Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Symbols

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The Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace was built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. As a showcase for inventions arising from science and engineering, the Crystal Palace exalted the rationality that underpins the sciences. For this reason Fyodor Dostoevsky uses the symbol of the Crystal Palace in Part I of the novel to represent the soul-crushing rigidity and rationality of the rational egotists of his day, as well as the "alien" progress that came with it. He is especially opposed to the palace because it was praised by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a proponent of rational egoism whose beliefs Dostoevsky reviled. Notes from Underground is in part a response to Chernyshevsky's ideas.

For Dostoevsky the Crystal Palace represents rigid uniformity, especially in its modular design where each module is identical to and interchangeable with all others. This "cog-like" and anti-individualistic structure highlighted newfangled inventions that represent the evils of "progress." The Crystal Palace is also an emblem of Western European culture, which Dostoevsky believed was alien to and undermined Russian culture and tradition.

St. Petersburg and Wet Snow

St. Petersburg represents the "progressive" Russian's misguided admiration for Western European culture. St. Petersburg was planned to be a capital city modeled on renowned European capitals such as Paris. For this reason the Underground Man feels alienated living in St. Petersburg, which he depicts as representing the pollution of Russian culture by degenerate Western rationality and ideas. The city is a symbol of Western rationalism that undermines true Russianness.

Part 2 of the novel is titled "Apropos of the Wet Snow," even though wet snow is irrelevant to the plot of the story except for the way in which it erases Liza's tracks. Romantic writers of the 1840s used the phrase "wet snow" to represent St. Petersburg. Thus "wet snow" shares the same symbolic meaning as St. Petersburg.

Conformity versus Free Will

Piano Key

A piano key is locked into its slot on the keyboard and can only sound its single note. The piano key is another representation for Dostoevsky of the prison of conformity and rigid social roles imposed on individuals by the rational egoists.

Ants

In Part 1 Dostoevsky compares society to an "anthill," which represents his view of Russian society in the 1860s. In an anthill each ant is not an individual with its own will but merely a mindless being whose sole purpose in life is the upkeep of the ant colony. The anthill therefore represents the loss of individual identity rational egoism would force on society.

Math

Math, too, represents rational rigidity and loss of the individual's free will and imagination. Dostoevsky argues furiously against the rational egoists' insistence 2 X 2 must always equal 4. Dostoevsky demands his right to exert his free will and insists he can make 2 X 2 = 5. Math and science represent the soulless tyranny of rationality that robs people of their free will and their ability to think freely, even if unreasonably, for themselves.

Stone Wall

Dostoevsky uses the symbol of the stone wall (or sometimes simply a wall) to represent the prisonlike society the rational egoists want to create. In the rational egoist utopia, all individuality is circumscribed by the wall of rationality. This wall prescribes and therefore severely limits individual thought, action, and the exercise of free will.

Dostoevsky also despises the stone wall because he understands if the rational egoists have their way, all "rational" citizens within the fortress society would be helping to build the stone wall that constrains them. So the wall represents not only the social fortress itself, but the complicity of individuals whose rationality builds their own prison.

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