Notes from Underground
Introduction to Notes From Underground
Notes From Underground is one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's most well renowned novels. It is thought to be one of the first existentialist Russian works. The novella is the disorganized memoir of an unknown narrator, who is referred to by critics as the Underground Man. His narration is disjointed and unreliable, and is colored by a general sense of disdain. Notes From Underground is split into two major parts, and synthesizes philosophical and fictional prose; with Part I containing virtually no plot whatsoever, merely the Underground Man’s generalized chaotic pondering and descriptions of his surroundings. Part I manages to provide a glimpse into the Underground Man’s diseased psyche. Part II tells of the Underground Man’s ventures above ground, and illustrates that he is incapable of forming meaningful relationships with others. His interactions with other people congruently bring him joy and tear him down, which is why he chooses to remain underground. The reoccurring themes in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, such as hopelessness, self-consciousness, and his grotesque Gogol-esque style of prose, proved to hold much literary influence on 20th century Russian writers, exemplified in novels such as We, Envy, and Master and Margarita.
The Novel's Title
Notes From Underground, (original Russian Записки из подполья, Zapiski iz podpol'ya) can also be transliterated into English as Notes From the Underground or Letters of the Underworld. The novella is entitled Notes From Underground, as it is the memoir of a disturbed man, who has spent his entire life ‘underground,’ and thus has no place in proper society. The novella is simply Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man recanting why he remains underground, and will not resurface. Dostoyevsky’s disjointed and jumpy first person style of prose enhanced the sense of chaos inherent in the novella, as it is relative of one taking notes, which can be jumbled or misinterpreted. By the conclusion of Notes From Underground the Underground Man has starkly retreated from society and further underground, into himself, where he can be alone with his overly conscious thoughts.
Egoism, or the sense of self is a reoccurring and pervasive theme throughout the entirety of Notes From Underground. Dostoyevsky narrates the novel through The Underground Man, whose enhanced sense of self is at once his greatest strength and most powerful weakness. Despite the fact that his ego prevents him from functioning in proper society the Underground Man revels in his enhanced sense of consciousness, stating, “But gentleman, whoever can pride himself on his diseases and even swagger over them? ... Though after all, everyone does do that; people do pride themselves on their diseases, and I do, may be, more than anyone (pg 5, Notes, Dostoyevsky).” The Underground Man uses his ego, which he equates to an illness as a way of drawing parallels between himself and others. He is a fully conscious man, therefore inherently superior to those that blunder foolishly throughout life such as Zverkov. In Notes From Underground, his memoir, the Underground Man places himself upon a pedestal, therefore giving himself the power to emotionally abuse and manipulate those such as Liza, whom he tears apart, stating that her dreams of escaping prostitution are ridiculous and naïve. Dostoyevsky, in fact was disturbed by the idea of ego and its spread from the West into Russian society, James P. Scanlan states,
“In the 1860s Dostoevsky's interest in the phenomenon of egoism was powerfully fed by his conviction that a narrow focus on the ego or self--something he considered endemic in Western civilization--was a plague that increasingly threatened Russia. We know from many sources that he regarded the spread of egoism in his homeland as a direct consequence of the Westernization of Russia and a prime moral, even mortal, danger (idehist.uu.se, Scanlan).”
Therefore, his usage of the Underground Man as a parody and defamation of the Russian ideal of egoism and the novel nihilistic philosophies that accompanied it seems fit, as Dostoyevsky’s protagonist serves as a scathing critique of a system of beliefs that Dostoyevsky found appalling and lackluster.
Existentialism or, “the notion that the full life can only be realized and a significant identity achieved through an irrational commitment to a belief outside the self, an act which is a leap of faith rather than any considered decision based upon rational analysis…( records.viu.ca, Johnson),” is also thrust into the forefront of Notes From Underground. The Underground Man’s actions are solely based on his irrational, and erratic viewpoint, dictated by his enhanced sense of consciousness. Due to his enhanced sense of ego, it is improbable that any social situation he is involved in, does not include the other party scathingly critiquing his character, and attempting outright to wrong him. This is exemplified in the Underground Man’s encounter with the nameless Officer in Part I of Notes, where he is convinced that the Officer pushed him out of the way, in a crowded street purely out of spite. The Underground Man then goes out of his way spending several years plotting to right the wrong that the officer committed, and gain revenge. Furthermore, the Underground Man is recanting the actions in Notes From Underground in order to gain a more thorough understanding of himself, and his consciousness in relation to his actions. Yelizaveta Rapoport states,
“He is struggling to understand his life, to make sense of his existence, and to comprehend the true nature of his being. Jean-Paul Sartre, a pioneer of existentialism, wrote in his work “Existentialism and Human Emotions that, ‘man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and defines himself afterwards’ (345). The ‘underground man’ is doing just that, he’s struggling to define himself after encountering existence in his world. His journal entries illustrate his depression, his disparity, and his loss. He is all alone, and his only hope to truly see himself, to truly understand his own presence in the universe is through introspection. The ‘underground man’ is struggling to develop an understanding of the nature of his being, and the nature of the universe around him. He is a cardinal symbol of existentialist philosophy (international.ucla.edu, Rapoport).”
