By Fyodor Mikhailovitch Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
.......Doestoevsky divided Notes From the Underground into two parts. In Part I, the narrator (the Underground Man)—a reclusive forty-year-old—presents a portrait of himself as an embittered resident of St. Petersburg, Russia. In direct address, he speaks hostilely and sarcastically to an audience of “gentlemen.” The primary cause of his bitterness is the attempt of radical thinkers to establish ideologies and social reforms based on the view that a human is a programmed entity (like a monkey or a morning glory, lacking free will). Apparently, he regards their enterprise as a grave and dangerous offense against himself and the general populace. Implicit in his opponents' thesis is the rejection of God and morality, a position that threatens to wreck society. To refute their ideas, he recounts bizarre, capricious, and paradoxical behavior that he has engaged in—behavior that could only originate in a mind with free will. In Part II, the narrator flashes back sixteen years to present an account of himself when he was a twenty-four-year-old civil servant. Part II helps to explain the forces acting upon the narrator in Part I.
Rational Egoism: Acting in oneself’s best interests (that is, acting selfishly) by selecting what appears to be the most beneficial of all the choices available. There are two types of rational egoism, which are as follows:
Psychological Egoism: Belief that a person’s nature, or biological makeup, will always cause him to act in his own self-interest. In other words, a person has no free will; he will always end up choosing what he perceives is best for him. Suppose, for example, that two persons each have a toothache and a fear of dentists. After reviewing the alternatives, the first person decides to go to the dentist to have the tooth extracted because he perceives that the latter course will cause him less pain and distress in the long run. The second person, after reviewing the alternatives, decides to pull the tooth himself because he perceives that this course of action—despite the pain and greater risk of complications that self-treatment poses—will cause him less mental trauma than a dentist’s treatment. In both cases, there is no real "decision." What the persons do is dictated by their genetic makeup and other determining factors, according to proponents of this theory.The rational egoists Dostoevsky criticizes—most notably Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky—maintained that one always acted in his own self-interest, as in psychological egoism, but also ought to investigate the available alternatives or options in order to make the most informed choice. However, there is a conflict here. On the one hand, psychological egoism presumes that a person has no free will. On the other hand, normative egoism implies that a person has at least a modicum of free will and, after educating himself, acts with "enlightened self-interest." Nevertheless, Chernyshevsky believed that a person had no free will regardless of how he went about making his choice.
Determinism: Belief that nature and biological makeup determine human action; free will is an illusion.
Utopianism: Belief that it is possible to create an ideal society in which everyone lives harmoniously.
Utilitarianism: Belief that (1) the value of a thing or an idea depends on its usefulness and not on moral considerations and (2) all decisions and actions should have as their goal the creation of the greatest happiness for the greatest possible number of people.
Nihilism: In nineteenth-century Russia, a philosophy that advocated the overthrow of all established customs, traditions, religious and social institutions, and political systems as worthless in favor of establishing a new society that used scientific principles to better meet the needs of the populace. In general, nihilists denied the existence of God and rejected human values. Some nihilists maintained that life was pointless and absurd.
Materialism: Belief that the only reality is matter. Thinking and experiencing emotional states are functions of matter.
.......In a footnote at the beginning of the novel, author Dostoevsky makes the following comment about the protagonist-narrator:
The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed. I have tried to expose to the view of the public more distinctly than is commonly done, one of the characters of the recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation still living. In this fragment [Part I], entitled "Underground," this person introduces himself and his views, and, as it were, tries to explain the causes owing to which he has made his appearance and was bound to make his appearance in our midst. In the second fragment [Part II] there are added the actual notes of this person concerning certain events in his life.Part I: "Underground"
.......“I am a sick man,” says the forty-year-old narrator, who retired from government service after receiving a bequest of six thousand rubles from a distant relative. He also says, “I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.”
