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.
"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!
Wait a minute.
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.
The Underground Man
The Underground Man goes through a ton of arguments in Notes, each one building on the last. It can get confusing. We're going to give you the quick and dirty here in what we hope to be a delightful 60-seconds of reading. But if you're good with the basic tenets and want to jump right to the analysis, feel free. Key terms are italicized, and definitions in parentheses.
Ready? First, the Underground Man is hyper-conscious. (This means he's too aware and too analytical.) This leads to inertia (the inability to act or change). Why? Because there are no primary causes (no basic motives he can justify). The result? He can't be or become anything. Next, we hear about his attacks of the sublime and beautiful (the aesthetic pleasures and awe-inspiring elements of our world) which lead him to misery. Once he's in the mire of suffering, he alternates between being a hero and being miserable. If he's very conscious of his misery, then it's pleasurable.
Next comes the subject of romanticism. According to the Underground Man, Russian romantics are better than the French and German for their grounding in reality and traditional values. We also learn that the Underground Man sometimes fakes living because he doesn't know how else to be a person; he has "phases" of wanting friends, but these are short-lived. We also get an attack on Chernyshevsky and the Crystal Palace. Rational egoism (the theory that man will always act according to his best interests) is wrong because it ignores free will. To prove free will, man will intentionally cause destruction and harm. Oh, lastly, the Underground Man has no readers.
But we beg to differ.
Let's start with the Underground Man's early claim that he has never been able to act. His reasoning is that there is no justification for any action – so he remains inert (taking no action). He's so paralyzed by having to choose what to do that his decision is to not choose. OK, but this isn't really an option. If he can't justify going outside, he ends up staying in – he's still deciding to stay in, though. If he's sitting around and brooding all the time, why doesn't he try to justify said brooding? He claims all a man like he can do is babble – what's the primary cause (motive) for babbling?
Then you've got the claim that he's hyper-conscious, acutely aware. Check out the passage when he walks the Nevsky, debating how best to get revenge on the officer, only to pass by the officer before he's realized what happened. Does this sound like someone who is acutely conscious of his surroundings?
And what about his disdain for rational egoism? He rejects the idea that man will act according to his own self-interest, but in many ways he is the epitome of an egoist. "The world may go to pot," he says, "so long as I always get my tea." On top of that, he condemns the "frippery" of French and German romanticism, but he can be quite the romantic himself. He lives in a world of his own idealistic making – look at the "Lake Como" passage in Part II, Chapter One. His fantasies are all something out of a cheesy novel. Come to think of it, most of his life is out of a cheesy novel. The whole idea of the older man redeeming the young and corrupted prostitute is a major theme in Russian literature. His obsession with revenge is right out of The Count of Monte Cristo.
But the most interesting contradiction has to do with freedom. The Underground Man is Mr. Free Will. He's so free, in fact, that he's going to bash his head against the wall of reason just because he won't resign himself to the fact that 2+2=4. All his suffering, all his self-inflicted pain is supposed to prove his freedom. Except in his masochism, he's constricted himself to an underground prison. Prison = freedom? We don't think so. Next, look at the way that the Underground Man explains his actions to us.
He justifies them with a series of logical arguments. He is, in fact, beholden to rationality. In condemning the laws of reason, he uses…reason. And what about living according to books? Isn't this just another system of rules he must follow? "Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to [do]," he says.
And look at the only time the word "fate" is used in the entire novel, at the end of Part II, Chapter V, when he decides "It's fate" for him to go slap Zverkov in the face. If he's not freely determining his own actions, how could he possibly have free will? Lastly, check out the line at the end of the Underground Man's hysterical Liza-induced breakdown: "They won't let me…I can't be good!" That doesn't sound like free will, either.
Of course, this is only one approach to Notes from the Underground. Many critics hack away at the Underground Man's reasoning, but you have to admit that he makes some compelling arguments. Check out his discussion on the toothache and imagine that, instead of talking about a toothache, he's talking about the three tests, two quizzes, and term paper you have to deal with during midterms. Do you suffer in silence? The Underground man takes it to the extreme by claiming that, actually, all this complaining is enjoyable. What do you think? Yes? No? It's certainly something to think about.
The big 2+2=5 argument is also rather compelling. Look at it this way: someone tells you that you're fated to eat pancakes tomorrow morning. No doubt about it, you will eat pancakes. Not only that, but you are physically incapable of desiring anything other than pancakes. Are you going to go along with that? Every day for the rest of your life? What if you want cornflakes – who are they to tell you what you want! You'll want whatever you please! We don't know about you, but that certainly makes sense to us.
Still, it's hard to get too caught up in the Underground Man's logic. Part of the reason he seems so different from us is that he's suffering from a major case of extremism. He's either a hero, or he's groveling in the mud. And he knows as much. "There was nothing in between," he says, "[and] that was my ruin." He's either living in a dirty hovel, or he's soaring on flights of "sublime and beautiful" fantasy. In a way, we want to condemn him for this absurd flip-flopping. But the Underground Man challenges us in this: "I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway." So perhaps he's a crazy man for living in the extremities of emotion and opinion. But then again, perhaps we're copping out by living in the middle ground.