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Notes From Underground

Notes From Underground

Notes from Underground (1864) is a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) that explores philosophical concepts and the danger of isolation. The writings of an anonymous "Underground Man," the novella is about a man completely cut off from the outside world. Dostoyevsky uses the work to critique new political ideals emerging in Russian society during the 1860s. Keep reading for a summary, an analysis, and more.

A novella is a literary work that is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Novellas often have simple and direct plots told in a realistic style. Famous examples of novellas include Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell and A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens.

Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky portrait, StudySmarter Fig. 1 - Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground is considered one of the first existential novels.

Notes From Underground: Summary

The novel's narrator, the Underground Man, shares his observations on various issues. The novella is divided into two sections.

Part 1: "Underground"

Set in 1860s St. Petersberg, Russia, the Underground Man, is a middle-aged man who has lived in self-imposed exile for twenty years ago. He says he is a sick man who is proud of his sickness and refuses to visit a doctor out of spite. The Underground Man divides humanity into two groups; those who over-analyze and remain inactive and those who are free from thought and able to take action easily. Paralyzed by self-awareness, the Underground Man cannot take any meaningful action in his life. Both ashamed of his inaction and proud that his superior intellect caused it, he continues in this self-contradictory cycle.

Notes From Underground, St. Petersburg photo, StudySmarter Fig. 2 - The Underground Man finds himself increasingly isolated from everyone else in St. Petersburg.

In an age of rationalism and scientific breakthroughs, the Underground Man rails against the popular idea that progress will free man from suffering and deliver a pain-free Utopia. He sees suffering as an essential part of the human condition and argues that men have a secret desire to be irrational and self-destructive. While the intellectuals of his day ignore these fundamental truths, he embraces them.

Does the Underground Man make any valid points about the dangers of rationalism and logic?

To the Underground Man, polite society is obsessed with logic and rationality. He wants the freedom to act irrationally. Yet, for all his thoughts and theories, the Underground Man never actually takes action. He celebrates and laments his inaction whilst fluctuating between self-aggrandizing and self-loathing.

Notes From Underground takes place during a period of radical transformation in Russia's social and political climate. For centuries, Russia had existed under the strict rule of its monarchy. The Tsar wielded absolute power and maintained an unequal society where many rural peasants (serfs) were burdened with a form of slavery.

With Alexander II's ascension in 1855, he embraced the more liberal policies of Western Europe enabling a more representative form of government and greater individual rights. Between 1861 and 1874, the Great Reforms saw the crown's powers limited and increased industrialization and modernization.

Some viewed this reform as a challenge to traditional Russian collectivism and religion. Western philosophical and scientific ideas infiltrated Russian society. Many intellectuals hoped science would create a more just world and end suffering. The concept of utilitarianism promoted the idea that all human ills could be solved by logic, the founder of utilitarianism even devised a mathematical equation to create a perfect world.

Philosophical approaches that questioned traditional values gained popularity. Atheism challenged the role of religion and the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, and early forms of socialism attacked the inequality of Russian culture. One of the most popular movements was the Russian Nihilist movement which rejected all forms of belief in order to create a more equal society.

Dostoyevsky wrote Notes from Underground to challenge many of these emerging concepts.

Part 2: "Apropos of the Wet Snow"

The falling snow reminds the Underground Man of a painful memory from twenty years ago. While working as a mid-level bureaucrat in the civil service he displayed antisocial tendencies. At work, he vacillated between wanting to make friends and hating everyone around him. The Underground Man feels increasingly isolated and yearns for companionship but spends most of his time reading classic literature.

Does the narrator ever contradict himself? Why would Dostoyevsky include these contradictions?

After witnessing a man being thrown out of a bar for fighting, the Underground Man plans to pick a fight with an army officer. He schedules his daily walk so he can bump into the officer and demand an apology. When he tries to collide, the officer moves out of the way and completely ignores him. Feeling slighted, The Underground Man becomes obsessed with confronting the officer. Desperate to fulfill romantic notions of honor and justice, he borrows a large amount of money to buy an expensive coat which he believes will force the officer to view him as a social equal. He finally collides with the officer but is once again completely ignored.

