called the Golden Age of literature in Russia, a time when Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy write their masterpieces.

    2007: After many decades of political censorship when government control of the publishing world all but eliminates critical and creative thought outside the parameters of communist theory, Russian literature struggles to make a comeback. Female Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya (great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy) is one of the more famous authors both in her country and abroad. She is the author of several collections of short stories and the novel The Slynx (2003) about a dystopia (the opposite of a utopia).

Topics for Further Study

  • Read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Many critics have stated that Notes From Underground was the seed, or germ, of the author’s more extensive novel to follow. List the similarities in tone, subject matter, themes, and style. How do the characters compare to one another? How do the two novels differ?
  • Reread the conversation that the narrator has with Liza at the house where he first encountered her, the section in which the narrator counsels Liza to give up her life of prostitution. Discuss in what ways this aspect of the narrator’s personality differs from the way he treats Liza when she later comes to his house. What changes have occurred? Why do you think the narrator treats her so badly in the second scene? Which side of his personality do you think is more honest or more typical of his character? How would it have affected the novel if the narrator had found Liza, apologized to her, and invited her to stay with him? Which ending would you prefer?
  • Write a letter of recommendation for a new job for the narrator, describing both his physical and emotional strengths. Use the most empathetic voice that you can muster. Pretend, maybe, that you are the narrator’s brother and that you understand why he acts the way he does. Try to find the narrator’s humanity, hidden under the layers of self-contempt and self-righteousness that he displays. Focus on the narrator’s strengths but also do not shy away from his weaknesses. Justify them, if you can, or suggest ways in which the narrator might overcome them.
  • Draw two pictures of the narrator as seen through Liza’s eyes. The first one should be based on Liza’s impressions of him at her house. The second should be based on how she sees him after visiting his house and being turned away.
  • Some philosophers believe that humans are inherently good. Others believe that they are inherently evil. Take a poll in your class. Then cluster together all those who believe all people are inherently good on one side of the room and those who believe all people are inherently evil on the other. Ask each side to come up with as many examples as they can from stories they’ve heard recently in the news or from historical or even personal experience. Tally the results. Which side had the most convincing examples?
  • Research dueling as it was practiced around the world in the nineteenth century. What were the usual circumstances that might lead to a duel? Were duels played out only by men, or did women also duel? What rituals were involved (how did one slap another in the face, did the duelists take a certain number of paces, etc.)? What is a “second,” and how was he or she used? What weapons were normally involved? Legally, was anyone punished after the duel was over?

Media Adaptations

  • Notes From Underground was adapted as an English-language film by director Gary Walkow (1995). Henry Czerny stars as the Underground Man, and Sheryl Lee appears as Liza. The cast also includes Jon Favreau and Seth Green. The DVD is available from Olive Films.
  • Several audio versions of Notes From Underground are available. An abridged version read by George Guidall (1982) is presented by Books on Tape. Another abridged version (1989) is offered by Blackstone Audiobooks. And finally, Audible.com has made available an unabridged edition read by Walter Zimmerman (1982).

What Do I Read Next?

  • Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground has been said to be the seed of his first longer work, Crime and Punishment (1866). The protagonist of this story, Rodion Raskolnikov, resembles the narrator in Notes From Underground in some ways. He lives alone in a shabby apartment and is sickly and broke. He also talks to himself. What he talks about in the beginning of the story is his plan to commit a murder, though he does not yet know who his victim will be. He finally settles on a female pawnbroker and rationalizes the murder by stealing the money, which he desperately needs, and convincing himself that he has rid the community of a person no one trusts or likes. The...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1864. Notes from underground. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg (1974/1992). New York: Bantam.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1864. Notes from underground. Trans. Richard Pevear (2006). London: Vintage Classics

Fanger, Donald. 1992. Introduction. In Notes from underground. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg (1974/1992). New York: Bantam.

Heinegg, Peter. 2004. The first anti-hero? America, August 30, 24.

Mirsky, D. S. 1999. A history of Russian literature: From its beginnings to 1900. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Parks, Tim. 2004. Description of a struggle. Nation, June 14, 40.


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