Notes From the Underground


Notes from



Fyodor Dostoevsky


Notes from Underground is considered by many to be the world's first existentialist novel.

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that posits that individuals create the meaning and essence of their lives, as opposed to deities or authorities creating it for them.

• Existentialism emerged as a movement in twentiethcentury literature and philosophy, though it had forerunners in earlier centuries.

• Walter Kaufmann described existentialism as "The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life".

The philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are considered fundamental to the existentialist movement, though neither used the term "existentialism".

• Existentialism generally postulates that the absence of a transcendent force (such as God) means that the individual is entirely free, and, therefore, ultimately responsible.

• It is up to humans to create an ethos of personal responsibility outside any branded belief system.

• In existentialist views, personal articulation of being is the only way to rise above humanity's absurd condition of much suffering and inevitable death.

Underground and What is to Be Done?

• What is to be Done?

(alternatively translated as

What Shall we Do ?) is a novel written by

Nikolai Chernyshevsky when he was in Peter and Paul Fortress. It was written in response to

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.

• The novel's hero, named Rakhemtov, became an emblem of the philosophical materialism and nobility of Russian radicalism. The novel also expresses, in one character's dream, a society gaining "eternal joy" of an earthly kind. The novel has been called "a handbook of radicalism" and led to the founding of a Land and Liberty society.

• The book is perhaps best known for the responses it created than as a novel in its own right. Leo Tolstoy wrote a different

What is to be Done ? based on moral responsibility. Fyodor Dostoevsky mocked the utilitarianism and utopianism of the novel in his Notes from Underground .

• Vladimir Lenin, however, found it inspiring and named a pamphlet for it.

• Remember that Lenin had also been deeply moved by Chekhov's short story

“Ward No. 6”

Notes from Underground

Image taken from the poster for the film released on

March 6, 1998

• The role of man in a world in which the belief of God does not exist.

• In

Notes , Dostoevsky shows us the Underground Man , (a new “type”)

– A despicable and pitiable creature who betrays himself and is not even aware of it.

– “The Underground Man” becomes a common character type in many of the works that followed

Notes . He is present in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in the milder form of the character Nikolai Levin, in Anton

Chekhov's Ward No. 6, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man , and in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 as Yossarian the 28year-old Army Air Corps Captain.

Written at a time of Great Difficulty for Dostoevsky

• His wife was dying

• His business ventures as an editor of journals were failing

• His own health was in difficulty with more and more epileptic fits becoming a major hindrance.

• In The Underground Man is Dostoevsky attempt as a thoroughly anti-modern author to implore his fellow Russians to resign from the West and its atheistic liberalism

What was going on around him?

• To some extent, the bitterness of the novel is traceable to the many personal misfortunes

Dostoevsky suffered while the novel was being written.

• Much more important was the influence of his maturing world-view with its ever colder and more distant attitude toward the European liberalism, materialism and utopianism of his younger years.

• Dostoevsky had begun his writing career in the

1840's as a romantic idealist, even as a dreamer.

• At that time he had devoted a great deal of attention to utopian socialism and its vision of a perfectly satisfying, perfectly regulated life for humankind.

• This perfection of life was thought to be achievable solely through the application of the principles of reason and enlightened self-interest. In fact, it was maintained that given the dominance of the rational and the spread of enlightenment, perfection of life must necessarily follow.

• Dostoyevsky is noted for his skill in interweaving deep philosophical, psychological and theological threads into his brilliant fiction.

• As a result,

Notes for Underground is much more than stimulating, entertaining stories but is an actual representation of 19th century intellectual history.

• Notes from Underground wrestles with modern existential questions which deal with Man's role in a world where the idea of God was being rejected more and more.

• The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries espoused the value of reason, proclaimed the potential improvement of Man and Society, and freed humanity from superstition.

• By the 19th century, with the belief in God declining,

Dostoevsky saw mankind having lost its moral bearing, wafting directionless in the tempest that is life. Instead of liberating Man for the better, the Enlightenment had renounced his spiritual connection.

• Where Dostoevsky saw a creature of God, his contemporary philosophers were seeking a new definition of modern man, out from under the definition of God.

“The Underground

Man” is what he sees as their final product.

“The Underground Man” is what he sees as their final product.

Analysis and Plot "To be too conscious is an illness."

• The Novel is divided into two parts

• Before the actual text there is an introductory statement by an "editor" (Thus allowing

Dostoyevsky to shout at his readers that the speaker is NOT him.)

• And this edtor claims that such a person as this anti hero exists in Russian society because of the way the society was being formed.

• The reader must understand that the speaker is an individual who has accepts all the “isms” currently popular in the culture. (optimism ultraism utopiaism).

• Dostoyevsky saw these isms has being joined together with a basic premise: Man is basically good and given educations, science and technology can create a perfect society based on rational and enlightend self-interest.

• Dostoyevsky rejects this entirely and to satiriz e it creates a person who has swallowed it all

“hook link and sinker.”

• An outstanding critic Joesph Frank has noted that this speaker must be seen in the tradition of "first person satires" like "A Modest


• The second part of the novel will show the behavior of the narrator years before he writes the diatribe of the first part acting especially in the role of Romantic sentimentalism.

