“Notes from Underground” is a deep and introspective novel penned by the renowned Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was first published in 1864 and has since been translated into numerous languages, earning its place as a literary masterpiece. Many consider it to be the pioneering work of existentialism in literature. The story revolves around an unnamed narrator residing in St. Petersburg, whose monologue in the first part sets the stage for his life experiences detailed in the second part.
Summary of Notes from Underground
Taking place in St. Petersburg, the narrative follows our protagonist as he leads a withdrawn existence haunted by bitter memories. When he inherits a fortune, he embarks on a journey of self-reflection, pondering upon his life, society and his own actions. The first part of the novel, named “Underground,” serves as an explanatory note regarding the narrator’s worldview. He expresses self-disgust and attributes his mental decline to an excessive intellectual capacity and extensive reading habits. Disillusioned with his own theories, he begins to value freedom and free will even if they lead to destructive behavior.
In the second part titled “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” our narrator reflects on his life at 24 years old.
He explores his journey from being an idealistic romantic to embracing practicality and pragmatism, gradually becoming more skeptical and disillusioned with his grand ideas. The protagonist’s encounters with different people, such as soldiers, classmates, pimps and sex workers, underscore his deepening sense of isolation from society and his own feelings of self-hatred.
Throughout the novel, the narrator exhibits deep self disgust and a spiteful character. He derives pleasure from annoying and causing harm to others, using malice as a means to distance himself from mainstream society. His fascination with literature further isolates him as he finds solace in solitary pursuits like reading. The internal struggles and conflicting emotions of the underground man serve as a lens through which Dostoevsky explores profound themes such as passivity, loneliness, human nature, rationality, suffering, hatred and revenge.
Major Themes Explored in “Notes from Underground”
The theme of passivity runs throughout the novel as the underground man constantly overthinks and fails to take decisive action. His excessive intellectualism and self doubt hinder his ability to act upon his ideas, resulting in a state of inertia. Despite contemplating various actions, the underground man often contradicts himself, leading to a cycle of inaction and boredom. The more he analyzes and intellectualizes things, the more passive and inactive he becomes.
Loneliness is a prevailing theme in “Notes from Underground.” The underground man not only experiences profound isolation but also embraces it as something to be proud of. His cynicism and rude behavior intensify his sense of loneliness by pushing him away from society. Rejection and scorn from others further amplify his feelings of isolation, creating a complex relationship between him and society.
3. Human Nature
Dostoevsky delves into the depths of human nature by exploring the introspections of the underground man. The narrator’s honest assessment of himself as a sick, spiteful and unattractive individual reflects his pessimistic outlook on both himself and humanity as a whole. He generalizes his own flaws and experiences, attributing them to the broader human nature. The degradation of human behavior and the irrationality it entails are central themes that occupy the underground man’s contemplative thoughts.
4. Rational Thinking
The novel challenges the notion that rational thinking is always at play, asserting that humans are not solely driven by reason. The underground man critiques the belief that individuals consistently act in their best interest, highlighting instead the inherent irrationality in human history. He grapples with reconciling free will and scientific thinking, often contradicting his own arguments. Through these self-contradictions, the underground man exposes how rationality has its limitations within the realm of human experience.
Suffering emerges as a pervasive theme in “Notes from Underground,” intricately intertwined with the underground man’s self loathing. He finds pleasure in inflicting pain on others while seeking solace in his own suffering. His malevolence and spiteful conduct become methods for him to distance himself from mainstream society. However, these self destructive tendencies ultimately contribute to his isolation and intensify his profound sense of loneliness.
Hatred, both towards others and oneself, is a significant theme in the novel. The underground man harbors a deep self-hatred, describing himself as unattractive and engaging in excessive self-loathing. His disdain towards others is evident in his fantasies of irritating and demeaning them. From his schoolmates to the officer he encounters, the underground man’s interactions are tainted by his hatred for humanity.
