Book Review: Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from the Underground is a novel published by Dostoevsky in 1864. It remains as one of the most important works of existentialist literature. In this work Dostoevsky attempts to justify the existence of individual freedom as a necessary part of humankind.

The novel consists of two parts. The first one, titled simply “Underground” is told through an unnamed narrator, known as the Underground Man. This part serves as an introduction into the mind of the Underground Man. He is a bitter 40-year old man living in a dilapidated apartment, who retired from his civil service job after inheriting some money. A complete nihilist and misanthrope who has been living “underground” or in his own reflective hyper consciousness for many years and has written these Notes from the Underground, which he does not intend to publish for the public.

Underground Man

The second part of the novel is called “Apropos of the Wet Snow”. At the end of the first part, the wet falling snow reminds him of his past events and haunts him, and out of boredom he begins to recount his troubled past experiences when he was 24 years old. His inability to interact with other people causes his attempts to form relationships and participate in life to end in disaster and drives him deeper underground.

Part I. Underground

I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man […] I am sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am […] No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand […] My liver is bad, well – let it get worse!

Right from the get-go, we are introduced into the unusual mind of the Underground Man. He is the quintessential anti-hero. He feels acutely envious of the “man of action”, one who possesses little intellectual capacity and is free from doubts, questions and resentments that are part of his subterranean consciousness.

But on the other hand, he finds solace in his sense of intellectual superiority, although it prevents him from participating in “life” as other people do, he is constantly overanalysing everything and is therefore incapable of making decisions.

He goes through a life full of self-loathing. As an orphan, he has never had normal, loving relationships with other people. He usually spends his time reading literature, but reflecting upon reality, he is aware of its absurdity and this contrast alienates him further from society.

The tension between his intellectual superiority and his profound self-loathing is a recurrent psychological theme throughout the novel.

The Underground Man has a limited repertoire of emotions, which include anger, bitterness, revenge, and humiliation. He describes listening to people as like “listening through a crack under the floor.” The word “underground” actually comes from a bad translation into English. A better translation would be a crawl space: a space under the floor that is not big enough for a human, but where rodents and bugs live.

Dostoevsky points out in the beginning, that such people as the Underground Man “not only may but must exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society has been formed.”

The Underground Man observes the rise of a utopian society which seeks to remove suffering and pain. He argues that man desires both things and needs them to be happy.

We want happiness but we have a special talent for making ourselves miserable.

“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering: that is a fact.”

The Underground Man criticises 19th century utilitarianism, a school of thought that attempted to use mathematical formulas to align man’s desires with his best interests. He makes the point that the individual will always rebel against a collectively imposed idea of paradise, because of the underlying irrationality of humanity.

As individuals, we sometimes do not act in our own self-interest, simply to validate our existence as individuals, to exercise our free will. The Underground Man attacks this type of enlightened self-interest. He despises the idea of cultural and legislative systems relying on this rational egoism.

A Utilitarian and predictable life would restrict man’s freedom, life would be so extraordinarily rational that everything would become dull. This assertion explains the Underground Man’s insistence that he can find enjoyment in his toothaches or liver pains, it is a way of going against the comfortable predictability of life. Although he is not proud of this useless behaviour. In other words, the rule that two plus two equals four angers him, he wants the freedom to say two plus two equals five.

He blames himself that he is not wicked enough to be a scoundrel or insignificant enough to be an insect.

Man does not want what is disadvantageous to him, but man desires freedom more than happiness, the ability to do what one desires, even when it does one harm. But there is no guarantee that humans will use freedom in a constructive way. The evidence of history suggests the contrary, that humans seek the destruction of others and of themselves. One may say anything about the history of the world, the only thing one can’t say is that it is rational.

“Shower upon man every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface, give him economic prosperity such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick.”

Man is not reasonable; and even if he were to be reasonable, he would get out of his way to do something perverse.

Man likes to make roads and to create, but he also has a passionate love for destruction and chaos. Perhaps man only loves that edifice from a distance and is by no means in love with it at close quarters, perhaps he only loves building it and does not want to live in it. In other words, he loves the journey, but not the end.

Part II. Apropos of the Wet Snow

This part has a narrative style and serves as a practical illustration of the abstract ideas of the first part, describing specific events in the Underground Man’s life as a 24-year-old.

It is divided in three segments. In the first one, the Underground Man finds himself obsessed with an officer who has disrespected him in a pub. He frequently passes by him on the street, but the officer never acknowledges his existence. He ends up borrowing money to buy an expensive overcoat and bump into the officer to assert his equality. But to his surprise, the officer doesn’t flinch and keeps moving on without noticing him.

The Underground Man would’ve preferred humiliation, which actually gives him a sense of satisfaction and power, as he has brought about the humiliation himself. As long as he can exercise his will, he does not care if the outcome is positive or negative.

The second segment revolves around a dinner party with some old school friends, as he craves their attention and friendship. However, they arrive an hour late and so he is already furious and resentful and after a short time, gets into an argument with them, declaring all his hatred of society and using them as the symbol for it. At the end, they all go off without him to a secret brothel. The Underground Man, still fuming, follows them. Here he encounters Liza, a young prostitute, with whom he goes to bed.

The third segment starts off with both of them lying silently in the dark together. He confronts her with her utopian dreams and convinces her about her terrible fate and that she’ll slowly become useless and experience a disgraceful death. He gives her his address and leaves.

The Underground Man is anxious and with fear of her actually arriving at his shabby apartment after appearing such a “hero” to her. She arrives in the middle of an argument with his servant. After realising that she had come because she felt pity for him, he curses her and tells her that he was in fact laughing at her. He then wells up in tears after saying that he was only seeking to have power over her.

The Underground Man, who was an orphan and who had hardly experienced any love in his life, can only conceive of love as the total domination of one person over another. He then starts criticising himself and says that he is in fact horrified by his own existence. He runs after her but cannot find her.

Notes from the Underground launches an attack on all ideologies of social progress which aspire to the elimination of suffering, solving one problem and directing our nature to become unhappy in other ways. Ideologies that seek to improve the world always contain a flaw, they won’t eradicate suffering, but rather change the things that will cause pain. Thus, life can only be a process of changing the focus of pain and there will always be something to agonise us.

“Which is better: cheap happiness or sublime suffering? Well, come on, which is better?”

Suffering is part of the human condition, and we would be much happier accepting it as it is. At the conclusion of the novel, The Underground Man states:

“I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway.”

Here the Underground Man decides to end his notes. In a footnote at the end of the novel, Dostoevsky reveals that while there was more to the text, “it seems that we may stop here.” Although he leaves the plot hanging at the end without a definite conclusion, the inconclusive and bitter ending actually serves as the best possible one, as it reinforces – though does not resolve – the themes introduced in the book, highlighting the Underground Man’s profound psychological distress.

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Notes From The Underground in 10 Minutes | Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from the Underground is a novel published by Dostoevsky in 1864. It remains as one of the most important works of existentialist literature. In this work Dostoevsky attempts to justify the existence of individual freedom as a necessary part of humankind.

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