Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Context

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Structure: Diary and Confessional

The narrator composes the novel as a kind of diary consisting of notes he writes about his life and thoughts. The diary form allows the narrator to reveal his innermost being, with all its flaws and contradictions. In revealing himself in this way, the narrator confesses to some rather vile ideas and motivations and to some terrible deeds. Because a diary is supposed to be private, the narrator feels free to confess his bad behavior and the humiliations he's suffered.

The diary form also allows the narrator to construct an imagined audience. The narrator argues with figments of his brain that represent specific social groups, sometimes explaining their views of the world and then raging furiously against them.

Existentialism

Notes from Underground is considered to be one of the first existential novels. Existentialism is a philosophy that states humans must seek to find meaning, identity, and morality in a meaningless and incomprehensible universe. The existential person struggles to understand who he or she is and how this identity fits into an unknowable universe. Because the universe is beyond knowing, the existentialist also struggles to understand what constitutes moral action. If the universe is without meaning, is all action permitted? For an existentialist the foundation of being and action is free will—the paramount good. As there are no "given" morals in this indifferent universe, the existentialist must assume responsibility for his or her actions—for the consequences (morality) of exerting her or his free will. The existentialist must also take responsibility for creating meaning in his or her own life.

In this novel the narrator insists on acting according to his free will and rails against any social construct that impedes it. That his actions are sometimes bizarre, senseless, or cruel exemplifies his freedom and illuminates the search for meaning in his life. Throughout the book the narrator justifies his motivations and actions as reflections of his free will, his struggle to shape his identity, and his search for meaning in the world and human life. The Underground Man lives alone, and his isolation helps him explore the true nature of his being and of human nature in relation to others and society.

Western Cultural Influences

Rational Egoism

The first part of Notes from Underground is a response to rational egoism, the prevailing social theory in Russia, as well as in Europe, in the 1860s. Rational egoism is a belief humans are innately good and if they always act rationally and in their best self-interests the world would become a utopia—or perfect society—of reason and harmony. The rational egoists were convinced people could be taught to act with self-interested rationality, and once that was accomplished, the fruits of rationality (particularly science) would lead ultimately to a perfect utopian society. In Russia the foremost spokesman for the benefits of rational egoism was Russian philosopher Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who popularized his ideas in his 1863 book What Is to Be Done?

Fyodor Dostoevsky vehemently opposed this rational, utopian vision. For him humans are innately irrational, capricious, and evil. Dostoevsky describes humans as he experienced them in real life. He insists they are unstable and destructive, acting more from dark impulses than from enlightened rational thought. His loathing of rational egoism motivated Dostoevsky to write Notes from Underground, in which he dissects and lampoons the regimentation and absurdity of rational egoism and its wholly unrealistic notion of human nature. For Dostoevsky the ultimate good in human nature is free will. One of the glaring flaws in rational egoism was its elimination of free will, which had to be sacrificed to determined rational action. In this novel Dostoevsky reveals with wit and passion how misguided this philosophy is. In the words of critic Ernest J. Simmons, the hero of Notes from Underground instead "finally realizes ... the fundamental opposition of his nature is one between will and reason," a contradiction he cannot resolve.

In idealizing reason and self-interest to the exclusion of all else, the rational egoists also undermined ethics and moral social values. In Dostoevsky's view altruism, compassion, and community would be swept aside to make way for morally repellent, regimentally rational selfishness. Dostoevsky uses all his powers of argument and imagination to show how inhuman and ultimately foolhardy this worldview is.

It is worth noting, however, rational egoism prevails among some thinkers. It is the philosophy expounded by Russian novelist Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and is the foundation of much of libertarian (referring to a political philosophy that advocates minimal government intervention in the lives of citizens) economics and politics.

Romanticism

The second part of Notes from Underground recounts events that took place in the 1840s, 20 years before Part 1. Here Dostoevsky lampoons the ideas of the romantics, who dominated Russian and European culture during this period. Romanticism emphasized deeply felt emotion as the truest expression of human nature. Romantics of the period elevated nature, the simple life, and tradition as the highest human good.

