Launchpad: Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”

By Stephen Miller and Thomas Johnson, revised by Joe Phelan

Historical Context | Existentialism and Dostoevsky | Summary | Directions for Close Reading | Thinking about the Text | Websites and Bibliography | CCSS | About the image

Introduction

"Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky", 1972, Vasily PerovIt is perhaps no surprise that Fyodor Dostoevsky is known as one of the greatest psychological writers of all time, given his own dramatic history of suffering. After being spared from the Tsar’s firing squad at the last minute, years in a Siberian gulag, and a life plagued by epilepsy, he went on to write some of the greatest psychological and existential novels in all of World literature, including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

What may surprise readers of Notes from Underground, written in 1864, is its sardonic edge and philosophical bite. The Enlightenment with its promise that modern science would conquer nature as well as the notion of the perfection of human nature captured the allegiance of young Russian radicals of the period. The progress of enlightenment, they believed, was going to solve the world’s problems once and for all. It is to this imaginary audience that the unnamed narrator of Notes, one of the most astonishing anti-heroes in all literature, lectures: “I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway.”

By satirizing the hyper-rationalism and utopian sentiments of his time, the Russian novelist forces us to confront some of the more uncomfortable tendencies of modernity. Dostoevsky’s critique of utopian thinking predicted many of the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism. Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, and Mao’s China tried to systematically direct and change human behavior through rational control of who we are and what is good for us.

More recently and closer to home, scientific developments such as cloning, robotics, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering seem to be unstoppable and raise many of the same ethical and philosophical questions. While Dostoevsky’s novels never give us final answers, they show how the question of who we are and what is good for us cannot ever be answered with a simple formula and must be rethought by each generation.

Historical Context

While Notes from Underground can be seen as a critique of the progressive view of history, government, and human perfectibility in general, the text is also a direct satire of the Russian novel What Is to Be Done by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. In this novel, a poor, uneducated girl is saved from ruin by a series of enlightened benefactors. This girl, Vera, goes on herself to found a series of workshops where through enlightened benevolence, she is able to transform quite a few other poor women into educated entrepreneurs. 

The novel directly suggests that through enlightened self-interest, we would all arrive at the same conclusion: that working together in a spirit of harmony and open-heartedness combined with scientific methods can lead to a total transformation of human society. Chernyshevsky states "...you know what the future will be. It's radiant and beautiful. Tell everyone that the future will be radiant and beautiful. Love it, strive for it, work for it, bring it nearer...to the extent that you succeed in doing so, your life will be bright and good, rich in joy and pleasure."

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why would Dostoevsky satirize this seemingly beautiful and progressive view of the future? How can idealizing human nature lead to its deformation? Why and how did Dostoevsky’s writings seemingly serve as a corrective this tendency?
  2. What danger can a utopian view of humans and their future hold for politics and society? Explain how utopianism might conceal the failings of human nature. How might this be dangerous on the macro and micro scale (for individuals as well as society)?
  3. How do you think that the Chernyshevskian worldview relates to later Soviet and fascist ideologies?

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Existentialism and Dostoevsky

The movement, identified by Jean Paul Sartre as existentialism, has deep roots in the nineteenth century in the works of three writers who were peculiarly sensitive to the shock of the new thinking about religion, politics, and philosophy: Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche. As the major novelist of the three, Dostoevsky’s relationship with the movement is complex and ambivalent.

While clearly preoccupied with such existentialist concerns as authenticity, faith, death, meaning, the bureaucratization of society, and scientific determinism, Dostoevsky himself would have rejected the existentialist viewpoint; as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, he identified faith as a resolution to existential angst. But his greatness as a writer enabled him to articulate the existentialist vision of the world in persuasive and compelling manner.

Summary

In the opening lines, the unnamed narrator tells his imaginary audience “I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man, I am an unattractive man.” This would seem to be an unpromising beginning for a novel, even a short one; yet we keep reading because the narrator is a brilliant, nasty, talker.

In Part One, the narrator engages the reader directly in describing his existential worldview, calls into question scientific claims that, as rational beings, humanity always follows self-interest. In opposition to these claims, the narrator declares “We sometimes want pure rubbish precisely because in our own stupidity, we see this rubbish as the easiest path to the attainment of some preconceived profit.”

In Part Two, the narrator recalls his early manhood. Ruled by his overweening vanity and with an imagination nourished by the fine sentiments of Romantic literature, he makes a mess of the simplest human relationships, and lives a life marked by cruelty and humiliation.