Shortly after, the Underground Man visits Simonov, one of the few friends he made at school. He finds Simonov talking with two other classmates about throwing a dinner party for Zverkov, a popular boy from school who the Underground Man despises. Feeling ignored, the Underground Man rudely interrupts the conversation and invites himself to dinner.

Intimidated by his classmates' success, the Underground Man vows to make an impression at the dinner. He buys an extravagant wardrobe and spends his remaining money on a coach ride to the restaurant. As the rest of men enjoy their meal, the Underground Man feels isolated and proceeds to get drunk.

When he feels ignored or insecure, the Underground Man describes himself as feeling like an insect. What are some other descriptions/comparisons the narrator makes to express his feelings?

Certain that the other men at the table view him as an insect, the Underground man is determined to make an impression. He raises a toast to the Zverkov which quickly descends into backhanded insults. One of the men says that the Underground Man deserves to be punched. In response, the Underground Man offers the man a duel. The group laughs uproariously at such an outdated concept.

The night wears on, and the Underground Man childishly stomps his feet for attention but is completely ignored. The rest of the men leave to visit a brothel, but the penniless Underground Man declines to go. He changes his mind and follows the men, vowing to finally confront Zverkov and tell him what he truly thinks.

In Nikolay Chernyshevsky's novel, What is to be Done? (1863) one of the characters talks about the benefits of rational egoism. He rhetorically questions, "Do you hear that, in your underground hole?" One year later, Dostoevsky responded with Notes from Underground.

Unable to locate Zverkov, he borrows money from Simonov and sleeps with a young prostitute named Liza. As the pair talk the Underground Man describes a prostitute's funeral and lectures Liza on the dangers of her profession. Moved by his passion, Liza breaks down and feels like the Underground Man truly cares for her. As he leaves, she asks for his address.

Over the next few days, the Underground Man anxiously prays that Liza does not show up at his house. Ashamed of the apartment's squalor, he wants to remain a hero in her eyes. The tense atmosphere erupts into a screaming match with his servant as the Underground Man desperately demands respect. Liza arrives in the middle of the argument, and the Underground Man begins to shout at her.

Did Liza genuinely feel love and affection for the Underground Man, or was she entirely motivated out of pity?

He tells Liza admits his impassioned speech was an attempt to exert power over her. This spiteful comment elicits Liza's pity which angers the Man even further. As Liza leaves, the Man attempts to force money into her hand, a last-ditch effort to assert his power.

Defeated and ashamed, the Underground Man concludes his notes have no moral or literary benefit and are useless. He believes all men should commit to going underground. The Underground Man says he will not go on with the notes. Dostoyevsky includes a footnote at the end saying the Underground Man did continue writing, but this seems the best place to stop.

Notes From Underground: Characters

Here's a look at the most important characters from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.

The Underground Man

The book's narrator is a Russian man in his forties who lives a secluded life in an underground of his own making. Formerly a civil servant, he has long since retired on a modest inheritance. He avoids human contact, spending most of his time reading classic literature and overthinking everything. The Underground Man often thinks himself into paralysis. While claiming to disdain others, he is often obsessed with how they view him and uses this as an excuse to remain in his Underground.

Liza

The Underground Man sleeps with Liza after failing to confront Zverkov at the brothel. Ashamed at having hired a prostitute, the Underground Man turns this shame outward by painting a nightmarish picture of the path she is headed on. Reduced to tears, Liza sees the Underground Man as her escape. When she visits him a few days later, she is compassionate and understanding. Even after the narrator lashes out in an attempt to feel better about himself, Liza displays empathy.

Simonov

The Underground Man's only friend, Simonov, is a former classmate. The narrator considers Simonov to be his one friend. He sees Simonov as more open-minded than his classmates but also believes that he finds him disgusting.

Zverkov

Another of the Underground Man's more successful classmates, Zverkov is described as handsome and well-liked. Having enjoyed success in his military career and with women, Zverkov becomes the target of the Underground Man's hatred. He embodies the type of man the narrator despises—someone who does rather than thinks. Spurned on by his insecurity, the narrator is rude and unfair to Zverkov.

Notes From Underground: Themes

Dostoyevsky uses the Underground Man to explore the problem of isolation from modern society. His pessimistic outlook on the world is an example of existentialism, and he rails against several popular philosophical concepts of the era.

