Introduction to Notes from Underground
Written by the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, this masterpiece, Notes from Underground, first appeared on the bookshelves in 1864. It was translated into many languages after that. The novel’s story and thematic strands have led the critics to term it the first existentialist piece in literature. The novel presents the story of an anonymous narrator, who is living in the town of St. Petersburg. The first part is his monologue, while the second comprises the events he has to undergo during his lifetime.
Summary of Notes from Underground
The story happens in the Russian town of St. Petersburg, where the narrator is living a retired life with bitter memories. After having some inheritance, he starts writing his reflections about his life, his environment, his attitude toward modern society, and interpretations and explanations of his actions. The first part of the story “Underground” shows him having crossed forty years. It serves the purpose of an explanatory note regarding his thinking about the world. He starts narrating the events after expressing his disgust about himself, ruminating that his intellectual capacity and his excessive reading have caused this ruination of his mental thinking, taking it as the main reason for the ruination of all intellectual people. Disillusioned with his theories, he appreciates the idea of subline but is unaware of its abstraction.
Slowly, this underground man comes to the point that he hates utilitarianism, thinking that it is not man’s primary purpose of living a good life; rather, the main purpose of his life is to use the free will that he thinks is of prime significance. He forms his own opinion about utilitarianism, saying that the actions of doing nasty things are the main expression of the use of this free will. He goes on to think that has started enjoying his pains and developing a capacity to take pleasure even in toothache, or headache, or any other such pain. Although he understands his bizarre behavior, he does not take pride in it; rather he feels disgusted at it, thinking that he is unable to become anything except what he is. With these thoughts, the first part of the narrative comes to an end.
The second part “Apropos of the Wet Snow” starts with the events from the life of the man when he was just 24. He shows how he used to act upon the ideas he used to harbor in his mind to reach the stage of maturity from his romantic idealism to practicality and pragmatism. However, cynicism has prevailed over his thoughts, making him become disenchanted with this loftiness and beauty of his thoughts. This section also sheds light on his interaction with the people he comes across in his life, ranging from soldiers to school fellows and pimps to prostitutes but he soon feels alienated from the public in that he feels betrayed. He has come to the conclusion that he cannot act normally with the people, the reason that he considers people worthless and humiliating. This also becomes a source of his self-repudiation and self-loathing.
The demonstration of his self-loathing appears in the shape of disgusting behavior toward others. For example, he is obsessed with the idea of not yielding way to a soldier in the park. Similarly, he visits his schoolmates and goes with them for a dinner but humiliates them openly and yet craves a good relationship with them. When he returns home, he visits the market and stops to rescue Liza after delivering her a moral lecture about the life hereafter. However, she also pities him when she visits him later after which he berates her, making her flee his apartment. After ending his notes here, he decides to stop writing and yet continues.
Major Themes in Notes from Underground
- Passivity: The novel, Notes from Underground, shows the thematic strand of passivity through the thoughts of the man. He is engaged in thinking over everything else under the sun with little action on any of these. The reason behind his passivity is his over-thinking of everything, and doing nothing. Even if he thinks out an idea to take action, he contradicts it after giving it a second thought, refuting his own argument of doing it. For example, when he plans to visit Zverkov to slap him, he arrives too late and never executes his plan, leading to eventual inertia in him. Therefore, the more intelligent he makes out of himself, the more boredom prevails on him, making him more passive and inactive.
- Loneliness: Loneliness is another prevalent theme in the novel in that the underground man not only stays lonely but also keeps his loneliness a prize by keeping himself aloof from society. Living by himself and depending on none has made him not only a cynic but also a rude person. His scorn toward others has brought rejection from them, intensifying his own sense of loneliness. This loneliness and its intensification have made his feelings ambivalent toward society as he shows during his meeting with the officer or with Zverkov. By the end, it becomes so much biting and embarrassing for him that he even feels ashamed to have written the notes.
- Human Nature: The reflective introduction of the first part of the novel shows the thematic strand of human nature that similar to him, is spiteful and sick, the reason that he considers human beings incapable of rational thinking. The comparison of human beings with animals and the degeneration of human nature make him brood over his assessment and make him feel more pessimistic and nihilistic, the reason that he considers all the irrational thoughts part of human nature. In fact, his self-hatred reaches its peak by the end when he says that “it’s impossible to be as spiteful and stupid as I am.”
- Rational Thinking: The main argument of the underground man is that human beings are not rational creatures and that human history is full of irrationality. Even the best interests of man are not served if everybody claims to be so, for if it would be based on scientific thinking, then it is not free will, and if it is free will, it would be irrational. The best example that he presents is his self-contradiction that he contradicts every other argument that he himself presents. For example, he faces the choice when he thinks about Zverkov whether he should visit him and the same goes when he tries to invite Liza.