Suggestions for Close Reading

This LaunchPad makes use of the widely available Constance Garnett translation.

On the first reading, make notes of passages which seem important or puzzling. On the second reading, use the following questions to guide your analysis.

Part One

Opening Footnote

What do we learn from the author’s footnote about the character of the narrator? How does this note alert us to the broader cultural and philosophical implications of the story?

Section 1.

What inner conflicts does the narrator have? Does he have a “character” in the traditional literary sense? Why does the officer’s sword offend him so much? What conviction has he arrived at over the course of his life?

Section 2.

What’s wrong with the city of St. Petersburg according to the narrator? He identifies two types of human beings. What does each type represent? Which one does he admire? What kind of disease does the narrator have? What caused it? Why has he taken up his pen to write?

Section 3.

How does the narrator understand the ability to “stand up for oneself?” What does the metaphor of the “wall” signify? What does the narrator mean by the “laws of nature?” What is the “ache” he mentions in the last sentence?

Section 4.

Why does he think an “educated man of the nineteenth century…affected by progress and European civilization” takes pleasure in making his family suffer when he has a toothache?

Section 5.

What does he mean by saying “the laws of nature have continually all my life offended me?” What is relationship between vengeance and justice in this section? How does the narrator explain his inability to act? Can he get angry? Why or why not? What is the relationship between spite and anger?

Section 6.

The narrator insists in this section that his inertia is not the same as laziness, yet he would have respected himself more if it had been simply a lazy hedonist. Why?

Section 7.

In this section, the narrator introduces the doctrine of enlightened self-interest. How does he go about attacking this doctrine? What evidence does he use? What do his opponents mean by “most advantageous advantage?” What does he mean? How could there be anything advantageous about denying two plus two makes four?

Section 8.

What is “the teaching of science” regarding choice and freedom of the will? Discuss the metaphor of the piano key. What definition of man does the narrator reject? What definition does he replace it with? What is his evidence? How seriously should we take this argument?

Section 9.

What argument does he use against those who wish to “cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense?” Why does consciousness need suffering?

Section 10.

What does the narrator reveal about true desires or real needs in this section?

Section 11.

Why is the narrator writing this work? What does he mean by saying there is a “whole psychology” in what he writes?

Part Two

Section 1.
The narrator says “every decent man of our age must be a coward and a slave.” Is this merely self-justification on the narrator’s part or does he have a point? How does the narrator distinguish Russian “romantics” from the French and German variety? Analyze the incident with the officer.

Section 2.

The narrator admits to wanting to “dominate” even to “tyrannize” his schoolmates and others. Why does his desire result in his humiliation? What point is Dostoevsky making?

Section 3.

Why would the narrator have imposed himself on a group of friends who do not welcome his presence?

Section 4.

Analyze the scene in the restaurant. What does the narrator want to achieve and what does he achieve?

Section 5.
What causes the narrator to be cruel to Liza? What does his cruelty consist of?

Section 9.
Why can’t he forgive Liza for hearing his confession about himself?

Section 10.
What does the narrator mean when he says, “excuse me, gentlemen, I am not justifying myself with that 'all of us'. As for what concerns me in particular I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what's more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves.”

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Thinking about the Text

  1. Why do you think Part I, set in the 1860’s, comes before Part 2 set in the 1840s? Do you think these earlier episode in the narrator’s life formed his ideas about human nature, as expressed in Part I? If so why reverse the order? What are the benefits?
  2. Recently, critic David Denby in “Can Dostoevsky Still Kick You in the Gut?” (New Yorker, June 11, 2012) has noted the remarkable influence of the Notes on 20th-century culture. “Certainly, Nietzsche’s writings, Freud’s theory of neurosis, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Bellow’s Herzog, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, perhaps Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and half of Woody Allen’s work wouldn’t have been the same without the existence of this ornery, unstable, unmanageable text.” Pick a work of fiction or nonfiction of your own choosing that shows the influence of Notes from Underground. Discuss how the Notes is used. Be sure to cite several pieces of evidence from the text in your argument.

Recommended Websites and Print Bibliography

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 1996.

Crowell, Steven, "Existentialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Print editions

Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Gavrilovich, and Michael R. Katz. What Is to Be Done? Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics. 1994.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.1
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.2
Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.3
Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

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 ABOUT THE IMAGE

 Vasily Perov, Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1872. Oil on canvas. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.