The romantics rejected the strictly rational philosophy that characterized the Enlightenment of the late 18th century. In its place the romantics exalted instinct, intuition, and feeling. They rejected scientific and technological progress that tended to remove humans from a natural and happy immersion in the beauty of the natural world. The romantics thought such refined sensibilities gave them a natural "superiority" over the general run of people, especially those who were less educated and well read. Romantic writers exalted the spirit of the extraordinary individual who with his more finely wrought emotions existed far above the dull pettiness of everyday life.

Russian romanticism produced some of the nation's greatest literature, especially the poems and stories of Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). Although Pushkin and other literary luminaries might have lived spiritually exalted lives, most ordinary people who adopted the ideas of romanticism based their thoughts and actions on those they read about in romantic literature. As Dostoevsky reveals repeatedly, appearing "literary" was of paramount importance to people who presumed to be romantics. In Dostoevsky's view, because they got their romantic ideas secondhand, people who assumed the mantle of romanticism were spiritually starved. Their inner lives were trivial and second-rate, and they lacked the drive and conviction of individuals capable of forceful action in the real world. Dostoevsky refers to Russian romantics as "cowards and slaves." They have no real ideas of their own; their heads are filled with notions and fantasies taken from books. As portrayed by Dostoevsky, they are rather ridiculous.

St. Petersburg and the Crystal Palace

St. Petersburg, Russia, was founded by Czar Peter I (Peter the Great, 1672–1725) in May 1703 and became Russia's capital in 1712. It lies over 400 miles northwest of Moscow on the Neva River. An admirer of European culture, including its elegant architecture, Peter the Great wanted his new capital to be an elegant mix of Russian and European styles. The city was a carefully planned metropolis of large squares and wide boulevards, reflecting the progressive sophistication and beauty of European cities. Dostoevsky despised St. Petersburg because it represented "alien" European rather than true Russian culture.

Dostoevsky also reviled the Crystal Palace, a feeling reflected by the Underground Man in Notes from Underground. The Crystal Palace was built in London for the Great Exhibition (like a World's Fair) of 1851. The edifice was considered an engineering marvel in its day. The building was designed as a prefabricated metal grid of many identical shapes into which millions of identical panes of glass were inserted. The uniformity of its components allowed the building to be extended by any number of added modules. When it was complete, the Crystal Palace was 1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide, with a ceiling towering more than 100 feet above the floor. The Great Exhibition showcased the engineering "progress" of that time, with 14,000 exhibits showing off inventions and "new technologies."

Dostoevsky disliked the structure for its rigid modularity and the uniformity of its parts but also for the "scientific progress" it celebrated. In addition, the Crystal Palace was praised by Nikolay Chernyshevsky as a "miracle of art, beauty, and splendor," and Dostoevsky felt equal revulsion for the other writer's beliefs.

Style in Notes from Underground

This novel is a critique of social ideas that were generally accepted in Russia during the 1840s and 1860s. In Notes from Underground Dostoevsky employs several literary techniques to criticize or lampoon the popular ideas he loathes.

  • Satire and Contradiction: Dostoevsky uses satire to express his contempt for many ideas. In satire a writer uses exaggeration, distortion, or outrageous notions to mock or ridicule a subject. Sometimes Dostoevsky satirizes a worldview by seeming to embrace and explain it, but does so in such a way as to reveal its absurdity. He also uses contradictions to show how alien, non-Russian philosophies disorient the mind of the main character, the Underground Man.
  • Verbal Irony: Writers who use verbal irony intend the opposite of the literal meaning of a word or phrase. For example, Dostoevsky may refer to rational egoists as "educated" in a sentence that portrays them as uneducated fools.
  • Parody: Parody is imitation of something a writer wants to disparage or ridicule. In Part 2 of Notes from Underground, the narrator takes on the viewpoint and speech of a Russian romantic, but he does so in a way that caricatures the romantic view. Parody often creates humor, and humor is one way in which the author ridicules the people and ideas he abhors.

Allusions to Language, Russian Society & Culture, Literature, and History

The text contains numerous allusions or references to aspects of Russian culture, literary works, and historical events.

