Notes from Underground is a novella written in 1864 by Fyodor Dostoevsky and considered to be one of the first existentialist novels. Its form is an excerpt from the memoirs of an unnamed narrator (referred to as the Underground Man), a former low-rank civil servant that lives in St. Petersburg.
The first part, “Underground”, is a monologue, the diary of the underground man, an attack against the new Western philosophy, mainly the revolutionary novel What Is to Be Done? Written by the “rational egoist” Nikolay Chernyshevsky in 1863. The second part of the novella is entitled “À propos of the Wet Snow”, and describes some events that sometimes destroy or renew the underground man, who has the role of the first person, anti-hero, an indecisive victim of his society and untrustworthy narrator.
Dostoevsky analyses the effects that modern life has on the personality of this man at the margin of the society that Dostoevsky continued to explore in his subsequent works. While in prison in Siberia, Dostoevsky learned that the Russian undereducated workers and the peasants would associate progressive thinkers and the upper class that used to oppress them and restrict their freedom. Dostoevsky believed that in order to for the Russian people to live in harmony, they needed to go back to the traditional values of Russia, such as family, religion, personal responsibility and brotherly love.
The Underground Man from “Notes from Underground” expresses Dostoevsky’s ideas and an example of the type of problems that the modern society produced in Russia. Similar to Dostoevsky, the Underground Man criticises rational egoism and the totalitarian visions of the utopia. He criticizes all dogmatism. At the same time, he is a victim of the modern Russian urban experience. Deprived of positive social interactions, the Underground Man tries to relate to the world according to the codes and examples he finds in European literature. The failure of his attempts to relate to the world in accordance with the codes of European literature make him even more isolated and bitter and take him deeper underground.
The anonymous story-teller of Notes from Underground is a misanthropic and bitter man who lives alone in the 1860s in the town of St. Petersburg, Russia. He is a Russian civil service veteran who retired after getting an inheritance. The novel is made of the “notes” written by the man, a contradictory and confused set of confessions or memoirs that describe and explain his alienation from the Russian modern society.
Notes from Underground has two sections. The first section, entitled “Underground”, is shorter than the second one and the action takes place in the 1860s. The Underground Man is forty years old. This part is an introduction to his character and explains his theories and his hostile position towards the Russian society. The first thing the Underground Man says is that he is “a sick man . . . a wicked man . . . an unattractive man”. He tells the readers that he is “neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect”. He is a very intelligent and well-read man who believes that this is the cause of his misery.
The Underground Man believes that, in a modern society, all educated and conscious men should be as disconsolate as he is. He has grown disillusioned with the whole philosophy. He appreciates the sublime, the Romantic idea of “beautiful and lofty”, but knows how absurd this is in the context of his mundane and petty existence. The Underground Man disdains 19th-century utilitarianism, the school of thought attempting to use logical proofs and mathematical formulas to align the desires of man’s with his interests. The Underground Man protests that primary desire of man is to use his free will, irrespective of whether it is in his best interest or not.
Faced to utilitarianism, man can do unproductive and ugly things merely to prove that you cannot predict free will, so it is totally free. This explains in part why the Underground Man’s insists that he likes his liver pains or toothaches, as a manner of spiting life’s predictability in modern society, who accepts without questioning the value of seeing a doctor.
The Underground Man is however not very proud of this futile behaviour. He despises himself as a human being. “Can a man possessing consciousness ever really respect himself?” he asks the reader. He knows that he is so defeated by inertia that he can’t become wicked as much as he should be a rascal, or unimportant enough to be an insect, or as lazy as he should be a true lounger.
The second part of Notes from Underground, called “Apropos of the Wet Snow”, practically illustrates the abstract ideas set forth by the Underground Man in the first section. This part describes the Underground Man’s progression from his inexperienced perspective, influenced by “the beautiful and lofty” and Romanticism to his more mature point of view in 1860, full of cynicism about loftiness, beauty and, essentially, literariness.
“Apropos of the Wet Snow” presents interactions between the narrator and different people who live in his world: prostitutes, soldiers, former schoolmates. The Underground Man is very withdrawn from these people, so he is totally unable to have a normal relationship with them. He treats them with a combo of fear and disgust that results in his humiliation, which then results in self-loathing and remorse.
