Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
That the Narrator Attacks
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:
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.
Belief that a person will act in his own best interests if he first thoroughly
educates himself about the choices available. In this type of egoism, the
second person in the example above would presumably decide to go to a dentist
because, after educating himself about both alternatives, he would realize
that professional treatment is more likely to produce a positive outcome.
that nature and biological makeup determine human action; free will is
that it is possible to create an ideal society in which everyone lives
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.
that the only reality is matter. Thinking and experiencing emotional states
are functions of matter.
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"
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."
he refuses to see a physician. Out of spite, he has never once gone to
a doctor in twenty years. Although he says he does not know against whom
he directs his spite, it eventually becomes clear that his target is radical
thinkers attempting to reshape Russia into a godless utilitarian society
that does not recognize the existence of free will. To expose the folly
of their ideas, the narrator exhibits bizarre behavior designed to demonstrate
that his free will and independent spirit remain active. Whereas other
men would see a physician for treatment of a chronic disease, the narrator
does the unpredictable, the illogical: He chooses not to see a physician
as a deliberate act of his free will.
narrator, or "Underground Man," also demonstrates his free will in other
ways. For example, he continues to live in St. Petersburg even though the
climate is bad for his health and the city itself is a "programmed" municipality.
(Czar Peter the Great constructed St. Petersburg as a West European-style
city between 1703 and 1712 to serve as his new capital, importing architects,
artists, and thinkers to design its buildings and culture.) He also continues
to live in a deplorable room on the outskirts of the city with a stupid
old woman as his servant rather than move to other accommodations or hire
another servant. Furthermore, he goes to the limits of illogic and absurdity
by taking pleasure in pain—his own pain and the pain of others. For example,
when he was a government bureaucrat—a collegiate assessor—he
greatly enjoyed irritating the citizens who came to him for help. He made
himself happy by making them unhappy. In addition, he learned to enjoy
a toothache that throbbed for thirty days. Only a thinking man, only a
man outside the pale of the ordinary and the mundane, possessed the wherewithal
to recognize and appreciate the subtle benefits of pain, he thought while
undergoing the pain.
fact, the Underground Man considers himself highly intelligent and acutely
aware of what is happening around him. Ever conscious of everything—and
ever analyzing it—he realizes that certain nihilists are attempting to
create a programmed society that regards humans as unthinking puppets.
He particularly despises the proposal of nihilist Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky
to reconstruct society through
utilitarianism, utopianism, determinism, and atheistic materialism. (Chernyshevsky
propounded his ideas in various written works, including a novel, What
Is to Be Done? Though mediocre in its writing style, it became a sensation
among young radicals advocating the kinds of changes he proposed.)
the Underground Man does not mention Chernyshevsky by name, he alludes
to his philosophy. He is particularly outraged by Chernyshevsky's denial
of the existence of free will. The Underground Man writes that Chernyshevsky
holds that man
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
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
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
hates all his coworkers and sometimes feels inferior to them even though
he knows that he is their superior and that they are all stupid “and as
like one another as so many sheep." From time to time, he worries that
he is completely unlike anyone else, causing him to think, “I am alone
and they are everyone." Generally, for fear of standing out, he pretends
to be conventional and ordinary, trying not to exhibit any eccentricity.
Sometimes, he does not talk to anyone at all. (Remember, these moments
occur years before the narrator fully develops his defiant, cynical persona
as the Underground Man. As a younger man, his acute self-awareness—the
very thing that affirms his free will and in later years distinguishes
him from a Chernyshevsky puppet—seems a burden to him.)
there are times when his personality changes so that he talks a great deal
and considers making friends with others.
spends most of his spare time at home reading. When he becomes bored with
this activity, he engages in “loathsome vice of the pettiest kind." Of
this activity, he says, "Already even then I had my underground world in
my soul. I was fearfully afraid of being seen, of being met, of being recognised.
I visited various obscure haunts." And he was very depressed.
evening, when he looks through a tavern window, he witnesses a brawl in
which a man is thrown through the window. He then enters the tavern in
hopes that he too will get into a fight and be thrown through the window.
(His masochism may be, in part, a manifestation of a growing desire
to punish himself in order to demonstrate that human beings do not always
act in their own self-interest, as Chernyshevsky and his brand of rational
egoism maintain.) After he deliberately blocks traffic next to the
billiard table, an officer merely moves him aside in a gentlemanly way;
there is no fight. Thereafter, he often sees the officer on the street.
Eventually, he overhears someone speak his surname, follows him to his
apartment, and learns more about him from the porter of the building. One
day, he decides to write a novel about this man to “unmask his villainy."
After completing it, he submits it for publication but learns that such
novels are not in fashion. He then writes a letter asking the man to apologize
to him or fight a duel. But he decides not to send the letter.
he sees the man on a street, he notices that he steps aside for people
of high standing, like generals, but does not accord the same respect to
the narrator or others. It irks the narrator that he is always the one
who steps aside, so he resolves not to step aside again. (Here, the
narrator continues to invite punishment. But he also exhibits the kind
of defiance that motivates him in Part I.)
For their next encounter,
he wishes to appear as a man who commands respect, so he buys a new hat,
new gloves, and a new beaver collar for his overcoat. When he is on the
street and the big moment arrives, he is so overwrought that he stumbles
and falls in front of the man.
very calmly stepped over me, while I flew on one side like a ball," the
on their next encounter, the narrator refuses to yield. They bump shoulders,
and the man walks on. Proud that he did not back down, the narrator returns
home and croons arias from Italian operas.
the following days and weeks, he dreams about poetry, heroism, and love.
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.
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.
they looked upon me as something on the level of a common fly," the narrator
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."
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.
I keeping you?" the narrator asks.
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."
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
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.
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.)
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."