never has really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000, and entered in an index; or, better still, there would be published certain edifying works of the nature of encyclopaedic lexicons, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more incidents or adventures in the world........The Underground Man ridicules the radical thinkers' concept of "enlightened self-interest" (see Rational Egoism, above) as a remedy for social ills:
But these are all golden dreams. Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!The narrator concedes, though, that if Chernyshevsky and his ilk gain sway the new society may well enjoy prosperity "worked out with mathematical exactitude" that answers all questions and solves all problems. However, he notes that it would be terribly boring to have everything worked out and not to have choices. Under such circumstances, he says, he would not be surprised if a reactionary came along and declared: "I say, gentleman, hadn't we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!" He also says
that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one's own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy—is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.Part II: "Appropos of Wet Snow
.......The narrator flashes back to a time when he is a gloomy twenty-four-year-old with no friends. Highly sensitive, he imagines that his coworkers despise him. After all, the narrator often looks upon his own appearance with loathing. Why shouldn’t others view him the same way? His self-consciousness prompts him to
wonder why one of his coworkers, a man with a hideous pocked face, and another, a man with smelly clothes, do not exhibit any hint of self-consciousness about themselves.
I . . . was triumphant over everyone; everyone, of course, was in dust and ashes, and was forced spontaneously to recognise my superiority, and I forgave them all. I was a poet and a grand gentleman, I fell in love; I came in for countless millions and immediately devoted them to humanity, and at the same time I confessed before all the people my shameful deeds, which, of course, were not merely shameful, but had in them much that was ‘sublime and beautiful.’.......All of this dreaming put him into a mood to socialize. But the only person with whom he had developed a “permanent acquaintance” is his boss, Anton Antonitch Syetotchkin, who has two daughters, ages thirteen and fourteen. When the narrator visits him, he is shy around the girls, “who are always whispering and giggling.” At times, Syetotchkin entertains other visitors. They talk business with him for hours at a time—salaries, promotions, excise duty—while the narrator sits by silently not knowing what to say.
.......On one occasion, he visits a former classmate, Siminov, who dislikes the narrator. With Siminov are two other former classmates who pay no attention to the narrator when he walks in.
......."Evidently they looked upon me as something on the level of a common fly," the narrator says.
.......Siminov and the other two are discussing a dinner party they are going to hold at five o’clock the next day at the Hôtel de Paris for another former classmate, an army officer named Zverkov, who will be taking on new duties in a distant locale. The narrator despises Zverkov because he is a handsome playboy who boasts of his conquests. Zverkov was bad at his studies but in his final year at school he inherited an estate with two hundred serfs “and as almost all of us were poor he took up a swaggering tone among us.”
.......Growing bold, the narrator expresses his displeasure at not having been invited to the party. Simonov then says he will count him in. The other two—Ferfitchkin and Trudolyubov—seem to regard the narrator as an interloper. When they leave, Ferfitchkin ignores him and Trudolyubov gives only a little nod. After Simonov tells the narrator he may pay for his hotel meal the next day, Siminov begins pacing.
.......“Am I keeping you?” the narrator asks.
.......Simonov says he does have to meet someone. When the narrator leaves, he wonders what came over him to force himself into their plans to salute "a scoundrel, a pig, like that Zverkov.” That night he has upsetting dreams about his schools days. In his notes, he writes,
I was sent to . . . school by distant relations, upon whom I was dependent and of whom I have heard nothing since—they sent me there a forlorn, silent boy, already crushed by their reproaches, already troubled by doubt, and looking with savage distrust at everyone. My schoolfellows met me with spiteful and merciless jibes because I was not like any of them. But I could not endure their taunts; I could not give in to them with the ignoble readiness with which they gave in to one another. I hated them from the first, and shut myself away from everyone in timid, wounded and disproportionate pride........The narrator arrives for dinner the next day at the appointed time, 5 p.m., but must wait an hour for the others, who neglected to tell him the time had been changed. When they come in, they make apologies, and the five men sit down at a round table. Trudolyubov is to the narrator’s left, Siminov to the right, Zverkov opposite, and Ferfitchkin between Zverkov and Trudolyubov. In response to their questions, the narrator tells them where he works and how much money he makes. Zverkov, Trudolyubov, and Ferfitchkin all comment on how poor his salary is, causing the narrator to blush. In response to their snide remarks, the narrator becomes angry and now regrets attending the dinner, but he does not leave. While the others converse, ignoring the narrator, he drinks too many glasses of wine. When Zverkov is telling a story about how a certain Prince Kolya—a close friend of his who has a thousand more serfs than Zverkov—helped match him with a lady friend, the narrator interrupts, saying, “And yet this Kolya, who has three thousand serfs, has not put in an appearance here tonight to see you off.”