The alienation of the Underground Man’s can be seen in all types of relationships. When he is having a walk in the park, he gets obsessed about yielding the right of way to an unknown soldier, who had been kicked out of the bar because he had been fighting. The Underground Man enters the bar, believing that he can get into a fight. He gets into an officer’s way on purpose, but the officer pushes him aside without a word, not looking at him.
He wants to challenge the officer to a duel but afterwards realizes that all the people would laugh at him for talking about honour in literary Russian. So he goes home and he then sees the officer often around St. Petersburg. He writes him a letter but doesn’t send it to him. He frequently sees the officer on a certain street and all the time gets out of his way when they nearly walk into each other. Afterwards, he wants to bump into the officer but not move out of his way in order to defy him. He borrows some money from his head of the office to buy smart clothes for their encounter. He tries to walk into the officer but keeps getting out of the way in the last minute. He eventually bumps into the officer, but the officer does not see the Underground Man. He is convinced that the officer was only pretending not to see him, so he feels “avenged for everything”
But soon his happiness wears off and he escapes from his depression in his dreams about “all that was beautiful and sublime”. He dreams for three months that he is a hero, like one of Lord Byron’s works, and everybody loves him. Then, in a strange attempt to have social interaction, the protagonist follows on purpose some of his school acquaintances to dinner, but he is not welcome, they treat him like “some sort of ordinary house fly”, so he alternates between openly insulting them and craving their friendship and attention.
Later that evening, the Underground Man tries to rescue a beautiful young prostitute whose name is Liza through sentimental and passionate speeches about the horrible fate she will have if she goes on selling her body. He tells Liza the story of a dead prostitute who was being carried in a coffin he saw earlier that day and describes the ugly life of a prostitute. They speak about marriage and families and the Underground Man tells her to go away from the brothel, saying that the married life is “pure bliss”. He tells her that if she goes on with her life as a prostitute she will certainly lose everything: beauty, youth, health, and hope”, and will end up dead, so nobody will remember her. She cries, then the Underground Man invites her home and gives her his address.
She does not come for a few days and the Underground Man describes Apollon, his servant, as being disobedient and arrogant. One day, he tries to force Apollon to beg for his wage, but he just stares at the Underground Man until he snaps and asks Apollon to show him some respect before getting his money.
Several days later, when Liza comes to visit the Underground Man in his shoddy apartment, he reacts in anger and shame when he understands that she has reasons to look down or pity him. The Underground Man keeps insulting Liza during her visit. He says to her that he does not pity her and asks her to leave him alone. She embraces him then he bursts into hysterical tears.
When he recovers, the Underground Man cannot return any affection to her, and tells her to leave him alone in “peace and quiet.” When Liza is getting ready to leave, he “out of spite” slips money into her hand, but Liza refuses to take it. Confused and hurt, she leaves him in his apartment and goes away. He runs after her and dreams how he would “fall down before her, sob with remorse, kiss her feet, and beg her forgiveness,” but does not follow her anymore. He tells the readers that he has not seen her ever since, and feels ashamed about his notes.
At this point, the Underground Man ends the notes. At the end of the novel, in a footnote, Dostoevsky indicates that the Underground Man failed to make even the simple decision of stop writing because Dostoevsky claims that the Notes manuscript has many pages after the point at which he chose to end it.
The Underground Man – is the protagonist and anonymous narrator of the novel. He is a former civil servant living in the St. Petersburg of the 19th century who has withdrawn completely to what he likes to call the “underground”, a kind of complete isolation and alienation from society. Greatly misanthropic, the protagonist believes that he is more intelligent and more perceptive than other people, but at the same time disdains himself and often feels humiliated or inferior. All the characters and events in the novel are presented from the Underground Man’s slant perspective.
Liza – is a young prostitute that the Underground Man attempts to rescue after having sex with her at the brothel. Liza is somehow innocent and shy, despite what she is doing and her response the Underground Man’s effort to convince her that she is wrong to have this profession is emotional. She is affectionate and nice, but she also is proud and noble.