Isolation and alienation

The narrator has spent the previous twenty years "underground," completely isolated from others. Through his writing, we find out that he has always felt distant from others. As an orphan, he was denied a strong bond at an early age. This isolation followed him through school and work. He is an educated man, yet feels he doesn't have the position or wealth he deserves.

Notes From Underground, an image of someone isolated, StudySmarter Fig. 3 - The Underground Man is trapped in his head, which causes him to both desire and repel the company of others.

Such prolonged loneliness has led to alienation from society and other people. While he craves a connection, he dismisses everyone else as either too stupid or too stuck up for him. Trapped in this cycle, the Underground Man fluctuates between blaming himself and society for his alienation.

His self-imposed exile from other people is extremely unhealthy as he frequently suffers bouts of paranoia. He believes people are watching his every move and judging him. At several points, he thinks others see him as an insect and refers to himself as a mouse below the floorboards. His low self-esteem is coupled with his outdated worldview on ideas of honor and justice taken from classic literature. Living entirely in his mind, he spends long periods fantasizing about exacting revenge on the higher class and degrading members of the lower class.

Philosophy

Dostoyevsky uses Notes from Underground to explore important philosophical ideas which were gaining traction in 1860s Russia.

Nihilism

Notes from Underground portrays concepts such as nihilism and rational egoism.

Nihilism is a philosophical viewpoint that rejects all traditional values and argues that everything is meaningless. The term comes from the Latin word "nihil," which means "absence of anything" or "nothing."

Nihilism became a popular political movement in Russia during the 1860s. The movement eventually attempted to violently overthrow the system. Along with other ideas like atheism, socialism, and Utopianism, nihilism is one of the political concepts the Underground Man rails against. The nihilistic idea that all traditional forms of belief had no meaning or value led to the concept of rational egoism.

Rational egoism is a branch of nihilism that argues man should only act out of self-interest. Like the utilitarian belief that utility must be valued above all else, rational egoists believe that actions must maximize a person's self-interest. They reject all ideas of society as it depends on a man acting against his self-interest. As part of a more significant social movement toward science and logic concepts, rational egoism argues that all of humanity's problems can be solved by a rational approach that places the individual above all other concerns. The Underground Man rails against this belief because he believes it ignores man's irrational and self-destructive drives.

Existentialism

Notes from Underground is an example of existentialist literature.

Existentialism is the philosophical doctrine that individuals create meaning through their subjective experience. Rejecting religious beliefs, existentialists believe that man has free will and is alone in an indifferent universe.

Existentialism developed as a philosophical concept and literary genre in the late 19th century as a reaction to modernity. Traditional values like religion and community began to erode in the face of industrialization and urbanization. Artists and thinkers began to explore the individual's struggle to find meaning in the world.

Like many other existentialist figures, the Underground Man feels disconnected from his surroundings and others. He clings to old-fashioned romantic notions and wishes to be like one of the heroic figures from classic literature to give his life purpose. While society embraces reason and logic, he sees these as neglecting man's irrationality—something he views as a critical part of human experience. Unable to find meaning, he becomes detached from those around him and hates society.

Existentialists reject any idea of meaning from traditional institutions and believe meaning is created through the individual's actions and experiences.

Notes From Underground: Analysis

Dostoyevsky wrote Notes From Underground as political change swept through Russia. New philosophies and ideas from Western Europe spread through the intellectual community. One of the most popular was nihilism, which branched into rational egoism. In 1863, radical author Nikolay Chernyshevsky published the novel What is to be Done? which argued man is inherently good and it is society's flaws that corrupt man.

Chernyshevsky saw rational egoism as the best way to restructure Russian society. Dostoyevsky, a staunch follower of the Russian Orthodox Church, was highly critical of rational egoism's criticism of organized religion. He uses Notes from Underground to counter the idea that man is inherently good. His Underground Man argues that the rational egoists ignore Man's irrational tendency, a trait he sees as an inescapable aspect of the human experience.

Dostoyevsky warns against depending on science to cure humanity's problems. He believes that a Utopia focused only on reason ignores Man's irrational urges and is doomed to fail. This type of society will continue to produce more isolated and angry people like the Underground Man.

The Underground Man is also Dostoyevsky's warning against shutting off from others. The other characters are presented from the Underground Man's perspective, we are given unfair and biased opinions of them. As an unreliable narrator, much of the Underground Man's hatred stems from his insecurity and fragile ego. Just as he hates others, he hates himself.