Notes From Underground is thought to be an elaborate parody of Nietzsche and his nihilist school of thought. [This cannot be so as Nietzsche's first book was published in 1872, 8 years after the publication of Notes from Underground, in 1864. When Dostovevsky's novella was published, Nietzsche was only 20 and could not have been known to the Russian author]. He creates an utterly pathetic character, and uses him in undermining every belief that the nihilists hold dear. Joseph Frank states,
“This parody however, does not consist merely in rejecting Nihilism and setting up a competing version of ‘human nature’ in its place. Rather since parody is ridicule by imitation, Dostoyevsky assimilates the major doctrines of Russian nihilism into the life of his Underground Man; and by revealing the hopeless dilemmas in which he lands himself as a result; Dostoyevsky intends to undermine these doctrines from within (4, Frank).”
The Underground Man’s inability to function within society, to form friendships, or to communicate with others, all are irritated by the nihilistic outlook that feeds into the Underground Man’s enhanced ego. The Underground Man rejects all moral and religious beliefs and replaces them with a new, corrupt conduct of behavior, where every action is premeditated, and all people are inherently evil and out to spurn him. He then applies his behaviors to others, and as they do not, and never will adhere to his beliefs, is forced to retreat further underground, further within himself and his consciousness.
Dostoyevsky also addresses free will and the 19th century movement of Rational Egoism through his protagonist. Rational Egoism is the belief that free will is fictitious, every action one takes is predetermined by the complexities of society or ones own self. The Underground Man seems against the ideal of Rational Egoism as he spends the entirety of the novella trying to exert control over his ego and self. The Underground Man is rendered an elaborate satire of the Rational Egoist, trying to gain freedom while having none. Bernard J. Paris states,
“One reason why the Underground Man wants freedom so much is that he possesses so little of it. His behavior is involuntary, he is aware of the inevitability of his reactions and feels them to be expressions of natural law. His hatred of the laws of nature is in part, hatred of his own compulsions, which he longs to escape (46, Paris).”
Literary critics however, argue that Dostoyevsky uses the Underground Man to oppose Rational Egoism. For he is a character crafted from parodies and satires, he vehemently believes in his freedom of self, and is in strict opposition of Rational Egoism. The Underground Man’s ridiculous behaviors can be seen as open expressions of self and free will. The Underground Man merely acts irrationally and inappropriately because he has the ability to. His actions never yield positive results, but they enhance his consciousness, self, and ego.
“For one thing, the Underground Man often appears to reject Rational Egoism directly and unambivalently, with no suggestion of violating some prior intellectual commitment. Moreover, discursive arguments are discernable in the Underground Man’s feverish monologue, and they are invariably directed against Rational Egoism, never in favor of it (551, The Case, Scanlan).”
Though there are still many debates regarding whether the Underground Man supports or invalidates the beliefs that Rational Egoists supported, it is clear that Rational Egoism, and the ideas of free will and what constitutes it are overarching, important themes throughout Dostoyevsky’s text.