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!"
she eventually realizes the low state to which she has brought herself,
he says, “This is my address, Liza, come to me!"
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
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."
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
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?
of Work and Year of Publication
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,
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 existential
themes 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;
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.
The Gentlemen: Those
to whom the narrator addresses his notes. They are his audience, or readers.
These men are his ideological foes—determinists, utilitarians, utopians,
Man who left the narrator six thousand rubles in his will.
Old Woman: Narrator's
servant in Part I.
Anton Antonych Setochkin:
Head of the narrator's government department and, says the narrator, "the
only permanent acquaintance I have had in my life."
Officer in the Tavern:
Man with whom the narrator attempts to pick a fight.
Porter: Doorman at
the building where the officer lives.
when the narrator was a schoolboy. The narrator says of him, "Simonov,
who had in no way been distinguished at school, was of a quiet and equable
disposition; but I discovered in him a certain independence of character
and even honesty. I don't even suppose that he was particularly stupid.
I had at one time spent some rather soulful moments with him, but these
had not lasted long and had somehow been suddenly clouded over. He was
evidently uncomfortable at these reminiscences, and was, I fancy, always
afraid that I might take up the same tone again. I suspected that he had
an aversion for me. . . ."
when the narrator was a schoolboy. The narrator says of him, "Zverkov was
a specialist in regard to tact and the social graces. This last fact particularly
infuriated me. I hated the abrupt self-confident tone of his voice, his
admiration of his own witticisms, which were often frightfully stupid,
though he was bold in his language; I hated his handsome, but stupid face
(for which I would, however, have gladly exchanged my intelligent one),
and the free-and-easy military manners in fashion in the 'forties.' I hated
the way in which he used to talk of his future conquests of women (he did
not venture to begin his attack upon women until he had the epaulettes
of an officer."
when the narrator was a schoolboy. He is a "Russianised German," the narrator
says, "a little fellow with the face of a monkey, a blockhead who was always
deriding everyone, a very bitter enemy of mine from our days in the lower
forms -- a vulgar, impudent, swaggering fellow, who affected a most sensitive
feeling of personal honour, though, of course, he was a wretched little
coward at heart. He
when the narrator was a schoolboy. The narrator describes him as "a tall
young fellow, in the army, with a cold face, fairly honest, though he worshipped
success of every sort, and was only capable of thinking of promotion. He
was some sort of distant relation of Zverkov's, and this, foolish as it
seems, gave him a certain importance among us. He always thought me of
no consequence whatever; his behaviour to me, though not quite courteous,
servant in Part II.
at a brothel that Zverkov, Ferfitchkin, Trudolyubov, Simonov, and the narrator
visit after the dinner. At the dinner, Zverkov stakes his claim for her,
and no one disputes it. The narrator remembers that she once refused him
when he chose her.
Liza: New prostitute
at the brothel the diners visit. The narrator chooses her, noting, "There
was something simple and good-natured in her face, but something strangely
grave. I am sure that this stood in her way here, and no one of those fools
had noticed her. She could not, however, have been called a beauty, though
she was tall, strong-looking, and well built. She was very simply dressed."
Prince Kolya: Friend
of Zverkov. Kolya is mentioned in a conversation but plays no active role
in the story.
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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.
Narrator's Job Title: Collegiate Assessor
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.
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.
counteract arguments against free will, the narrator—as he recounts in
his diary—repeatedly does the capricious, the irrational, the unpredictable,
the bizarre. For example, on several occasions, he seeks the companionship
of others in order to reject them and be alone. On many other occasions,
he takes pleasure in pain. But just when he appears to be a masochist,
he becomes a sadist. There is no pinning down the Underground Man. He has
free will—defiant, uncompromising free will.
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
and rational egoism. After Russian writer Ivan
Turgenev presented a disparaging portrait of a nihilist in his 1862 novel,
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,
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.
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 this lies my happiness.
Mine! Can you hear that, you, in your underground hole?
Chernyshevsky, and the Crystal Palace
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.
Chernyshevsky’s novel (see Dostoevsky vs Nihilism, above), one of the characters
has a dream in which she visits a utopian society with a crystal palace
that serves as the residence hall of the inhabitants. Chernyshevsky based
his fictional dream palace on Britain’s Crystal Palace. He saw it as a
fitting symbol of the technological and scientific advancements that his
utopian society would bring.
on the other hand, saw Chernyshevsky’s fictional palace as a symbol of
all the “isms" that would tear down society—utopianism, nihilism, rational
egoism, utilitarianism, determinism, and materialism. In Notes From
the Underground, his narrator ridicules all of these ideas—and the
palace itself. In the following passage from Part I, he seems to be speaking
directly to Chernyshevsky in upholding free will and rejecting Chernyshevsky’s
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
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.
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),
(1870), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879). Dostoevsky died on February
9, 1881, in St. Petersburg.
Study Questions and Essay
The narrator complains about
the ill treatment he received as a child and later in life. However, a
man whom he does not identify left him six thousand rubles in his will.
Does this bequest imply that the narrator exaggerates the maltreatment
or even lies about his past?
In addition to the nihilists
of Dostoevsky's day, many modern thinkers hold that free will is severely
limited or nonexistent. They argue that genetics and environmental factors
are the primary determinants of human behavior. Do you agree or disagree?
If you agree, do you also believe that a rapist, a murderer, or a child
molester is not responsible for his crime?
Does the Underground Man suffer
from a mental disability?
In an informative essay, trace
the history of the term utopia.
In an informative essay, trace
the history of the term nihilist.
To what extent does Dostoevsky
base Notes From the Underground on his own experiences?
Write an essay evaluating the
impact of Chernyshevsky's ideas on Russian society.
Does the novel in any way foreshadow
the overthrow of Soviet communism in the 1980s?