Part 1 has three main sections:

• It is also divided into 11 chapters, the short introduction chapter propounds a number of riddles whose meanings will be further developed.

1. Chapters two, three and four deal with suffering and the enjoyment of suffering;

2. Chapters five and six with intellectual and moral vacillation and with conscious "inertia"-inaction; sections seven through nine with theories of reason and advantage;

3. The last two chapters are a summary and a transition into Part 2 .

Part 1: Distinguishing himself from nature.

• The narrator describes this as his “spitefulness.” “I am a spiteful man.”

• One translator makes a special point that the correct word here is "wickedness" suggesting that many modern translators have used the word spitefulness may have been shying away from the moral element within the word.

• Our translator argues that this is exactly what

Dostoyevsky wanted--basically the same sense that modern Christians might associate with the word


• This wicked spitefulness is elaborated into being not only a spitefulness for authority and morality, but for causality itself.

• Thus War is described as people's rebellion against the assumption that everything needs to happen for a purpose, because humans do things without purpose, and this is what determines human history .

• Thus, the narrator attacks the assumption of many radicals that if people were just educated to the full level of how their self-interest are fulfilled by behaving well, they would do so. You can see how the Christian concept of carnal nature is suggested, but the narrator never uses such terms.

• Secondly, the narrator's desire for pain and paranoia (which parallels Raskolnikov's behavior in Crime and Punishment ) is exemplified in a tooth ache, which he says human beings only moan about to spread their suffering to others due to the cruelty of society

(and he desires to have one), and paranoia which he builds up in his head to the point he is incapable of looking his co-workers in the eye.

The main issue is that the underground man has reached a point of inactivity .

• Unlike most people, who typically act out of revenge because they believe justice is the end, he is conscious of this problem.

• Because of this, though he feels the desire for revenge, he is unable to complete it and thus his feelings of spite are given rise because he is simply left to feel guilt at even thinking of revenge.

• He feels that others like him exist, yet he continuously concentrates on his spitefulness instead of on action that avoids the problems he is so concerned with.

• He even admits at one point that he’d rather be inactive out of laziness. The first section also gives a harsh criticism of determinism and humanity’s movement towards attempting at outlining human action, which the underground man mentions in terms of a simple math problem (2x2=4).

• He states that despite humanity’s attempt to create the Crystal Palace (a reference to a famous symbol in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s

What is to be Done?


• It cannot avoid the simple fact that anyone at any time can decide to act against what is considered good, simply to state one’s existence.

“I do this because it proves that I exist.”

Bloom “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

The Second Part

The second part is the actual story proper and consists of three main segments that lead to a furthering of the underground man’s super-consciousness.

Part 1

• The first is his obsession with an officer who moves him out of position like a piece of furniture at a bar. He sees the man on the streets and thinks of ways to get his revenge, eventually deciding to bump into him, which he does, to find, to his surprise, that the officer does not seem to even notice it happened.

Part II

• The second segment is a dinner party with some old school friends to wish Zverkov goodbye as he leaves for the service.

• The underground man hated them when he was younger, but after a random visit to

Simonov’s he decides to meet them at the appointed location.

• They forget to tell him that the time has been changed to six instead of five, so he arrives early.

• He gets into an argument with the three after a short time, declaring all of his hatred of society and using them as the symbol of it.

• At the end they go off without him to a secret brothel, and in his rage later that evening the underground man goes there to confront

Zverkov once and for all, regardless if he is beaten or not.

• It is there that he meets and has sex with Lisa, a young prostitute.

Part III

• He wakes up and the third segment begins.

• After sitting in silence for awhile, the underground man confronts Lisa, who is unwavering at first, but eventually realizes the plight of her position and how she will slowly become useless and go lower and lower until she is no longer wanted by anyone.

• The thought of dying such a terribly disgraceful death brings her to realize her position, and she then finds herself enthralled by the underground man’s seemingly poignant grasp of society’s ills.

• He gives her his address and leaves. After this, he is overcome by the fear of her actually arriving at his dilapidated apartment, and in the middle of an argument with his servant, she arrives.

• He then curses her and takes back everything he said to her, saying he was in fact laughing at her and reiterates the truth of her miserable position.

• Near the end of his painful rage he wells up in tears after saying that he was only seeking to have power over her and a desire to humiliate her.

• He begins to criticize himself and states that he is in fact horrified by his own poverty and embarrassed by his situation. Lisa realizes how pitiful he is and they embrace.

• The underground man cries out “They – they won’t let me – I – I can’t be good!”

• After this he still acts terribly towards her and before she leaves he stuffs something into her hand, which she throws onto the table.

• It was a five ruble note.

• He tries to catch her as she goes out onto the street but cannot find her and never hears from her again.

• He recalls this moment as making him unhappy whenever he thinks of it. . .,

• yet again proving the fact from the first section that his spite for society and his inability to act like it makes him unable to act better than it.

Works and Sites Cited

• Lawall, Sarah. Ed. “Fyodor Dostoevsky.”

The Norton

Anthology of world Literature Vol. E . New York:

Norton: 1301-1306.

• Marder, Jen , Mike Meyer, and Fred Wyshak

Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

.” vious/ru351/novels/UGMan/ugman.html

3 April 2008

• “

Notes from Underground


Wikipedia: the Free

Encyclopedia. ound 3 April 2008.