Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground Study Guide

The novel, written in 1864, reflects the changes in Dostoevsky's thought that had occurred as a result of recent events in his life. As a result of his liberal political leanings, Dostoevsky was sentenced to death along with a group of liberals in 1849. At the last moment, they were told that their lives had been pardoned by the Tsar and they were sentenced instead to exile and hard labor in Siberia. From 1850 to 1854, Dostoevsky was in Siberia and then served in the army for the next four years. In 1859, having gotten married, Dostoevsky was allowed to return to St. Petersburg and to start writing. He wrote a novel about his experience in Siberia and then, after visiting Western Europe, wrote another book about his experience there.

The time spent in prison and the visit to Europe served to drastically alter Dostoevsky's world view. In the 1840s he had been a romantic and a liberal, defending the Western ideas of utopia, materialism, and rationalism. In Siberia he interacted with common people who were not members of the intelligentsia and discovered that they viewed the intellectuals with the same distaste as the ruling class. As a result, Dostoevsky turned against his previous utopian beliefs. While he was in prison, the ideals of Western Europe penetrated Russian more and more, so that the utopianism of the 1840s with which he had been involved had become integrated into a wider liberal movement by the 1860s. Dostoevsky's visit to Europe, where he saw the symbol of utopian ideals?the crystal palace, made him even more skeptical of the liberal position.

The bitterness of the novel can also be partially attributed to the circumstances of Dostoevsky's life at the time. In 1863, Vremia, the journal he had started with his brother, was banned for political reasons. His new journal, Epokha, was in deep financial difficulty almost from the start. Dostoevsky himself was not in much better shape financially, and his career was in trouble as well. Since he had turned against the liberal ideal, his readers branded him a conservative and viciously attacked him. On top of this, Dostoevsky's wife was dying of tuberculosis.

We can now sketch out the direct origins of the novel. Part II shows the Underground Man caught up in the literary world of fantasy and unable to address reality. He is a symbol for the romantics of the 1840s, who were extremely idealistic but did little to support their ideals in action. Dostoevsky's writing here is at least partly autobiographical, since he himself had belonged to the ?40s liberal circles. Dostoevsky's criticism of the romantics is also a criticism of himself, since he was as enchanted by the utopian ideals of the West as the others. Part I is primarily a polemic directed against N. G. Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? This novel expressed the liberal ideals of the 1860s, insisting that the spread of reason would eventually lead to a perfect world. In the Notes, Dostoevsky attacks this idea as overly na?ve. He opposes the spread of Western rationalist ideas, believing instead in the necessity of a return to purely Russian ideals. In place of reason and materialism, Dostoevsky wants to offer the Christian ideals of love and self-sacrifice, showing that the liberals miss these entirely. Dostoevsky also implicitly attacks the liberals' tendency to blame Russia's problems on anything but themselves, insisting that human beings must take responsibility for themselves. The Underground Man demonstrates the absurdity of refusing responsibility most clearly, as he attempts to blame his depravity not on himself but on the laws of nature and on his own consciousness.

Another source for the novel was The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There, Rousseau had attempted to show how his natural innocent self was corrupted by society and culture. Dostoevsky's protagonist is also corrupted, but though culture and society are much to blame, it seems that the Underground Man contributes quite a bit to his own depravity. The novel intentionally plays off of The Confessions (Dostoevsky had earlier announced his novel under the title of A Confession), substituting the overly conscious anti-hero for Rousseau's innocent man of truth and nature.

The novel was published in two parts, each printed complete in an issue of Epokha. It was largely ignored by critics at the time and widely disliked. In Soviet Russia, critics who wanted to glorify Dostoevsky without accepting the darkness of the Notes marginalized the novel in the author's oeuvre. In the West, the work has often been separated into two parts, with the first part being taken as a prototype for Existentialism. To separate the two parts seems, however, a mistake. The second part demonstrates the Underground Man's relations to other human beings, something that the first part only hints at. The two parts are intimately linked, and the climax of the first part is bypassed the climax of the second. Dostoevsky's message is carried in chapter 9 of Part II, so critics who ignore the second part of the book clearly miss the point of the novel.