.......There is silence for a moment. After Simonov fills the glasses with champagne and raises a toast to Zverkov, everyone drinks but the narrator, who says he is saving his champagne for his own toast to Zverkov. He then insults Zverkov, finishing with a sarcastic sendoff: "Seduce the Circassian girls, shoot the enemies of the fatherland and ... and ... to your health, Monsieur Zverkov!"
.......When Ferfitchkin responds angrily, the narrator challenges him to a duel. The others laughingly dismiss the narrator’s show of bravado as a manifestation of his drunken state. As the evening wears on, the narrator ruminates over his bad behavior but consoles himself with the thought that his fellow diners apparently cannot fathom his superior mind and sensitivity. By the time they leave at 11 o’clock to go to a brothel, they regard him as little more than an insect even though he apologizes to Ferfitchkin. The narrator wants to go too and asks Simonov to lend him six rubles for the occasion. Simonov throws the money at him and leaves with the others.
.......(The episodes with Siminov and the others, as well as with Syetotchkin earlier, may be designed to show that acting in one's self-interest—that is, the narrator's seeking the companionship of others to satisfy his desire to socialize—does not necessarily produce the good results that Chernyshevsky says such action will.)
.......At the brothel, the narrator meets a twenty-year-old girl, Liza, who recently left her parents’ home in Riga to come to St. Petersburg. The narrator tells her about a young prostitute who died of consumption while indebted to her madam. He compliments Liza on her looks, which must bring a high price. But, he says, in time she will be worth less and less and “will go from here to something lower . . . and [eventually] you will come to a basement in Haymarket.”
.......He continues to talk to her about the peril and indignity of her work, saying, “You are selling your soul which you have no right to dispose of! You give your love to be outraged by every drunkard!”
.......When she eventually realizes the low state to which she has brought herself, he says, “This is my address, Liza, come to me!”
.......The next day, he regrets his behavior with Liza the previous evening and with Zverkov and his companions. Straightaway, he borrows money from Syetotchkin to repay Siminov's loan and encloses the money in a letter of apology to Simonov, asking him to convey apologies to the others. All the while, he worries that Liza will actually take him up on his offer and come to visit him.
.......Several days pass during which the narrator has an argument with his servant, Apollon, whom he despises because of his superior attitude. In the midst of the argument, Liza arrives. After Apollon leaves them alone, the narrator invites Liza to sit down. The narrator’s shabby surroundings and clothes embarrass him, but he says, “I am not ashamed of my poverty . . . I am poor but honourable.”
.......Over tea, they sit silently for five minutes while Liza musters the wherewithal to speak. Finally, she tells him she wants to get away from the brothel. Meanwhile, the anger from his argument with Apollon and the humiliation from the previous evening’s dinner combine with his quirky unpredictability, and he becomes angry with Liza.
"Why have you come to me, tell me that, please?" I began, gasping for breath and regardless of logical connection in my words. I longed to have it all out at once, at one burst; I did not even trouble how to begin. "Why have you come? Answer, answer," I cried, hardly knowing what I was doing. "I'll tell you, my good girl, why you have come. You've come because I talked sentimental stuff to you then. So now you are soft as butter and longing for fine sentiments again. So you may as well know that I was laughing at you then. And I am laughing at you now. Why are you shuddering? Yes, I was laughing at you! I had been insulted just before, at dinner, by the fellows who came that evening before me. I came to you, meaning to thrash one of them, an officer; but I didn't succeed, I didn't find him; I had to avenge the insult on someone to get back my own again; you turned up, I vented my spleen on you and laughed at you. I had been humiliated, so I wanted to humiliate; I had been treated like a rag, so I wanted to show my power.... That's what it was, and you imagined I had come there on purpose to save you. Yes? You imagined that? You imagined that?".......But he then says he is even worse than she is, for his tirade was an attempt to humiliate her and overwhelm her with his power as a way to counteract his own shameful wretchedness.
