Notes from Underground (1864), by Fyodor Dostoevsky

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Notes from Underground was published seven years after Madame Bovary, but it is set in a society that is, in many ways, hundreds of years behind that of Flaubert’s France in terms of historical development. As a result, the bourgeois ideology that was already a conservative force in the France of Madame Bovary was still a radical one in the Russia of Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky’s text is seemingly composed of the misanthropic ramblings of a miserable and embittered narrator/protagonist whose mind has been poisoned by exposure to modern bourgeois ideas from the West. He rails against those ideas, which he somehow seems to blame for his miseries, but he seems able to do little about his situation other than to complain endlessly. However, Dostoevsky’s text (as the important theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has noted) actually includes a number of energies that make it far more complex than it would at first appear to be. Indeed, the modern Western ideas that the text seems designed to criticize seem to have infected, not just the protagonist, but also the text itself.

Notes from Underground is a highly unconventional novel, but it is still a novel. It has virtually no plot, though it does include a number of narrative episodes, especially in the second part of the book. However, these episodes never really go anywhere and always amount to nothing. Meanwhile, the book is marked as a novel that touches on realism partly because it is set in the identifiable real-world city of Petersburg (aka Saint Petersburg), described by the narrator-protagonist as “the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe.”

The Underground Man might not have a name (appropriate, given that he himself feels that he barely has any characteristics), but his life in a squalid room on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg seems tangibly real. The weather in this very cold city is bad for his health, and the cost of living stretches his meager resources, adding in some very real-world problems. And he is a striking protagonist, even if not necessarily a likeable one. Flawed though he may be, he is very much an individual, and his dominant role in the text marks it as a text that is thoroughly infused with the very Western individualist ideology that Dostoevsky hoped to oppose in writing it[1]. Moreover, in addition to its borderline realism, Notes from Underground anticipates (and has influenced) a number of currents and concepts in Western literature, including dystopian literature, existentialism, bovarysme, the modernist fascination with the interior lives of its characters, and the Bakhtinian concept of the carnivalesque.

The Anti-Utopianism of Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground was written at least partly as a direct response to the rationalist utopia envisioned in N. G. Chernyshevsky’s 1863 Russian novel What Is to Be Done? (which was itself partly a response to Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, first published a year earlier). In writing an anti-Western response to Chernyshevsky’s utopian novel, though, Dostoevsky might have inadvertently anticipated an important tendency in later Westernliterature. Noting the anti-utopian inclinations of much of Dostoevsky’s fiction, I have argued elsewhere that

while it might not be strictly accurate to describe any of the individual works of Dostoevsky literally as dystopian fictions, his works anticipate the modern development of dystopian fiction in striking ways. Much of Dostoevsky’s work arises directly from a sense that the idealistic visions of nineteenth-century thinkers like N. G. Chernyshevsky might lead not to utopian dreams but to dystopian nightmares. (Dystopian Literature 64) 

Indeed, it is clear that works such as Notes from Underground directly influenced Evgeny Zamyatin’s important Russian dystopian novel We (1924), one of the founding texts of the dystopian genre (and a text that has influenced many Western dystopian fictions), though Dostoevsky’s own influence on the Western founders of the dystopian genre, such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, is less clear.

The Underground Man’s acute awareness that he cannot achieve the identity he would like to have (which is part of the intense self-consciousness that marks him overall as a character) means that his central experience is one of failure. On the other hand, given his own sense that there is no point to trying to improve or change anything, it comes as no surprise that the Underground Man is completely dismissive of the kinds of utopian schemes that were so popular in the nineteenth century. Such schemes, he argues, rob individual human beings of their distinctive identities, making them merely cogs in a bigger social machine and depriving them even of the pleasure of resenting the world and the people around him, a pleasure that is the main consolation of his life.

The Underground Man is particularly incensed by the image of the Crystal Palace, a utopian image that repeatedly appears in What Is to Be Done? as a gleaming emblem of the forward-looking utopian possibilities of modernity. Indeed, the Crystal Palace itself was designed and constructed precisely to convey such an image. A cast-iron and glass structure that was quite futuristic for its time, the Crystal Palace was originally built in 1851 in London’s Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition, a sort of early World’s Fair that was intended to tout the virtually unlimited ability of modern capitalism to remake the world through its transforming power. Fully titled “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” the event featured exhibits of the latest technology and products from around the world, though it was of course strongly informed by the jingoistic purpose of demonstrating that British capitalist modernity was just a bit more capitalist and a bit more modern than anyone else’s. However nationalistic its underlying premise, the Crystal Palace was undeniably utopian in its emphasis on the wonders of modern technology and the promise of more wonders to come.

Artist’s conception of London’s Crystal Palace.

Chernyshevsky uses the Crystal Palace as an important model for what he envisions as the ideal living space of the utopian future and as an emblem of the triumph of human ingenuity over nature, of order over chaos. Order is, for the Underground Man, the key to all utopian societies, which he believes can function only if all aspects of the society are kept in a perfect, rigidly defined order. Order, however, is something that he generally finds oppressive, spiritually impoverishing, and dehumanizing, and he is horrified by the whole notion of a rationally ordered universe in which all phenomena obey fixed physical rules and in which one event leads to another by a determinate series of cause-and-effect relationships.