Simonov – is the Underground Man’s former schoolmate, the only person that the protagonist still maintains a relationship. He considers Simonov to be independent, honest and not that narrow-minded as most people are. The Underground Man however also suspects that Simonov disdains him and finds that friendship is burdensome.
Zverkov – is Simonov’s friend and also Underground Man’s former schoolmate. Zverkov is an army officer who is successful and liked by all his friends. During their school days, the Underground Man used to hate Zverkov, as he considered him to be boastful, coarse and stupid. Also, he is envious of Zverkov’s confidence, wealth, and popularity.
Ferfichkin is another former schoolmate of the Underground Man who admires Zverkov. Ferfichkin was the Underground Man’s worst enemy in school. The Underground Man describes him as cowardly, impudent and foolish and indicates that Zverkov often lends money to Ferfichkin.
Trudolyubov – is also the Underground Man’s former schoolmate whom he sees at Simonov’s house and at Zverkov’s farewell party. He is an honest man who treats the Underground Man politely. The Underground Man claims that he was usually treated “as a nonentity” by Trudolyubov.
Apollon – is the Underground Man’s old servant. Apollon lives with him and reluctantly carries out household chores for him. The Underground Man believes that Apollon is judging him all the time and that he is dreadfully vain. The Underground Man hates how Apollon talks and his looks.
Anton Antonych Setochkin – is the head of the department in the ministry. Anton Antonych is Underground Man’s best friend. He sometimes borrows money from Anton Antonych and visits him at home on Tuesdays when he has wanted to socialise.
The Officer – is a military man who one night treats the Underground Man contemptuously in a tavern so he wants to take revenge on him for many years. The Underground Man hates the officer for his physical prowess, rank, confidence and wealth, but also feels intimidated by him due to the same reasons, so he cannot act against him.
Fyodor Dostoevsky Biography
Fyodor Dostoevsky, born in Moscow in 1821, is considered to be one of the world’s greatest literary psychologists and novelists. His father was a doctor and educated him at the beginning at home, afterwards in a boarding school. When he was a little boy, his father sent him to the Academy of Military Engineering of St. Petersburg until 1843, when he graduated. After graduation, Dostoevsky resigned from his military post to dedicate himself to writing. Poor Folk (1846), his first novel, was appreciated by the critics right away.
Dostoevsky’s experiences with regard to social injustice shaped his view of the world. When he was 26, Dostoevsky started to take part in socialist circles, mainly due to his opposition to serfdom. His opinions were greatly influenced by his experience when he was young (his father was killed by his serfs while Dostoevsky was at school.
Another sad experience that affected Dostoevsky a lot and was reflected in his writings was the period he spent in prison. In April 1849, he was arrested for participating in a group that distributed socialist propaganda. After eight months in prison, Dostoevsky got a death sentence and was taken to be shot, together with other group members. The execution however turned out to be merely a show that was meant to punish everybody psychologically.
After this near-death experience, Dostoevsky spent 4 years in a labour camp in Siberia, then served as a military man for another 4. While in prison, he despised his Socialist views and adhered to the conservative, traditional and Russian values (this change of ideology can be seen throughout his subsequent works.
Dostoevsky spent the 1860s in Western Europe, learning about the European culture that he thought to be interfering in Russia (he explores this issue in Notes from Underground). Those years in Europe were very difficult for Dostoevsky, because he struggled with epilepsy, poverty and his addiction to gambling. When Crime and Punishment was published in 1866, he became popular and got critical success, so he was rescued from his financial disaster.
His subsequent novel, The Brothers Karamazov (written in 1880) made him even more successful as a writer. Dostoevsky was a pioneer of Realism in modern novels, and Notes from Underground (1864) and his subsequent novels belong to this genre. The realist writers (Charles Dickens in England, Honoré de Balzac in France and Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol in Russia, among others analysed the whole aim of the novel. Realism focuses on real people, in general poor students, city dwellers, lowly craftsmen, prostitutes and other kinds of characters who in previous literature had been ridiculed or protagonists of comic stories.
Dostoevsky’s works, considered the culmination of realism, aims at portraying the reality in all its difficulty and complexity.