Language

  • amour propre: French for "self-esteem"
  • aux animaux doméstiques: French for "domestic animals"
  • chambres garnies: French for "furnished rooms"
  • droit de seigneur: French, literally "right of the lord"; it refers to the right of feudal lords to be the first to have sex with the newly married bride of a male serf
  • fatum: Latin for "strange calamity"
  • Lafite: a very fine and expensive Bordeaux wine from France (grown at the Chateau Lafite)
  • l'homme de la nature et de la verité: French for "the man of nature and truth"
  • superflu: French, used here to mean "ultrarefined"

Russian Society and Culture

  • "as anyone pleases": the title of an article published in 1863 by a writer (M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin) with whose ideas Dostoevsky vehemently disagreed
  • chenapan: French for "rascal"
  • collegiate assessor: a member of the Russian civil service in czarist times whose rank in that service was the equivalent of the military rank of major. The narrator achieved this rank one year before writing Notes from Underground (1864).
  • Five Corners: the common name for a St. Petersburg intersection where four streets intersect to create five corners
  • Ge (pronounced gay): a Russian painter of the 1860s whose work Dostoevsky hated
  • Gostiny Arcade: a covered shopping center in St. Petersburg
  • Kagan: a bird in Russian folklore who brings people happiness
  • two-hundred souls: during the period before Russian serfs were freed (1861) estates were assessed on how many "souls" (male serfs) lived and worked on them
  • Wagenheims: refers to the eight dentists named Wagenheim practicing in St. Petersburg at this time

Literary Allusions

  • A. E. Anaevsky: A hack writer (1788–1866) frequently mocked in the Russian press during the 1840s–60s
  • And now full measure: the last words in the epigraphic poem that opens Part 2 of the novel
  • Crystal Palace: The Crystal Palace was an actual building constructed in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Here, however, it refers to Chernyshevsky's discussion of the Crystal Palace as an ideal structure representing a rational utopia, from his book What Is to Be Done?
  • Epigraph to Part 2: an excerpt from a poem by Russian writer N. A. Nekrasov (1821–78) that tells a tale of a prostitute rescued from her life of debauchery
  • George Sand: Sand (1804–76) was a female French novelist much admired in Russia during the 1860s for her stances on humanitarian and social issues.
  • Heine and Rousseau: German poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) wrote it is impossible to write truthfully about one's own character. He uses as an example the 1770 Confessions (1782) of French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), which Heine says contains falsehoods.
  • King of Spain: The hero of Gogol's Diary of a Madman (1835) is a clerk who goes mad and comes to believe he's the king of Spain.
  • Kostanzhoglo and Uncle Pyotr Ivanovich (Aduyev): practical and commonsensical fictional Russian characters created by Russian authors. The first is a character in Dead Souls (1842) by Nikolai Gogol (1809–51) and the other is a character in An Ordinary Story (1847) by Ivan Goncharov (1812–91).
  • Lieutenant Pirogov in Gogol: a hero in Gogol's Nevsky Prospect (1835) who is beaten by an angry German and wants to file a complaint against him
  • manfredian: refers to the melancholy, world-weary subject of the 1817 poem Manfred by English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824)
  • Silvio and Masquerade by Lermontov: Silvio is the vengeful hero of an 1830 short story, "The Shot," by Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). Masquerade (1852), a drama by Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov (1814–41), contains a character similarly devoted to revenge.
  • Weimar and Schwarzwald: destinations for Russian romantics. Weimar in Germany became a center for romantic intellectuals because the great German poet Goethe (1749–1832) lived there. The Schwarzwald (Black Forest) in Germany is a famously "romantic" setting in Germany's Rhine Valley.

Historical References

  • Attila (the Hun): a warrior (c. 406–53) who devastated Eastern Europe with his armies
  • Buckle: Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–62), a British historian who believed wars would end as civilizations developed
  • Austerlitz: location of an 1805 victory of French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte's over a Russian-Austrian army
  • Colossus of Rhodes: a huge ancient Greek statue that stood over the harbor of the Greek island of Rhodes
  • Lake Como: a lake in the Italian Alps world-famous for it stunning beauty
  • Schleswig-Holstein: In the 18th century, a province of Denmark, which fought a war against Prussia to retain it
  • Stepan (Stenka) Timofeyevich Razin: a Cossack (someone from southern Russia and Ukraine) and hero (d. 1671) who led a peasant revolt in Russia
  • Villa Borghese: an opulent villa built in 1615 by Camillo Borghese, who married Napoleon's sister
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