“Notes from Underground” is commonly considered Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first great novel. Many of the themes in this novella are further developed in his later books, particularly in “Crime and Punishment.” As Swarthmore English professor Philip Weinstein noted in the lecture on “Notes from Underground” held last week, “[the man from underground is] a quarry that Dostoevsky went back to for the next fifteen years.” “Notes from Underground” is Dostoevsky’s first attempt at writing the intelligent, introverted and deeply tormented character with whom he identified.
The novella is written in two parts, which are chronologically backwards. The first part, “Underground,” is the man from underground writing about his philosophy on life. The second part, “Apropos of Wet Snow,” is a slightly more plot-revolving section, observing the narrator’s dysfunctional relationship with society. Part II can be seen as an explanation of the tormented man we meet in Part I; it seeks to walk the reader down the path that led the narrator to his troubled state.
From the beginning of the novella, it is clear that this narrator is an unpleasant, miserable man. It opens, “I am a sick man … I am a wicked man” (3). Thus, from the very first sentence, we are warned that we are about to meet a “wicked” soul. And whatever preparation this opening sentence fails to provide us is immediately compensated for within the first paragraph, for the narrator’s voice is vicious, demonstrating his argumentative, arrogant disposition. In the very first paragraph he assumes, “Now, you will certainly not be so good as to understand this. Well, sir, but I understand it” (3). He argues with the reader constantly, assuming that he or she will disagree with him on every point and find him altogether loathsome. As critic Lev Shestov wrote, “How much the mere tone of ‘Notes from Underground’ is worth!” From the way the underground man assaults the reader from the very beginning, one gains an immediate awareness of his nature. To be blunt, one is perhaps not surprised to discover that the narrator secludes himself underground.
Part I: “Underground” is a critical response to Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “What is to be Done?” Chernyshevsky’s novel, which is often considered a handbook on Russian radicalism, demonstrates the intellectual’s attempt to use logic to understand human action. The narrator acknowledges that some believe “man does dirty only because he doesn’t know his real interests” (20). Dostoevsky’s great rejection of Chernyshevsky’s novel and Russian radicalism revolves around the fact that human beings do not always behave logically, if logical behavior is defined as a man acting for his own profit. The man from underground makes this argument by explaining that, if specific laws of nature govern all human behavior, then human beings are no longer accountable for their own actions; they act simply according to law. Thus, on the contrary, man will sacrifice everything, including his own profit, to demonstrate his freedom. He writes, “man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and wherever it may lead” (26). His argument is essentially that humans cannot stand to feel like boxcars on a track; they will do whatever necessary — even sabotage themselves — to feel as if they control their own lives.
Moving into Part II, we begin to understand who the man from the underground is. Most striking to me is the deep insecurity the reader detects behind this arrogant, vain man. He is incapable of relating to others because he is afraid of what they will think of him. We can see this in the way the man from underground attacks us, assuming we will not understand him. Though some may see these preemptive attacks as demonstrations of arrogance, if one looks closely and examines the man from underground, it becomes clear that he is reeling with insecurity. He does not believe others will understand him, nor does he believe they will even try. Instead, he believes that he is and will forever be alone in the world, and he doesn’t want this to be the case. When he grows tired of solitude he reaches out to the world, but admits that he has no acquaintances. And here his arrogance breaks, for he is lonely and incapable of being social.
This insecurity becomes clearer as we observe his interactions with others. In Part II, he admits that part of his solitude is accounted for by his need to dominate everyone around him. He claims that he once had a friend, but then admits, “once he had given himself wholly to me, I immediately started to hate him and pushed him away — as if I had needed him only to … bring him into subjection” (68). Out of the underground man’s insecurity arises a need to legitimize himself by controlling others. In a tragic scene, the underground man attempts to withhold his servant, Apollon’s, wages. His plan is to dent Apollon’s dignity by forcing him to request his wages and therefore admit that he is financially dependent upon the underground man. Yet, his plan is destroyed when he needs Apollon to run an errand for him. The underground man is inferior even to his own employee: the one person whom he should be able to control.
So what explains the haunting nature of “Notes from Underground?” What makes this novella achingly disturbing is that it is left unresolved. Dostoevsky makes no attempt to construct a happy ending or leave the reader with a bit of hope. As Russian professor Brian Johnson noted, “Dostoevsky was not trying to console anyone.” After Liza, the underground man’s only chance at happiness and the only person he could ever love, leaves, he writes, “I was a loathsome man and, above all, incapable of loving her” (125). He accepts that he is doomed to eternal solitude. The book ends without a crescendo. It sinks deeper and deeper into misery, and the final pages seal his hopeless life.
However, there is one last element that sinks “Notes from Underground” into one’s mind, and that is the reader’s uncontrollable identification with the narrator. Inevitably, we see ourselves inside this wicked man. He says himself that he “[has] merely carried to an extreme in [his] life what [we] have not dared to carry even halfway” (130). The tragic irony is that the man from underground believes that he is the brave one, for he is the intellectual unleashed, and yet, he is the heartbreaking figure who will be miserable all his life before dying alone.
Dostoevsky’s language is clear and easy to understand, but in order to accurately convey the narrator’s personality, he must write in a pugnacious tone, which can be difficult to take.
There is very little plot in Notes from Underground, especially in Part I. Part II includes some plot, but it is thin. Those seeking fascinating, quick-turning plots should look elsewhere.
Notes from Underground is entirely about ideas. They are rich and fully developed.
Difficulty: A (A is difficult, F is easy)
The novella is difficult to get through. Despite being a short book, each page feels long, perhaps mostly because it is so painful to endure the never-ending misery of the underground man.
Lanie is a first-year. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.