I know that I am a blackguard, a scoundrel, an egoist, a sluggard. Here I have been shuddering for the last three days at the thought of your coming. And do you know what has worried me particularly for these three days? That I posed as such a hero to you, and now you would see me in a wretched torn dressing-gown, beggarly, loathsome.Feeling sympathy, Liza rushes to him and embraces him. Both are crying now. However, in a moment, the narrator realizes that they have reversed roles. She is now the heroine; he is the wretched creature who needs help. He hates her and loves her at the same time. Then her presence oppresses and annoys him. He paces. She remains. He paces more. He decides that he does not love her and cannot love her. He thinks she understands that. Finally, she bids goodbye. While she is going out the door, he puts money in her hand. A moment later, he opens the door and calls her name down the stairs. There is no response. He calls again, but the only sound he hears is the entrance door opening, then closing with a slam. He goes back inside, puts on his hat and coat, and runs after her. Snow is falling hard. But she is nowhere to be found. Perhaps it’s for the best—that she has left him with resentment in her heart. "Resentment—why, it is purification," he says; "it is a most stinging and painful consciousness!"Setting
.......Part I of Notes From the Underground takes place in the early 1860s in St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia between 1712 and 1918. Part II takes place in the same city in the late 1840s. The Russian czar Peter the Great began construction of the city in 1703 on the Neva River in northwestern Russia. Peter
wanted to replace the current capital, Moscow, with a modern, European-style city. The main character in the novel lives in a room in a building on the outskirts of the city. Because St. Petersburg is a planned city, the narrator despises it as a symbol of the kind of artificiality that he believes characterizes Chernyshevsky's plans for society, as represented by a crystal
palace he describes in his novel What Is to Be Done?
.......Notes From the Underground is a short novel that presents the narrator's reaction to the intellectual and social environment of Russia in the 1860s. The novel first appeared in print in 1864 in Dostoevsky’s publication, Epoch, a journal. Part I was published in the January and February issues and Part 2 in the April issue. The title is sometimes translated as Notes From Underground because the Russian language has no equivalent for the English definite article the. Because the protagonist focuses his life almost entirely on demonstrating that free will is real and that he alone determines his destiny, the novel foreshadows existentialthemes in the works of twentieth-century authors. However, unlike many twentieth-century existentialists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Dostoevsky believed firmly in God and a moral order.
Narrator (The Underground Man): A loner who lives in a shabby apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. He has acquaintances but no real friends. In his narration, he presents himself as a well-read man of superior intellect who abhors philosophical and social movements based on the belief that human beings lack free will. He declares
again and again that he determines his own destiny. He sets his goals; he controls his actions; he is in charge of his life. Though the world may seem out of joint at times and though events may depress him, he takes satisfaction in knowing that he decides his fate. However, because of his superior intellect, he ruminates excessively over the choices facing him and
tends to end up not doing anything and therefore becomes a "man of inertia." Persons less intelligent than he find it easy to make decisions because they do not analyze their choices as carefully and as thoughtfully as he does and thus do not understand all of the pros and cons of a particular option. Because they make decisions easily, they are "men of action," not men of inertia like him. But
these men are fools, he says, because they do not think with the intensity that he does. They readily accept rules and laws without adequately questioning them; they are sheep.
Narration and Structure
.......An unidentified narrator tells the story in first-person point of view to a group of men whom he calls “gentlemen.” Though unidentified by names, these gentlemen apparently hold views with which the narrator strongly disagrees. The narrator presents his account of events as he interprets them, not necessarily as they actually happen. The author divides the novel into two parts. The first centers on the narrator as a forty-year-old retiree living in St. Petersburg on a small inheritance. The second, which flashes back sixteen years, centers on the narrator as a twenty-four-year-old eking out a living in a government office in the same city. Most of the novel unfolds as a monologue. One may compare the book to a soliloquy or a diary.
.......When he was a government worker, the Underground Man held the rank of collegiate assessor. In all there were fourteen ranks of workers in government service in the capital, St. Petersburg. Their titles were equivalent to those of army and navy officers. For example, the title of collegiate assessor was the
equivalent of a navy lieutenant captain and an army major, according to the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia. For a complete listing of all civil-service job titles in nineteenth-century Russia, see the table of ranks on the web page of the Department of Slavic Languages
and Literatures at the University of Virginia
.......What most concerns the Underground Man is the attempt of radicals to persuade the people that free will is an illusion. If the people adopt this idea, they will be able to do whatever they please without taking responsibility for their action. After all, how could they be responsible for a negative act such as
child molestation, robbery, rape, or murder if they did not freely assent to the act? In addition, they could not take credit for a positive act such as feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, saving a life, or preventing a war, for they would merely be doing what they were programmed to do. Every act would thus be an indifferent act; there would be no morality, no guilt, no pride in
accomplishment. Human beings would be no more than mobile mannequins—or, in modern terms, automatons.