Christian Motifs and Symbolism
Dostoyevsky was raised in a highly devout Russian family, and thus holds a great knowledge of Christian doctrine. Though he went through periods of agnosticism, religion remained a constant factor in Dostoyevsky’s personal life, as well as in his text. Notes From Underground utilizes religious symbolism through the supporting characters, primarily Liza, the saintly, naïve prostitute, and Apollon the Underground Man’s disgruntled manservant. Literary critics equate Liza to a Mary Magdalene allegory, with her consistent acceptance of the Underground Man’s abusive behaviors, and her ability to love him despite his incredibly flawed interior. Aurora Choi from Middlebury elaborates,
“Liza, Dostoevsky's first attempt at portraying a saintly prostitute, makes her appearance in "Notes from Underground," a short story published in 1864. The Underground Man, the narrator of the story, visits the brothel where she works and sleeps with her. In their ensuing conversation, he learns that she is a 20 year-old runaway from Riga who must earn her living as a prostitute in St. Petersburg (2:6). She is already in debt to the madam, so cannot freely leave the brothel. Her only hope is a medical student who knows nothing of her occupation and sends her a love letter (2:7). After the Underground Man's abusive tirade, she turns the other cheek, refusing to lash back out at him (2:7). She visits him in his home, and after another tirade, she forgives him yet again and sleeps with him (2:9) out of love rather than profit. In a moment of cruelty, he pays her for her services, and she departs, never to be seen again (2:10) (middlebury.edu, Choi)”
Liza’s purity, even in the face of her profession, makes her the perfect foil to the Underground Man, who Dostoyevsky has crafted to display all that is wrong with humanity. One can also equate Liza’s relationship with the Underground Man to be another form of Dostoyevsky’s undermining nihilist beliefs. For, nihilism goes hand and hand with atheism, and the Underground Man cannot predict the actions of Liza or Apollon, due to the fact that they are religious allegories, and as a nihilist the Underground Man cannot comprehend religion. Apollon, who consistently holds the Underground Man’s disdain, is thought to be a Gogolian lord of death, lurking within the shadows of the Underground Man’s crumbling estate. Robert Louis Jackson states,
“The episode in which the Underground Man confronts Apollon the servant is central in defining the true nature of the Underground Man’s universe and his place in it. Here the servant is master – and master, servant. Apollon is not a symbol of the god of sunlight, but a kind of plebian god of death, a rat exterminator who also reads psalms over the dead (73, Jackson).”
Apollon who clearly holds no respect for the Underground Man, goes out of his way to make the Underground Man more unhappy, and thereby force him to retreat deeper into his Underground world. Apollon, is almost reminiscent of a devil, another type of religious character that Dostoyevsky enjoys employing in his novels.
The Artistic Dominant
The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin believed Notes From Underground to be an archetypal, new type of prose, with a narrator whose consciousness was the sole construct of his character. He came up with the term artistic dominant, explaining,
“Self consciousness, as the artistic dominant governing the construction of a character cannot lie alongside other features of his image; it absorbs these other features into itself as its own material and deprives them of any power to define and finalize the hero (50, Bakhtin).”
Through utilizing the Underground Man as the artistic dominant, Dostoyevsky creates a new form of philosophical and fictional writing, where the idea of ‘truth’ is foreign, and only the Underground Man’s pure consciousness exists. The reader is ensnared in the Underground Man’s twisted logic and forced into his dark, dismal, nihilist world. This usage of the Underground Man allows Dostoyevsky the privilege of not fleshing out his other characters, and narrowing his focus to the Underground Man, and his corrupted nature.
Dostoyevsky was imprisoned in 1860, exiled and committed to four years of hard labour in a prison camp in Omsk, Siberia. When incarcerated Dostoyevsky learned of the gap in communication between the literate upper classes and poorly educated lower classes. The citizens of lower birth disliked all members of the literati, believing that they were overly Europeanized and selfish, despite their concerted efforts to aid the lower classes. This devastated Dostoyevsky, who believed that through attempting to educated those of low birth he was aiding them and gaining their trust. By the end of his stay in Omsk, Dostoyevsky had come to the conclusion that the only way to regain societal harmony was to cast away European ideals and lifestyle, and return to a completely holistic Russian form of existence. After being released from Omsk, Dostoyevsky took two trips abroad, visiting England, Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany. He was exposed to many new European schools of thought, including nihilism. These new, distinctly European philosophies upset Dostoyevsky, who still believed in the rejection of European ideologies in lieu of classic Russian beliefs. Dostoyevsky also published Notes From Underground during a bleak period. His wife had recently died, and his literary journal had failed. His personal life and career were failing. The inherent bitterness in Notes From Underground reflected this, with even Dostoyevsky remarking on how angry his protagonist sounded. Note From Underground was published in 1864, and met with great criticism in Russia, as the novel portrayed Utopian Socialist ideals in a negative light. Notes From Underground did not gain popularity until it was released in the West, where, ironically, it was given great accolades and praises. In 1866, two years after releasing Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky published his most renowned work, Crime and Punishment, which became a literary sensation. Perhaps, since Dostoyevsky had renewed successes in his private and personal lives, Crime and Punishment did not hold the innate senses of angst and bitterness that Notes From Underground did, and the novels barely resonated with one another. Notes From Underground is considered to be written in the early period of Dostoyevsky's career, prior to his maturation into a more capable, effective writer.