- Suffering: The theme of self-loathing is almost similar to the theme of suffering, for the underground man enjoys making him suffer from his self-loathing. He hates himself and hates others. Even in his fantasy, he tries to irritate others while he teases his schoolfellows and whomever he meets in the real world. When he meets Liza, he brings her to tears by spitting venom on her at her situation.
- Hatred: Hatred for others as well as for the person himself is another major theme. Even the opening lines of the notes of the underground man show that he is a self-hater involved in excessive self-loathing. He says that “I am an unattractive man,” which points to his excessive self-hatred. Therefore, when he trivializes rationality and free will, he contradicts himself as well as others and comes to the point of self-loathing again. His fantasy about slapping the prostitute and his treatment of his schoolmates are also manifestations of his hatred for others.
- Revenge: The theme of revenge in the novel is significant in that the underground man uses it to justify justice. He does exact revenge from the officer whom he stalks in the early pages when he sees him having a stroll in the park, and he argues the case against his idea of revenge that he would only be satisfied if the officer acknowledges his presence. Later, he tries to exact revenge from Liza and even from Zverkov but decides against it.
- Life of Principles: The theme of the life of principles is based on the idea of the underground man as he thinks that his philosophy of leading his life is based on the principle that he holds dear to himself. He thinks that it is necessary to go through suffering to live a good life having certainties. His first principle becomes the root cause of his entire philosophy that man is naturally irrational, having no free will.
Major Characters in Notes from Underground
- The Underground Man: Despite being a protagonist of the novel, the underground man is anonymous, which has made him an anti-hero on account of his unusual introduction of himself that he is a pessimistic as well as a self-loather. In his thoughts, he is too analytical and sometimes self-contradictory in this analysis but in his actions, he is too passive, boring, and loathsome. His analytic and brooding nature has rendered him socially isolated, the reason that he has become too much cynical and touchy. This also has led him to have low self-opinion about himself and consequently about the entire humanity. His reading, too, has contributed to his cynical and touchy nature, the reason that he even thinks of slapping the prostitutes and then goes late so that he should not do it. Therefore, the major reason for his being bitter about himself and others is his low opinion of himself.
- The Officer: The character of the officer appears in the first part when the underground man tries to pick up a brawl with him, even though he does not take a cue from it and ignores the underground man. Yet, his brooding nature forces him to seek revenge from him for which he thinks to ask him for a dual and rejects this notion later. Then he again thinks of bumping into him somewhere in the street so that he could impose his existence on him to accept him. However, when he has almost done it, the officer again either ignores him or pretends to ignore him which further adds to his misery.
- Zverkov: The character of Zverkov appears in the first part and stays with the underground man in his ruminations due to his significance as being his close friend since his school days. His popularity in the romantic exploits has impacted the underground man lesser than his bragging about those exploits. That is why he visits the going-away party thrown by other classmates and humiliates him. Although he later begs his pardon, he is surprised at his impassionate response that he has never realized the insults. Later, he thinks of slapping him when they are going to meet at the house of a prostitute but does not find him there.
- Liza: Liza is the third significant character in the novel in that the underground man considers her worth his visit along with his classmate, Zverkov. Although he talks to her in condescending terms, considering loveless sex with her anathema for both, yet he suddenly comes to invite her to his home to help her. In both cases, his sudden turn of mind shows that he is sympathetic but feels that she should also sympathize with him, the reason that he breaks down before her when she visits him. She finally leaves him, throwing his money in his face.
- Apollon: As the servant of the underground man, Apollon is rather a snobbish person as demonstrated through his defiance and irritating behavior. Despite his successive efforts to drive him crazy by stopping wages to him, Apollon stares silently and does nothing which makes the underground man crazier. The underground man, therefore, terms him executioner on account of his perseverance to drive him crazy instead of showing his own craziness.
- Simonov: Simonov is the former classmate of the underground man. Whenever the underground man is fed up with life after much brooding over his existence and the world, he visits him when they plan a party for Zverkov, another of their schoolfellow. He thinks that the underground man is not trustworthy, the reason that he does not want to permit him to the party. Despite keeping the underground man in heavy debt, he again lends him money after the underground man begs for it.
- Ferfichkin: Ferfichkin is another of his schoolfellow with whom they attend the party at the apartment of Simonov. He knows the reality of the underground man since his school days and threatens him not to brag about anything. He again fixes him by challenging him to have a dual when the underground man insults Zverkov.