Far from finding a rationalist universe in which all events obey scientifically discoverable laws to be comforting and reassuring, the Underground Man focuses on this kind of rationalist/scientific view of the universe as one of the key targets that he rails against throughout his notes. The scientific view of the universe (and of human beings) for him reduces humans to the condition of unthinking machines, making a person little more than “a piano-key or the stop of an organ.” On this view, he says, human beings are deprived of all responsibility for their actions, which occur simply according to fixed mathematical laws. Of course, he goes on, these laws will also deprive human beings of all wanting, of all desire, so that they will merely sleep-walk through life like zombies or automatons, all needs having been met, but no true fulfillment having been achieved, because they will have no need to struggle for anything.

Once these laws are discovered and understood (a project that he views as lying at the heart of all scientific endeavors)

“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; or, better still, there would be published certain edifying works of the nature of encyclopaedic lexicons, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more incidents or adventures in the world.”

In this sense, it is telling that one of the Underground Man’s greatest frustrations is the simple mathematical insistence by others that 2 + 2 must always equal 4 under any and all circumstances. Such determinate rules, for him reduce humans to the status of machines or animals, even insects, blindly following their natures and deprived of all free will. Thus, one of the Underground Man’s central images in criticizing utopian schemes is that of the “ant-heap,” or anthill, which he envisions as a metaphor for the kind of regimented lives that individuals would have to live in order to render any utopia functional. Human beings, he argues in a seemingly anti-utopian mode, are instinctively repelled by such order. Thus, while they might be attracted to the idea of constructing such well-ordered edifices as the Crystal Palace, it is in the nature of humans to flee such edifices once they are built, finding it oppressive to live in them. Maybe, he says of such a structure, a human being “only loves building it and does not want to live in it.” On the other hand, he argues that ants, blindly obedient to instinct and having no interest in making their own decisions about how to live their lives, are perfectly content both to toil away building their rigidly structured anthills and to live the rest of their lives in these same unvarying structures. In contrast, he declares,

“man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.”

The Underground Man’s viciously negative attitude toward scientific rationalism is not, in his notes, overtly aligned with religious devotion, though religion is clearly a central source of Dostoevsky’s own animosity toward the scientific worldview[2]. Moreover, as the Underground Man quite clearly identifies scientific rationalism as the source of meaninglessness in a world that has been stripped of all magic and wonder, one could argue that his diatribes imply an unstated assumption that a return to religion might also enable a return to a meaningful existence. By leaving this conclusion unstated, though, Dostoevsky also allows readers to develop their own ideas about how meaningfulness might be restored, including ideas that are far to the left of Dostoevsky’s own—and even including ideas that are perfectly well in line with Marxist utopianism, especially if that utopianism is viewed in conjunction with Sartrean existentialism (which Sartre, in fact, reconciled with Marxism late in his career).

Notes for Underground and Existentialism

Notes from Underground is one of the works that helped to establish Dostoevsky’s reputation as an important forerunner of existentialism, perhaps the most Western and the most individualist of all of the schools of modern philosophy. There are different versions of existentialism, some of which are embodied in works on our syllabus, such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7. Fundamentally, existentialism holds that the fundamental fact of human life is that we each exist. Beyond that, each of us bears the responsibility for finding—or making—meaning and purpose in our lives. This very humanist view is obviously very much in conflict with Dostoevsky’s own Russian Orthodox religious views, so the fact that so many readers have found existentialist inclinations in Notes from Underground is one of the key ways in which the novel escapes the intentions of its author. Indeed, this text has influenced any number of Western existentialists, including the French thinker Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps the most important of all modern existentialist philosophers[3].

Sartre, in fact, provides an interesting framework within which to interpret the predicament of the Underground Man. For Sartre, human beings begin their lives trapped within a network of limitations that he refers to as their “facticity.” As long as they remain entrapped in this way, individuals are merely existing rather than genuinely living, caught, as he calls it, in a condition of “Being-in-itself.” In order to achieve an authentic life, individuals must negate this condition and move beyond their facticity, moving at first into a terrifying transitional condition of nothingness. They then must take positive action to define themselves on their own terms, attempting to achieve the authentic life that Sartre refers to as “Being-for-itself.” In these terms, the Underground Man’s intense self-consciousness is a clear achievement, a clear step forward into genuine humanity and beyond the condition of the animals whom the Underground Man himself often evinces as examples of a lack of self-consciousness and freedom to determine one’s own identity and path. The problem is that the Underground Man has moved beyond this initial animalistic condition but has failed to move forward to the next step of taking positive action to define himself, thus leaving himself without definition. The Underground Man, one might say, is trapped in the moment of nothingness that succeeds the nihilation of the Being-in-itself, but he has yet been unable to move forward into the ongoing process of production of a new self in the movement toward the Being-for-itself. He himself, of course, is intensely aware of this entrapment, complaining bitterly of the sense of “inertia” that leaves him feeling that he lacks the energy to change his life, however much he might recognize the desirability of such change.

