Notes from Underground

A Study guide by

Jen Marder, Mike Meyer, and Fred Wyshak



Arguably one of the greatest novelists in history, Fyodor Dostoevsky is especially notable for interweaving deep philosophical, psychological and theological threads into his brilliant fiction. As a result, his works become much more than stimulating, entertaining stories but actual representation of 19th century intellectual history. This can not be any more true for his most philosophical work of all, Notes from Underground. Notes is Dostoevsky's groundbreaking philosophical prologue to his later novels, and it 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.
Notes provides a greater perspective in European thought. The 19th century was the characterized by a brutal polarization of existential thinking in which there was no synthesis. Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche epitomize this philosophical schism: at one end, Dostoevsky calls for Man to embrace faith and Christian morality; at the other stands Nietzsche, rejecting religion as unnatural and entreating Man to transgress contemporary moral values. By the turn of the century, Man and God were still as much a mystery as before, and so remain.
In Notes, Dostoevsky shows us the Underground Man, a despicable and pitiable creature who betrays himself and is not even aware of it. He is the creation of a thoroughly anti-modern author imploring his fellow Russians to resign from the West.

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Notes from Underground was first published in January and February of 1864 as the featured presentation in the first two issues of The Epoch, Dostoevsky's second journal of the 1860's. His first journal, Time, had recently failed, his new journal was threatened with failure, his wife was dying, his financial position was becoming evermore difficult and embarrassing, his conservatism was eroding his popularity with the liberal majority of the reading public, and he was increasingly the subject of attack by the liberal and radical press. On March 20, 1864, Dostoevsky wrote to his brother Mikhail: "I sat down to work on my novel. I want to get it off my back as soon as possible, but I still want to do it as well as possible. It has been harder to write than I thought it would be. Still it is absolutely necessary that it be good: I personally want it to be good. The tone now seems too strange, sharp and wild; perhaps it will not right itself; if not, the poetry will have to soften it and carry it off."
Many aspects of Notes from Underground, - and especially, as Dostoevsky himself noticed, the tone - seem strange, sharp and even bitter. 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, however, 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.
While Dostoevsky was in prison and exile, these ideas of utopian socialism were becoming stronger in Russia. They passed from the dreams of the 1840s to the basic revolutionary program of the late 1850's and 1860s. Dostoevsky however, had concluded from his observations while in exile, that there was more to man than reason and enlightenment. He became convinced that men were capable of the irrational as well as the rational, and that, in fact, the irrational was in many ways man's essential element and the rational was often only a flimsy construction built upon it. More than any of his other fictional works, Notes from Underground clearly expresses this conclusion about the essential composition of the human mind.
In addition to expressing Dostoevsky's debate with the liberals and radicals of his time, Notes from Underground can also be seen as a specific and direct polemic with one of the most famous revolutionary novels of the 1860's, N.G. Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? Chernyshevsky was the leader of the radicalist movement in Russia. In 1862 he was arrested, and during solitary confinement lasting 678 days he wrote What is to be Done?, which became his most famous work. This book has the general appearance of a novel but is really more a handbook of radicalism. The tenuous plot serves primarily to link one monologue of conversation on a point of radical policy with the next. The "revolutionary youth" of the time used What is to be Done? as a guide to behavior and ideology for the next twenty years. Rakhemtov, the hero of the novel, became the prototype of hard-headed materialism and pragmatism, of total dissatisfaction with the government, and of the self-sacrificing nobility of spirit that was the ideal of many of the radical intelligentsia.

