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Notes from the Underground

By: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

One of the earliest polished examples of existential literature, Notes from the Underground follows the life of a recluse and depicts his antagonistic attitude toward society. Written in two parts with a first person narration, the novella explores various themes expressing the misleading notion of rationalism and utopianism, existentialism, alienation and human inaction. The psychological novel begins with a monologue in which the protagonist introduces and characterizes himself. Referred to as the Underground Man and remaining unidentified throughout, the protagonist portrays himself as a bitter and misanthropic individual living in isolation and distancing himself from fallacious society. He further reveals that he is a Russian civil veteran in his forties whose spite has intoxicated him and led him to his current position of solitude and self-loathing. The monologue allows the protagonist to convey his thoughts, ideas and philosophies on life. Consequently, he sets many philosophical ideas on the table including free will, reason and logic, suffering, and conscious inaction. After explaining and justifying his beliefs, the narrator begins to tell his audience of his experiences as a young man in his twenties, and accordingly signals the beginning of the second part of the book. This section is dedicated to the events that have driven the protagonist into seclusion and illustrates his destructive interaction with various people in the 1840’s, including an officer, old schoolmates, and a prostitute. All interactions seem to be spurred by revenge, humiliation, bitterness and pessimism, which essentially send him to his personal underground. A paradoxical character, simultaneously unique and universal, illogical and philosophical, pitied and honored, the Underground Man is both a reflection of suppressive society and self-punishment. An influential piece of literature sure to provoke psychological reaction, Notes from the Underground leaves many significant topics open for debate and analysis. The ideologies that the narrator views with much contempt are what make the novel such an enthralling read. Increasing its intensity with every turn of the page, the powerful novella remains an essential for anyone with a critical eye to the requisites of society.

Part 1: "Underground"

Serving as an introduction into the mind of the narrator, the first part of Notes from Underground is split into nine chapters:

The introduction propounds a number of riddles whose meanings are further developed as the narration continues.

Chapters 2, 3, & 4 deal with suffering and the irrational pleasure of suffering.

Chapters 5 & 6 discuss the moral and intellectual fluctuation that the narrator feels along with his conscious insecurities regarding "inertia"—inaction.

Chapters 7, 8, & 9 cover theories of reason and logic, closing with the last two chapters as a summary and transition into Part 2.

The narrator observes that utopian society removes suffering and pain, but man desires both things and needs them to be happy. He argues that removing pain and suffering in society takes away a man's freedom. He says that the cruelty of society makes human beings moan about pain only to spread their suffering to others.

Unlike most people, who typically act out of revenge because they believe justice is the end, the Underground Man is conscious of his problems and feels the desire for revenge, but he does not find it virtuous; the incongruity leads to spite towards the act itself with its concomitant circumstances. He feels that others like him exist, but he continuously concentrates on his spitefulness instead of on actions that would help him avoid the problems that torment him. The main issue for the Underground Man is that he has reached a point of ennui and inactivity. He even admits that he would rather be inactive out of laziness.

The first part also gives a harsh criticism of determinism, as well as of intellectual attempts at dictating human action and behavior by logic, which the Underground Man discusses in terms of the simple math problem: two times two makes four (cf. necessitarianism). He argues that despite humanity's attempt to create the "Crystal Palace," a reference to a famous symbol of utopianism in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, one cannot avoid the simple fact that anyone, at any time, can decide to act in a way that might not be considered to be in their own self-interest; some will do so simply to validate their existence and to protest and confirm that they exist as individuals. The Underground Man ridicules the type of enlightened self-interest that Chernyshevsky proposes as the foundation of Utopian society. The idea of cultural and legislative systems relying on this rational egoism is what the protagonist despises. The Underground Man embraces this ideal in praxis, and seems to blame it for his current state of unhappiness.



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Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, sometimes transliterated as Dostoyevsky, was a Russian novelist, philosopher, short story writer, essayist, and journalist. Dostoevsky's literary works explore human ps...

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