- Anton Antonych Setochkin: The character of Anton is significant in the course of the novel in that he is the main source of lending money to the underground man as being his immediate boss.
- Trudolyubov: The character of Trudolyuboy is almost non-entity in that he only appears at their party and disappears after that. There is no relationship between the underground man and Trudolyuboy.
Writing Style of Notes from Underground
Despite using a simple narrative technique of the first-person narrative, Dostoevsky presents highly manipulative notes in an existentialist style. Even though the text has been translated from Russian into English, still the structural taste of the sentences has not been lost. Most of the sentences are multi-layered with an iteration of the main thematic strand of the novel. For literary devices, the author has relied heavily on metaphors besides similes, irony, and hyperboles.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in Notes from Underground
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the intermittent thoughts of the underground man. The rising action occurs when he plans to slap his friend, Zverkov. However, the falling action occurs when he gets late to the party and could not act upon his plan of slapping him.
- Anaphora: The novel shows examples of anaphora such as,
i. I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe
my liver is diseased. (I)
ii. A poor jest, but I will not scratch it out. I wrote it thinking it would sound very witty; but now that I have seen myself that I only wanted to show off in a despicable way, I will not scratch it out on purpose! (I)
These examples show the repetitious use of “I am” and “I will not scratch it out.”
- Alliteration: Notes from Underground shows the use of alliteration at several places such as,
i.I was simply scaring sparrows at random and amusing myself by it. (I)
ii. But upon my word I sometimes have had moments when if I had happened to be slapped in the face I should, perhaps, have been positively glad of it. (II)
iii. Such a gentleman simply dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down, and nothing but a wall will stop him. (III)
Both examples from the novel show the use of consonant sounds such as the sound of /s/, /h/ and /w/ occurring successively to make the prose melodious and rhythmic.
- Allusions: The novel shows the use of allusions such as,
i. We Russians, speaking generally, have never had those foolish transcendental “romantics”—German, and still more French—on whom nothing produces any effect. (I)
ii. They talked of the Caucasus, of the nature of true passion, of snug berths in the service, of the income of an hussar called Podharzhevsky, whom none of them knew personally, and rejoiced in the largeness of it, of the extraordinary grace and beauty of a Princess D., whom none of them had ever seen; then it came to Shakespeare’s being immortal. (V)
These examples show the use of allusions such as German, romantics, Caucasus and Shakespeare.
- Antagonist: As there is no other person who could make life difficult for the underground man, he himself is the antagonist of the novel.
- Apostrophe: The novel uses apostrophes such as,
i. Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? (III)
ii. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! How much better it is to understand it all, to recognise it all, all the impossibilities and the stone wall. (III)
Both of these examples show the narrator calling abstract ideas for assistance or help.
- Conflict: The novel shows the internal conflict. The conflict is going in the mind of the underground man about his inactive state and his ruminations about his passivity and his condition.
- Characters: The novel, Notes from Underground, shows only static characters such as the underground man, Zverkov, his other friends and Liza.
- Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Liza appears on his door and makes him regret over his invitation to her.
- Hyperbole: The novel shows various examples of hyperboles such as,
i. But it is just in that cold, abominable half despair, half belief, in that conscious burying oneself alive for grief in the underworld for forty years, in that acutely recognised and yet partly doubtful hopelessness of one’s position, in that hell of unsatisfied desires turned inward, in that fever of oscillations, of resolutions determined for ever and repented of again a minute later—that the savour of that strange enjoyment of which I have spoken lies. (III)
ii. You look into it, the object flies off into air, your reasons evaporate, the criminal is not to be found, the wrong becomes not a wrong but a phantom, something like the toothache, for which no one is to blame, and consequently there is only the same outlet left again—that is, to beat the wall as hard as you can. (VI)
Both of these examples exaggerate things as a person cannot stay in this position for such a long time, nor could there be a hell of desire, or nor the object flies or reasons evaporates. All these are hyperboles used in the novel.
- Imagery: Notes from Underground shows the use of imagery such as,
i. I was inwardly conscious with shame that I was not only not a spiteful but not even an embittered man, that I was simply scaring sparrows at random and amusing myself by it. I might foam at the mouth, but bring me a doll to play with, give me a cup of tea with sugar in it, and maybe I should be appeased. I might even be genuinely touched, though probably I should grind my teeth at myself afterwards and lie awake at night with shame for months after. That was my way. (I)
ii. At the steps was standing a solitary night sledge-driver in a rough peasant coat, powdered over with the still falling, wet, and as it were warm, snow. It was hot and steamy. The little shaggy piebald horse was also covered with snow and coughing, I remember that very well. I made a rush for the roughly made sledge; but as soon as I raised my foot to get into it, the recollection of how Simonov had just given me six roubles seemed to double me up and I tumbled into the sledge like a sack. (V)
These two examples show images of feelings, movement, and color.