While Dostoyevsky deals with existentialist themes and concepts, he doesn't go as far as later existentialists like Jean-Paul Satre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). These writers rejected all institutions and meanings, whereas Dostoyevsky believed in God and argued that for man to be free, he must also accept the responsibilities of freedom. Existentialists believe that man creates sense through action. On the other hand, the Underground Man is entirely inactive and unable to create meaning.

One of the recurring symbols the Underground Man uses is the Utopian idea that all people will one day live in harmony together under the roof of a beautiful palace. The Underground Man says he would hate to live in the crystal place because in a perfect society he wouldn't be allowed to thumb his nose at anyone.

Notes From Underground, a crystal palace, StudySmarter Fig. 4 - Dostoyevsky uses the Underground Man to argue that the Utopian crystal palace is impossible because of human nature

Quotes from Notes From Underground

The Underground Man often speaks directly to his hypothetical reader. He is keen to share thoughts and musings on various issues as he tries to articulate his view of the world.

...conscious is an illness – a real thorough-going illness. For Man's everyday needs, it would have been quite enough to have the ordinary human consciousness, that is, half or a quarter of the amount which falls to the lot of a cultivated man of our unhappy nineteenth century..."

(Part 1, Ch. 2)

The biggest problem the Underground Man faces is his mind. He believes he has been cursed with intelligence and consciousness, making his tragedy even more remarkable. A fervent reader of old literature, he often romanticizes the period before the nineteenth-century age of reason. To the narrator, the development of science and logic has resulted in more unhappiness and produced intelligent people that don't take action.

Of course I have myself made up all the things you say. That, too, is from underground. I have been for forty years listening to you through a crack under the floor. I have invented them myself, there was nothing else I could invent."

(Part 1, Ch. 11)

The Underground Man acknowledges that he imagines the reader's responses and objections to his philosophy. He must imagine other people as he has completely cut himself off from them. He visualizes himself as literally underneath the floorboards staring out at others—observing but never engaging.

And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive – in other words, only what is conducive to welfare – is for the advantage of Man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage?"

(Part 1, Ch. 10)

The Underground Man challenges his hypothetical reader to justify what he stands against. While Russian intellectuals espoused the benefits of rationality and logic, the Underground Man argues that errors and irrationality are essential for the human experience. This worldview puts him out of step with almost everyone else in his society and ensures that he will remain isolated and alone.

Notes from Underground - Key takeaways

  • Notes From Underground is a novella by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
  • The narrator, known as the Underground Man, lives a secluded life away from other people.
  • The novella is a response to Utopian idealists of the age who believed that Man's problems could be solved by logic and science.
  • The novella is often considered one of the world's first works of existentialist literature.
  • The novel examines themes of isolation and alienation and explores the philosophical concepts of nihilism and existentialism.

Frequently Asked Questions about Notes From Underground

Notes From Underground was published in 1864.

Notes From Underground is about a man who purposely isolates himself from the world and other people. Acting as the narrator, the Underground Man complains about contemporary theories and then recalls an incident from his twenties that spurred on his isolation.

Notes From Underground was written by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Notes From Underground is a novella and a fairly short read. The Warbler Classics Annotated Edition is 124 pages long.

In Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky uses the narrator to share his own critique of political ideas like nihilism and Utopianism which were gaining popularity in Russia in the 1860s.

Final Notes From Underground Quiz

Question

Notes from Underground was written by ____________. 

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Answer

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Question

Notes from Underground is based in which city?

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Answer

St. Petersburg

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Question

According to the narrator, there are two types of people in the world. Those who are _______ or those who are _______. 

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Answer

Too smart, too stupid

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Question

Where was the Underground Man employed? 

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Answer

Civil Service

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Question

The Underground Man is best described as a nihilist. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Dostoyevsky uses the novel to critique Utopian ideas. 

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Answer

True

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Question

The Utopia the Underground Man rails against is represented by which building? 

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Answer

Crystal Palace

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The Underground Man's only friend from school is called ________. 

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Answer

Simonov

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Question

Notes from Underground is considered to be an early example of existentialist literature. 

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Answer

True

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Notes from Underground is set during the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

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Answer

False

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