Notes From Underground is written as a memoir of a nameless man, and is thought to be the first existentialist Russian novel, as well as a biting critique of the, new nihilist beliefs that were pervasive in 19th century Russian society. Upon its release Notes From Underground was rejected by Soviet literary critics due to its negative views on Utopian Socialism, an important ideal of Socialist Russia.
Dostoyevsky was influenced by Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, and the novel grotesque, bleak style of narration that Gogol employed. The world of the Underground Man is bleak, it is always snowing, and the descriptions of the characters the Underground Man encounters are twisted, making them into caricatures. This is reminiscent of Gogol’s characterization of the citizens that his protagonist, Chichikov encounters. Robert Louis Jackson describes the world the Underground Man inhabits as, “a Gogolian world where everything has the conventional and abstract character of a stage, where ‘all is deception (70, Jackson).’”
Dostoyevsky’s novella is also a satire, a parody of nihilist thoughts and beliefs. Dostoyevsky was strongly against the nihilist movement of thought, and used his novel as a way to undercut the nihilist belief system. These socialist radicals, such as Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, believed that man was inherently good, which completely differed from Dostoyevsky’s view, as he believed that man was inherently evil, and had to go out of his way to be good. Joseph Frank points out,
“Chernyshevsky and the radicals believed that man was innately good and amenable to reason, and that, once enlightened to his true interests, reason and science would ultimately enable him to construct a perfect society. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, believed that man was innately evil, irrational, capricious, and destructive; not reason but only faith in Christ could ever succeed in helping him master the chaos of his impulses (1, Frank).”
Dostoyevsky’s religious beliefs are evident throughout Notes From Underground, though the Underground Man is an atheist; he is surrounded by religious allegories, such as the pure, untarnished Liza, who serves as a Mary Magdalene figure, and his servant Apollon, who serves as a type of devil. Notes From Underground, and its existentialist themes of the individual versus the collective influenced many 20th century dystopian works, such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. The idea of the anti-hero and the main character as a ‘loser’ who is incapable of functioning, yet finds himself superior to others was paralleled in Yuri Olesha’s Envy, another 20th century Russian novel. Mikhail Belakov’s Master and Margarita also holds Dostoyevskian influences, as it also parodies nihilistic beliefs and addresses existentialism through its bevy of characters. Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground continues to hold a great deal of importance; as the first existential novel any novel with existentialist themes therefore takes Dostoyevskian influence.
1. Why do you think that Dostoyevsky chooses not to reveal the identity of his narrator? Does it add additional meaning to the content of his story?
2. Does the Underground Man support or deny the idea of Rational Egoism? Is he symbolic of free will, and the treacherous lengths one will go to gain it?
3. If Dostoyevsky had not gone through the trials and tribulations he endured in 1864 (i.e. his wife dying and the premature failings of his career)do you think he would have produced Notes From Underground? Why?
4. Why is the mere idea of existing so important to the Underground Man? Think of his encounters with the Unnamed Officer and Zverkov, why does The Underground Man continuously go out of his way to throw his existence and ideals in the paths of other people?
5. In the context of parodying nihilism is Notes From Underground a successful novel, or is the sense of satire too deep, and too subtle? Personally, in terms of plot and context do you consider Notes From Underground to be a successful novel? Is Notes From Underground even a novel, or did Dostoyevsky create a discourse on nihilist and existentialist philosophies?
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Scanlan, James P. "James P. Scanlan on Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground." James P. Scanlan on Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Mikhail Horqvist, 2004. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.idehist.uu.se/distans/ilmh/pm/dostoevsky-scanlan01.htm>.
Choi, Aurora E. "A Russian Magdalen: Dostoevsky's Saintly Prostitute." A Russian Magdalen: Dostoevsky's Saintly Prostitute. Middlebury University, 7 May 1995. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://community.middlebury.edu/~beyer/courses/previous/ru351/studentpapers/Magdalen.shtml>.
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