Critical Responses to Notes from the Underground

In general, many critics have taken Notes as an ideological document rather than as a novel. Thus, criticism has been radically divided: on one hand, warm praise for the novel from admirers of Dostoevsky's views on personality and ideology, and on the other, denunciation from the liberal, optimistic, common-sensical and rationalist camp. This division in critical thought existed from the very beginning. M.E. Saltykov-Schedrin(1826-1899), a journalist and novelist of liberal and sometimes radical political slant, was one of the first to attack Notes from Underground. His review, which appeared in the Contemporary in May of 1864, was a sharply satirical attack, focused especially upon the portrayal of the main character; he dismissed him as the product of a troubled mind, and as irrelevant to the human condition in general. At the same time, Apollon Grigorev (1822-1864), the most influential critic among Dostoevsky's friends and supporters, published a review in which he greatly praised the novel. First, he said, Notes offers an extremely perceptive and profound view of man. Second, the novel deserves praise for its high crafted construction (especially the relation between the two parts) and for its beautiful style. As had happened so often before, the opinion of the liberal critics prevailed. Dostoevsky's portrayal of the structure of the human mind and of human motivation was new and surprising to many people of his time. Most people found it hard to accept the idea that the Underground Man was in any way related to them. As a result, it was easy for them to dismiss the entire work as a fantasy or, at best, as an interesting study of a disturbed mind. This was so often the fate of Dostoevsky's works. Even today, the name of people who regard the novel in this way is legion. In the Soviet Union, Notes from Underground was usually regarded as the darkest blot, with the possible exception of The Possessed, on Dostoevsky's record as an author. In the West, too, one often meets this view, though at present, very rarely in print. Yet one suspects the attitude is there, slumbering until fashions in criticism again allow it to appear.
For N.K. Mikhaylovksy (1842-1904) Notes from Underground was the prime example of that "menagerie of beasts and prey" of which he maintained Dostoevsky was the cruel and heartless trainer. Further, in his essay "A Cruel Talent," Mikhaylovsky wrote: Dostoevsky purposely teases his animals, shows them a sheep or a piece of bloody meat, beats them with a whip or a red hot iron, in order to observe one detail or another of their anger and cruelty û to look for himself and, of course, to show it to the public. Of "that section of the menagerie which is called Notes from Underground" Mikhaylovsky wrote that "the hero tortures because he want to, he likes torture. There is neither reason nor purpose here, and, in the opinion of Dostoevsky, they are not at all necessary, for absolute cruelty and fur sich is interesting."
V.V.Rozanov (1856-1919) approached Dostoevsky's work as a student of philisophical and religious thought. He had already rejected positivism, materialism and rationalism,a nd the approach to Dostoevsky advocated by rationalists like Mikhaylovskya nd Dobrolyubov. Rozanov found in Dostoevsky a spiritual teacher and leader and valued him as a great prophet. he was one of the first to point out that, in many ways, Notes from Underground was the intellectual key to understanding the novels that followed it. To him Notes was a sort of textbook to the mature works of Dostoevsky. According to Rozanov, Notes concerned itself with the following major points: 1) criticism of the idea that it is possible for humankind, by means of reason, to create a perfect society and to abolish suffering. 2) the idea that human imperfection is a law of nature and the cause of human suffering; by this reasoning suffering is, if not justified, at least made acceptable. 3) the idea that humans are essentially irrational and incomprehensible beings, capable of the most noble and at the same time the most base actions.
Notes from Underground has met with far greater success in the West than in Russia. Unlike Soviet scholars, Western critics do not compile lengthy lists of personal calamities to account for the tone and ideas of the novel. They have, in general, worked from the notion that Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground as he did, not because his wife was dying, his epilepsy was worsening, or his financial position was bad, but simply because the way he did it was the way he wanted to do it. Notes from Underground is assigned a most prominent place among within Dostoevsky's works by existentialist critics. Jean-Paul Sartre especially, has found in the Underground Man a forerunner and spokesperson for existential philosophy. To Sartre, the book and the character are especially important in the clear acknowledgment they make of man's essentially irrational nature.
Perhaps the most balanced work on Notes is the section devoted to it in Edward Wasiolek's book, Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction. Wasiolek works with the novel, mainly from the philisophical rather than aesthetic viewpoint. He understands its value in much the same way as Rozanov did, as a key to understanding the longer novels. Wasiolek outlines the major themes touched upon by Dostoevsky through the Underground Man as: 1) attack on rationalism, 2) attack on social utopianism and materialism, 3) the vision of man as a being who is capable of the most incredible generosity and nobility and, at the same time, also of the greatest baseness, 4) the portrayal of man's motives as stemming ultimately from man's slavish desire to gratify his own self-will. Furthermore, Wasiolek points out the ambiguity of Dostoevsky's portrayal of the Underground Man. In the novel the underground man is both a thoroughly despicable and petty person and a "hero," a typical man. Dostoevsky's ambiguous relation to the underground man is typical of his apparent relation to the strong - willed heroes of his later novels - Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov.

Critical Analyses and Reading Guides


One way to read Notes from Underground is to read it as a political statement by Dostoevsky. It is a reactionary work to Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be done?. Chernyshevksy was an atheist, a socialist, and a feminist. The book, written in 1863, has a tone of utilitariansim and utopianism. In it Chernyshevsky developed Vara Pvalovna's 4th dream in which she saw the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. She marveled at the graceful architecture. The people in it were singing a song that contained a verse, "live like kings." She couldn't stop exclaiming how elegant it was. Dostoevsky hated this book because of all the progressive ideas it contains. He wrote Notes in reaction to it. What is to be done? appeals to rationalism, reason, Darwinism, and all the modern ideas which Dostoevsky vehemently hated. In Notes, Dostoevsky included many symbols to show that rationalism and science were not acceptable for mankind to live by. For example, the anthill, mathematical tables, a piano key, and evolutionism. For the anthill, imagine all the ants working to build their anthill. There is no individuality when all the ants are working towards a common objective. To Dostoevksy the mathematical tables represented something you can pull down and get an answer to any question you want about the human condition. Dostoevsky feared someday we would have the entire human existence mapped out. He was against the explanation of human behavior in a scientific fashion. The piano key represented a deterministic feature beginning to show up in society that Dostoevsky did not like. Finally, from monkey to man, this idea was most contemptible of all, give Dostoevsky's religious background. However, the greatest example of science and modernity that Dostoevsky presents to the reader is the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace was a structure built in 1851 in London. It was the first modern building. It was made entirely out of glass and iron. This palace was supposed to be as good as it gets. It was utopianism brought out into real life. To Dostoevsky it represented reason, science and logic. Humans were submitting to organized living. It was a glass building, there was no privacy. Since there was no privacy, and many people worked together towards a common goal, there was little individualism.

History of the Crystal Palace

The splendid "Crystal Palace," which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park in the center of London, was one of the most remarkable constructions of entertainment in London. the other being Alexandra Palace built in 1873. After the 1851 exhibition, the entire building was dismantled and moved to a new permanent site on parkland at Sydenham in the south London suburbs. The area became known as Crystal Palace. The destruction of the building by fire in 1936 left a void in the park which has never been filled.

For pictures of the interior and exterior of this amazing building, go to: