Notes from Underground Study Guide
The novel, written in 1864, reflects the changes in Dostoevsky's thought that had occurred as a result of recent events in his life. As a result of his liberal political leanings, Dostoevsky was sentenced to death along with a group of liberals in 1849. At the last moment, they were told that their lives had been pardoned by the Tsar and they were sentenced instead to exile and hard labor in Siberia. From 1850 to 1854, Dostoevsky was in Siberia and then served in the army for the next four years. In 1859, having gotten married, Dostoevsky was allowed to return to St. Petersburg and to start writing. He wrote a novel about his experience in Siberia and then, after visiting Western Europe, wrote another book about his experience there.
The time spent in prison and the visit to Europe served to drastically alter Dostoevsky's world view. In the 1840s he had been a romantic and a liberal, defending the Western ideas of utopia, materialism, and rationalism. In Siberia he interacted with common people who were not members of the intelligentsia and discovered that they viewed the intellectuals with the same distaste as the ruling class. As a result, Dostoevsky turned against his previous utopian beliefs. While he was in prison, the ideals of Western Europe penetrated Russian more and more, so that the utopianism of the 1840s with which he had been involved had become integrated into a wider liberal movement by the 1860s. Dostoevsky's visit to Europe, where he saw the symbol of utopian ideals?the crystal palace, made him even more skeptical of the liberal position.
The bitterness of the novel can also be partially attributed to the circumstances of Dostoevsky's life at the time. In 1863, Vremia, the journal he had started with his brother, was banned for political reasons. His new journal, Epokha, was in deep financial difficulty almost from the start. Dostoevsky himself was not in much better shape financially, and his career was in trouble as well. Since he had turned against the liberal ideal, his readers branded him a conservative and viciously attacked him. On top of this, Dostoevsky's wife was dying of tuberculosis.
We can now sketch out the direct origins of the novel. Part II shows the Underground Man caught up in the literary world of fantasy and unable to address reality. He is a symbol for the romantics of the 1840s, who were extremely idealistic but did little to support their ideals in action. Dostoevsky's writing here is at least partly autobiographical, since he himself had belonged to the ?40s liberal circles. Dostoevsky's criticism of the romantics is also a criticism of himself, since he was as enchanted by the utopian ideals of the West as the others. Part I is primarily a polemic directed against N. G. Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? This novel expressed the liberal ideals of the 1860s, insisting that the spread of reason would eventually lead to a perfect world. In the Notes, Dostoevsky attacks this idea as overly na?ve. He opposes the spread of Western rationalist ideas, believing instead in the necessity of a return to purely Russian ideals. In place of reason and materialism, Dostoevsky wants to offer the Christian ideals of love and self-sacrifice, showing that the liberals miss these entirely. Dostoevsky also implicitly attacks the liberals' tendency to blame Russia's problems on anything but themselves, insisting that human beings must take responsibility for themselves. The Underground Man demonstrates the absurdity of refusing responsibility most clearly, as he attempts to blame his depravity not on himself but on the laws of nature and on his own consciousness.
Another source for the novel was The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There, Rousseau had attempted to show how his natural innocent self was corrupted by society and culture. Dostoevsky's protagonist is also corrupted, but though culture and society are much to blame, it seems that the Underground Man contributes quite a bit to his own depravity. The novel intentionally plays off of The Confessions (Dostoevsky had earlier announced his novel under the title of A Confession), substituting the overly conscious anti-hero for Rousseau's innocent man of truth and nature.
The novel was published in two parts, each printed complete in an issue of Epokha. It was largely ignored by critics at the time and widely disliked. In Soviet Russia, critics who wanted to glorify Dostoevsky without accepting the darkness of the Notes marginalized the novel in the author's oeuvre. In the West, the work has often been separated into two parts, with the first part being taken as a prototype for Existentialism. To separate the two parts seems, however, a mistake. The second part demonstrates the Underground Man's relations to other human beings, something that the first part only hints at. The two parts are intimately linked, and the climax of the first part is bypassed the climax of the second. Dostoevsky's message is carried in chapter 9 of Part II, so critics who ignore the second part of the book clearly miss the point of the novel.
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Notes from Underground Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Notes from Underground is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Are you referring to Part one Chapter 1?
Asked by Boiiii H #549311
Answered by Aslan on 8/31/2016 4:48 AM View All Answers
The Underground Man
The narrator of the novel. He is a solitary being, unable to make lasting acquaintances with others. Though he is poor, he has an extremely high opinion of himself, despising others for not recognizing his moral superiority to.
Asked by mike b #508658
Answered by jill d #170087 on 3/11/2016 7:45 PM View All Answers
It is called “Notes from the Overfed,” and yes, it is written by Woody Allen. The collection of essays it can be found in is called “Getting Even.” You can find the collection on Amazon.
Asked by mitsunori s #268453
Answered by jill d #170087 on 11/2/2014 11:40 PM View All Answers
Study Guide for Notes from Underground
Notes from Underground study guide contains a biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
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Notes from the Underground
Notes from the Underground Summary
How It All Goes Down
The Underground Man, our first-person narrator, begins by telling us how hateful and unattractive he is. It seems he’s been living “underground” for 20 years, unable to act in any way because he’s so intelligent he can debunk any justification for doing so. Intelligent men, he says, can never become anything – and he himself is the case in point.
The Underground Man reveals that he is 40 years old and living in St. Petersburg, Russia. He used to be a civil servant, but he inherited some money and retired, all the more time for discoursing on his life’s many problems. Despite his surroundings of mire and filth, he sometimes experiences attacks of “the sublime and beautiful,” American Beauty -style moments where is taken by the awe-inspiring things of the world (art, philosophy, love). His narration takes the form of a retort – he imagines his reader responding to his absurd claims, so he fills in our half of the conversation and then responds in turn.
His first big argument concerns free will and the laws of nature. He chooses 2+2=4 to represent all the laws of reason, and asks how we can all be free if we have to accept 2+2=4, even if want it to equal five. A normal man, a man of action, will just accept it, but he, a man of hyper-consciousness, cannot.
Next we move to the subject of suffering. Suffering, the Underground Man argues, is enjoyable, particularly when you’re conscious of it. For instance, when he knows he’s at rock bottom and has no chance of ever getting better, he takes pleasure in that.
Intentional suffering, he later explains, has a lot to do with free will and the laws of nature that we’ve already mentioned. The Underground Man considers that we may someday figure out all the laws of nature, and then be able to predict what everyone will do, think, and want. Were this to happen, he predicts, man would just go mad to escape the determinism. If you tell man that he will act according to reason, that he will always pursue his best interests, he will consciously act against that just because he can. Man will cause destruction and chaos to prove that he has free will.
The Underground Man uses this as a reason to reject the idea of a perfect socialist society referred to as “Crystal Palace .” Free will doesn’t allow it, and besides, he would resent a structure which he couldn’t deride. He also argues that man loves building things, not having a finished product. We wouldn’t be satisfied with perfection, because there would be nothing left to do.
As Part I draws to a close, the Underground Man tells us that he will never have readers; his audience will always be imaginary.
We move into Part II, which is made up of the Underground Man’s reminiscences back to when he was 24 years old. Before the flashbacks start, however, he complains for a while about Romanticism. He dislikes silly, cloud-gazing romantics from France and Germany. To him, Russian romantics are a very different sort, capable of appreciating the sublime and beautiful, but still rooted in reality. He seems to fancy himself one of these Russian romantics, and often indulges in literary fantasies of the sublime and beautiful.
Now onto his memories. The first story concerns an officer who greatly offended our narrator by…taking him by the shoulders and moving him out of the way one night in a tavern. (The horror!) The Underground Man harbors his spite for years and plots revenge, deciding to bump into the officer intentionally while walking along the Nevsky (the major central street in St. Petersburg). The plotting and planning drags on, and when the bump finally goes down, the Underground Man gets the worst of it as the officer doesn’t even notice.
The next story (this is another flashback of the young Underground Man) involves a going-away dinner for an alpha-male named Zverkov whom, big surprise, the Underground Man hates. The Underground man invites himself along to the dinner, thrown by several mutual friends, and makes an utter jerk of himself by insulting everyone many times over. The men leave him behind to continue their evening at a brothel, and the Underground Man follows shortly after.
By the time he gets there, the men are gone. The Underground Man doesn’t leave, though – instead, he sleeps with a prostitute named Liza. After they have sex, he lectures Liza on how she really shouldn’t be a prostitute, as it’s not good for her soul. She weeps; and he gives her his address.
The Underground Man then goes home and, for a week or two, has a strained tiff with his servant Apollon, whom he also hates. One day, Liza shows up. They have an intense spat that ends with the Underground Man breaking down in tears. Liza comforts him, they have sex again, and then he goes back to being sullen and offensive, hinting for her to leave and stuffing money into her hand to insult her further.
Liza peaces out but leaves the cash behind, which the Underground Man finds to be unexpectedly noble. He chases after her. It’s too late; she’s gone. And that’s the end of his flashback.
Now we’re back with the 40 year old Underground Man, who is ready to end his Notes. He tells us that we all live life based on what we read in books (himself included, given his attempts at revenge and saving a prostitute Pretty Woman -style), and that we’re all retreating further and further into the abstract world of ideas. He concludes by saying that he doesn’t want to write anymore from underground. An appended note (apparently written by someone other than the Underground Man) informs us that, actually, he couldn’t stop writing, but at least for readers, “it seems to us that we may stop here.”
Notes from the Underground
Notes from the Underground Introduction
In A Nutshell
Notes from the Underground is a fictional, first-person “confession” told by a hateful, hyper-conscious man living “underground.” Fyodor Dostoevsky. a Russian thinker living in St. Petersburg, wrote Notes in 1864. His wife was dying at the time, so you can speculate on how that might have affected his work. When writing, Dostoevsky said of the work: “It will be a powerful and candid piece; it will be truth.”
Later, Notes from the Underground was hailed as a forerunner to existential literature of the 20th century. Dostoevsky explores themes of absurdity, isolation, and radical personal freedom. Philosophers and writers like Friedrich Nietzsche. Jean-Paul Sartre. and Samuel Beckett would take these ideas and run with them, developing more fully an entire school of thought, the seeds of which can be found in Notes. Existentialism, the philosophical belief that individuals (rather than a god or a government or authority) define the meaning of their own lives, blossomed in the 20th century. In other words, Dostoevsky was way ahead of his time.
Even outside of existentialism the impact of Notes from the Underground is staggering. It made popular a distinct and often imitated approach to the novel: the fictional “confession.” We see it again in Ralph Ellison ‘s Invisible Man ; in fact, the first paragraphs of Ellison’s novel are an explicit reference to Notes. Since Dostoevsky published Notes. we’ve seen everything from homage to parody, and a mountain of literary criticism.
Of course, all of this criticism, being good criticism and all, isn’t just talking about Notes from the Underground itself. It’s viewing the work in the context of its intellectual history. As you’ll soon find out, to study one piece of Russian literature often means studying many pieces of Russian literature. This stems from the fact that guys like Dostoevsky were carrying out their arguments on the written page. It worked like this: someone would write a treatise or argumentative novel, and instead of disagreeing in person, some other guys would just write a treatise or novel back. (This is why there are so many Russian texts.)
Before Dostoevsky wrote Notes, Ivan Turgenev published Fathers and Sons . Go back for a minute to Russia in the 1840’s, where, according to Turgenev, there’s a growing divide between the older generation (the traditionalist liberal “fathers”) and the younger (the growing group of nihilist “sons”). Traditionalists are steeped in Russian Orthodoxy (i.e. a belief God and morality), while the nihilists reject any notion of God or objective truth. Turgenev picks up on this growing divide, makes it the focus of the aptly-named Fathers and Sons. and publishes his earth-shattering novel in 1862.
Meanwhile, big changes are going down in Russia. Feudalism is coming to an end, the plight of the peon is finally brought to light, and governing this all is the European Enlightenment blowing in from the West, bringing with it social, political, and scientific change. (As one example, Darwin ‘s Origin of Species was published in 1859 and first translated into Russian in 1864. This is a big rejection of the classic, age-old idea that God made everything.) The Enlightenment introduces rational egoism, the idea that man will always act reasonably and according to his own best interests.
So in 1863, a year after Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Nikolai Chernyshevsky publishes his response to the work, a novel called What Is to Be Done? This becomes known as “the handbook of radicalism” (source ). It embraces the Enlightenment, praises socialism and rational egoism, and promises to turn all of society into “a Crystal Palace,” a technologically-advanced utopia (or ideal society).
Now what about Dostoevsky? Well, back in the 1840’s he’s hanging out with radical socialist thinkers and loving the idea of reform for Russia. Great, until 1849 when he gets thrown into prison for his intellectual troublemaking. When he finally gets back to St. Petersburg in 1859, he is singing a different tune. Rather than praising the virtues of reform, Dostoevsky is Mr. Traditional Russian Values – just in time to rail on Western European values for changing Russian institutions. Talk about being in the wrong intellectual camp at the wrong time.
And so, finally, in 1864, Dostoevsky writes Notes from the Underground. at least in part as a response to Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? from a year before. Remember, Chernyshevsky was all about rational egoism and the Crystal Palace – both of which are slandered and mocked in Notes from the Underground. Notes argues that man can never be confined to reason – to think as much would be to ignore free will, which, you will soon see, is quite the force of nature.
Why Should I Care?
“There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused, and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis. My punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
Oh, Dostoevsky, lighten up!
That’s not Dostoevsky. It’s Christian Bale in American Psycho . And now that we’ve completely distracted you, we’re going to talk about Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, despite the fact that he’s living in a dirty abode underground and has no friends, manages to imagine a life that is, for him, an even worse reality. What if, he wonders, we could someday figure out all the rules of nature? If the world is governed by a series of formulas and laws, and we knew what they all were, we could see everything that was ever going to happen in the world. According to the Underground Man, this would be terrible. For our miserable narrator, this is something out of science fiction. Although conceivable in some far-distant future, this result is in fact a fantasy – that is, it’s highly, highly unlikely. And likewise, for us today, it’s still highly, highly…
Now wait just another minute. How unlikely is this chilling prediction? Because the fact is, with the burgeoning field of genetics, we’re getting closer and closer to writing about the dreaded “little table” with a gridded list of everything man’s supposedly “free will” may desire. As Matt Ridley points out in his 2000 bestseller Genome . we claim (and indeed, many of these are subject to debate) to have identified genes for diseases, sexual preferences, intelligence, and personality. How far can we be from an Excel spreadsheet that reads in one tiny box: “Tuesday, August 17, 2017: eats cornflakes for breakfast. Goes for a jog, beats personal mile time by .57 seconds.”
This probably makes you uncomfortable, if not outright upset. We rebel against this spreadsheet for the same reasons we rebel against the idea of fate and our parents deciding what we’re going to do with our lives. There’s a fancy, scholarly, scientific name for this. It’s called the “I Can Do Anything I Want!” theorem, a subset of the “You’re Not the Boss of Me!” principle. And, as it turns out, it’s been making people angry for a long time. For the Underground Man in the 1860s, this principle came to life as an argument against Rationalism. in which the laws of nature took away our control. And now, in the 21st Century, some argue that genetics jeopardizes our ability to decide who we are and what we will do. So, in the words of another very famous Russian, What is To Be Done? How do we reconcile scientific certainty with individual freedom?
Who can say. But we think it’s a pretty good sign that we just went from Christian Bale to Rationalism in…seven paragraphs. We don’t know about you, but our free will is flexing its muscles. And now we’re going to go try to make 2+2 equal 5, just because we say so. If that sounds random, read on… the Underground Man has something to say about that.