- Metaphor: Notes from Underground shows the use of various metaphors such as,
i. I felt them positively swarming in me, these opposite elements. I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet from me, but I would not let them, would not let them, purposely would not let them come out. (I)
ii. I was not long in coming to myself; everything came back to my mind at once, without an effort, as though it had been in ambush to pounce upon me again. (VI)
iii. The look in those eyes was coldly detached, sullen, as it were utterly remote; it weighed upon me. (VI)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first shows the elements compared with bees, the second shows things like the dogs or some beast and the look as a weight.
- Mood: The novel, Notes from Underground, shows very depressing mood in the beginning and becomes somewhat happy at times but again moves to sad and sorrowful tones.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel, Notes from Underground, are snow and the prostitute.
- Narrator: The novel, Notes from Underground, has been narrated by the first person, who happens to be the anonymous hero of the novel.
- Paradox: The novel shows the use of paradox such as,
i. And, indeed, I could never endure saying, “Forgive me, Papa, I won’t do it again,” not because I am incapable of saying that—on the contrary, perhaps just because I have been too capable of it, and in what a way, too. (V)
ii. Besides, a man is no example for a woman. It’s a different thing. I may degrade and defile myself, but I am not anyone’s slave. I come and go, and that’s an end of it. I shake it off, and I am a different man. But you are a slave from the start. Yes, a slave! You give up everything, your whole freedom. (VI)
These two examples show paradoxes as the first one shows two contradictory ideas of being capable and incapable and the second shows man and woman given in the same sentences.
- Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications such as,
i. A grim idea came into my brain and passed all over my body, as a horrible sensation, such as one feels when one goes into a damp and mouldy cellar. There was something unnatural in those two eyes, beginning to look at me only now. (VI)
ii. You give your love to be outraged by every drunkard! Love! But that’s everything, you know, it’s a priceless diamond, it’s a maiden’s treasure, love. (VII)
iii. But behind the bewilderment the truth was already gleaming. The loathsome truth. (VII)
These examples show as if the idea, love, and truthfulness have life and emotions of their own.
- Protagonist: The underground man himself is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his reflection about him and ends almost on the same note.
- Repetition: The novel shows the use of repetitions such as,
i. I got to the point of feeling a sort of secret abnormal, despicable enjoyment in returning home to my corner on some disgusting Petersburg night, acutely conscious that that day I had committed a loathsome action again, that what was done could never be undone, and secretly, inwardly gnawing, gnawing at myself for it, tearing and consuming myself till at last the bitterness turned into a sort of shameful accursed sweetness, and at last—into positive real enjoyment! Yes, into enjoyment, into enjoyment! I insist upon that. I have spoken of this because I keep wanting to know for a fact whether other people feel such enjoyment? (II)
ii. It will itself be ashamed of its imaginings, but yet it will recall it all, it will go over and over every detail, it will invent unheard of things against itself, pretending that those things might happen, and will forgive nothing. (III)
Both examples show repetition of different things and ideas such as of “gnawing”, “enjoyment” and “over and over.”
- Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows a good use of rhetorical questions at several places such as,
i. But enough… Ech, I have talked a lot of nonsense, but what have I explained? How is enjoyment in this to be explained? But I will explain it. (II)
ii. To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it. Why, how am I, for example, to set my mind at rest? Where are the primary causes on which I am to build? Where are my foundations? Where am I to get them from? (V)
iii. Cold shivers suddenly ran down me. Wouldn’t it be better … to go straight home? My God, my God! Why did I invite myself to this dinner yesterday? (VI)
iv. But—what for? I thought. Should I not begin to hate her, perhaps, even tomorrow, just because I had kissed her feet today? Should I give her happiness? Had I not recognised that day, for the hundredth time, what I was worth? Should I not torture her? (X)
These examples show the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the novel, Notes from Underground, is some basement of a house in the Russian town of St. Petersburg.
- Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes such as,
i. Such a gentleman simply dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down, and nothing but a wall will stop him. (III)
ii. Though in certain circumstances these gentlemen bellow their loudest like bulls, though this, let us suppose, does them the greatest credit. (III)
iii. I should have exuded tears like a wet sponge. (VII)
iv. 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. (VII)
v. It came back vividly to my mind a few days ago, and has remained haunting me like an annoying tune that one cannot get rid of. (VIII)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.