.......The narrator continually says one thing and does another and sometimes holds opposing viewpoints at the same time. Is he a madman? A jokester? Who is he, really? What does he stand for? What motivates him? It seems that the narrator is not only and an underground man but also an ambiguous man. As the latter, he eludes analysis by the determinists, rationalists, utilitarians, utopians, and other ideologists who are attempting to pigeonhole human beings as predictable creatures who fit neatly into categories.
.......The narrator despises or spites almost everyone with whom he comes into contact. He also detests the city of St. Petersburg, the climate, and his apartment. But he refuses to go away. He is like a fester on the world and its people—a fester that never heals. His unremitting defiance underscores the main theme: that he is utterly free to do as he wishes, even when what he does flouts logic and common sense or imperils his health and safety.
New Is Not Necessarily Better
.......The Underground Man takes a stand against ideas that gained widespread currency in nineteenth-century Russia. In so doing, he isolates himself as an obscurantist. However, in presenting his argument against new ideas, he makes the point that what is au courant is not necessarily acceptable.
.......The climax occurs when the narrator and Liza part, an event that seals him once and for all in his underground of solitary defiance against society.
.......Many young Russian radicals in the early 1860s embraced nihilism, a philosophy that rejects all traditional values and all religious institutions. Some of them favored total reform of society through scientific principles, utilitarianism, and rational egoism. After Russian writer Ivan Turgenev presented a disparaging portrait of a nihilist in his 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky—a leading nihilist—responded with a novel of his own (What Is to Be Done?, 1863) that presented a vision of a utopian society springing from nihilist principles. In this book and in other published works, Chernyshevsky denied the existence of free will. In advocating communal living, he promoted sexual liberation and “espoused loveless marriage and the sharing of one’s spouse with at least one other male” (Paperno, Irena. Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism. Stanford University: Stanford University Press, 1988. Page 305.) The hero of his novel taunts opponents of Chernyshevsky’s ideas, saying,
Yes, I will always do what I want. I will never sacrifice anything, not even a whim, for the sake of something I do not desire. What I want, with all my heart, is to make people happy........Dostoevsky heard it and responded in 1864 with Notes From the Underground. Of particular concern to Dostoevsky was Chernyshevsky’s denial of free will and consequent advocacy of scientific thinking that reduced man to a programmed, predictable creature. He is 2+2 and always equals 4. To counteract Chernyshevsky’s views, Dostoevsky presented a protagonist who flaunts his free will, even choosing to suffer rather than seek comfort.
.......In London’s Hyde Park in 1851, Britain presented a spectacular event, the Great Exhibition, to showcase the technological and industrial might of the British Empire. Its centerpiece was a gigantic building of iron and glass housing exhibits of the latest machines, tools, and appliances. More than six million visitors passed through the
halls of this stunning edifice, dubbed “the Crystal Palace” in a newspaper article.
And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive—in other words, only what is conducive to welfare—is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it's good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. I hold no brief for suffering nor for well-being either. I am standing for ... my caprice, and for its being guaranteed to me when necessary. Suffering would be out of place in vaudevilles, for instance; I know that. In the "Palace of Crystal" it is unthinkable; suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a "palace of crystal" if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing. You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one's tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one's tongue out at it even on the sly.Author Information
.......Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born on November 11, 1821, in Moscow. While he was a teenager, both of his parents died. It has been said that his father, a stern physician, was murdered by serfs on an estate he bought later in his life. However, this report cannot be documented. After Dostoevsky graduated from a military engineering school, he served for about a year in an engineering corps, then quit his job to pursue writing. In 1847 he joined a group of socialists who discussed their political ideas and read banned books. In 1849 he and other members of the group were arrested and imprisoned. After eight months, they were taken to a place of execution where a firing squad stood ready. Moments before they were to be executed, the czar commuted their sentences. Dostoevsky then served four years at hard labor in a prison in Siberia and four more years in the military. Notes From the House of the Dead, one of his major novels, is based on his prison experience. Among his other major works–which are among the finest novels in western literature–are Notes From the Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1870), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879). Dostoevsky died on February 9, 1881, in St. Petersburg.
Study Questions and Essay Topics