Revenge serves as a means of seeking justice in “Notes from Underground.” The underground man seeks revenge against those who have wronged him or betrayed him, using it as a way to assert his existence. However, he also questions the efficacy of revenge, realizing that true satisfaction can only be achieved if the other party acknowledges his presence. The theme of revenge underscores the underground man’s struggle for validation and his desire for control.
Major Characters in “Notes from Underground”
1. The Underground Man
The anonymous underground man serves as the protagonist of the novel. His pessimistic and self-loathing nature, coupled with his analytical thinking, make him an anti-hero. His brooding introspections and passive actions contribute to his social isolation and cynicism. The underground man’s extensive reading further fuels his unconventional thoughts and fantasies, leading to his alienation from society.
2. The Officer
The officer appears in the first part of the novel, becoming a target for the underground man’s desire for revenge. Despite the underground man’s attempts to engage the officer in a confrontation, the officer consistently ignores him. This rejection intensifies the underground man’s feelings of misery and fuels his desire for validation.
Zverkov, who was once a classmate of the underground man, plays a significant role in the story. The underground man becomes obsessed with Zverkov’s boasting about his romantic adventures, which eventually leads to a confrontation at a party. The underground man considers slapping Zverkov but ultimately refrains from doing so, highlighting his passive nature and internal conflicts.
Liza is an important character in the novel as she captures the attention of the underground man and accompanies him alongside Zverkov. Despite his patronizing attitude towards her and his belief in their loveless lives being cursed, the underground man invites Liza to his home in an attempt to assist her. However, his interactions with Liza showcase his contradictory nature and ultimately result in her fleeing from his apartment.
Apollon, who serves as the underground man’s servant, displays snobbish behavior that irritates him greatly. Despite the underground man’s efforts to provoke Apollon into madness, the servant remains silent, further fueling the underground man’s frustration and sense of madness.
Simonov, another former classmate of the underground man, represents a source of financial support. When he becomes disillusioned with life, the underground man turns to Simonov for help and surprisingly receives money from him despite being unreliable himself.
Ferfichkin, yet another schoolmate of theirs attends a party organized by Simonov. He decides to duel the underground man after the underground man insults Zverkov, which highlights even more how isolated the underground man feels from his friends.
8. Anton Antonych Setochkin
Anton Antonych Setochkin is the underground man’s immediate boss and a significant source of borrowed money throughout the novel.
Writing Style of “Notes from Underground”
Dostoevsky employs a highly manipulative and introspective writing style in “Notes from Underground.” Despite using a simple first-person narrative technique, the text is rich in literary devices and figurative language. The translation from Russian to English successfully captures the structural essence of sentences. The novel abounds with multi-layered sentences that iterate the central themes and motifs. Dostoevsky skillfully employs metaphors, similes, irony, and hyperboles to enhance the depth and complexity of the narrative.
Analysis of Literary Devices in “Notes from Underground”
- Action: The main action of the novel lies in the underground man’s intermittent thoughts and reflections. While the rising action is evident when he plans to confront Zverkov, the falling action occurs when he fails to execute his plan due to his passive nature.
- Anaphora: Dostoevsky utilizes anaphora throughout the novel to emphasize certain ideas. For instance, the repetition of “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man” underscores the underground man’s self-loathing and pessimistic view of himself and humanity.
- Symbolism: The novel employs symbolism to convey deeper meanings. The underground nature of the narrator’s existence represents his isolation from society. Additionally, the Crystal Palace symbolizes the utopian ideals of rationality and progress, which the underground man derogatorily dismisses.
- Irony: Dostoevsky skillfully employs irony to highlight the contradictions and complexities of the underground man’s character. His self-loathing and spiteful nature contrast with his desire for validation and connection with others.
- Hyperbole: The use of hyperbole adds emphasis and intensity to the underground man’s thoughts and emotions. For example, his exaggerated fantasies of slapping Zverkov or his excessive self-hatred demonstrate the intensity of his internal struggles.
By skillfully employing these literary devices, Dostoevsky enhances the depth and impact of the narrative, immersing readers in the complex and introspective world of the underground man.