In his interactions with others, for example, the Underground Man has little hope of establishing meaningful relationships, which would, according to Sartre, provide a key venue for him to develop his own viable identity, but would also, among other things, require him to recognize and acknowledge that they are genuine human beings like himself. Instead, he views others largely as extensions of his own intense self-consciousness, his concerns with them residing largely in his fantasies of how they might see him. The only satisfaction these fantasies bring him is the belief that he is a step ahead of other people, that no one else can possibly entertain any negative thoughts about him that he has not already had himself.

The links to existentialism provide another connection between Notes from Underground and Western literature. It is certainly the case that the Underground Man feels that his life has no meaning. Moreover, in a world that has no real meaning, any attempt to find meaning is for him both futile and unseemly, a demonstration of one’s own stupidity. However, even he acknowledges that it might be nice to have some meaning in his life, as when he declares his wish that his lack of action could be attributed to his laziness, given that laziness would at least be something, while he himself feels that he is nothing, something that the text itself seems to acknowledge by leaving him without a proper name:

“Oh, if I had done nothing simply from laziness! Heavens, how I should have respected myself, then. I should have respected myself because I should at least have been capable of being lazy; there would at least have been one quality, as it were, positive in me, in which I could have believed myself.”

Indeed, if one looks at Notes from Underground from a Sartrean perspective, one’s immediate impression of its notoriously unstable and unreliable narrator is of a character who almost entirely fails to achieve Sartre’s vision of a successful individual who faces his own freedom and takes charge of the narrative of his life. As I have noted elsewhere, in constructing his narration, the Underground Man “desperately strives to find a narrative form in which he can make sense of his experience but finds his life hopelessly fragmented, his inability to connect one moment to the next clearly illustrating the problematic sense of temporal continuity” that is typical of his plight (Joyce 193).[4] Shoring fragments against his ruin, the Underground Man desperately seeks a narrative strategy that will hold his experience together.

The Underground Man as Bovaryst

Unfortunately, rather than constructing his own authentic personal narrative, the Underground Man seems limited to borrowing narratives from the numerous books that he has read. This theme runs throughout Notes from Underground, but it is particularly clear in the protagonist’s encounter with the young prostitute Liza, who approaches him innocently and seemingly with no hidden motives, something he has difficulty dealing with. So he responds to her innocence with cruelty, constructing a bitter fantasy of Liza’s grim future life as a prostitute, clearly meant specifically to bring her pain and to make himself feel superior to her. Even his long lyrical digression on the joys of parenthood seems designed to bring her pain, given that her own parents had apparently been willing to sell her into sexual slavery.

Much to his surprise, however, these narratives strike Liza as completely contrived and inauthentic, and thus as less powerful than he had intended. Rather than being swept away by them, she simply notes that he speaks “somehow like a book.” Taken aback, he regains his balance by convincing himself that she is simply hiding her true feelings. Of course, her remark makes him particularly uncomfortable because it strikes so close to home. After all, the Underground Man is very well aware that he often speaks precisely like something from a book, though he had not expected Liza to recognize this fact. Later, when Liza (at his invitation) comes to visit him in his squalid apartment, he has trouble understanding her apparently genuine feelings, because his thoughts are all filtered through books: “I was so accustomed to think and imagine everything from books, and to picture everything in the world to myself just as I had made it up in my dreams beforehand, that I could not all at once take in this strange circumstance. What happened was this: Liza, insulted and crushed by me, understood a great deal more than I imagined. She understood from all this what a woman understands first of all, if she feels genuine love, that is, that I was myself unhappy.”

Indeed, Liza has apparently come to him with the idea that he might genuinely care for her—and save her from her life of prostitution. But, after a brief moment of passion that comes (on his part) more from hate than from love, he cruelly sends her away, never to see her again, though he does briefly go after her, clearly having trouble getting his feelings straight. The Underground Man seems to have a great deal of trouble dealing with his feelings, largely because, as he puts it, they tend to come from his head rather than from his heart, from books rather than reality. The extent to which all of the Underground Man’s thoughts and feelings seem to be mediated through books makes him a particular form of the bovaryst, unable to understand or interpret the world except through books. He differs dramatically from Emma Bovary, however, in that he is so intensely aware of what he is doing. He understands perfectly well the difference between fiction and reality, and he knows full well that his thoughts and expectations are inauthentic, like something from a novel, a fact that infuriates him but that he doesn’t seem able to avoid. Thus, while Emma sinks into Romantic reveries, the Underground Man scoffs at Romanticism from the point of view of a sophisticate who understands Romantic aesthetics far better than does Emma. At one point, for example, he specifically mentions the combination of the sublime and the beautiful that is so crucial to the aesthetics of Romanticism, but makes it clear that he has no use for such things: “The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was ‘sublime and beautiful,’ the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether.”

The Underground Man is extremely well read and cannot seem to avoid using literary models for his own constructions, only to become disgusted when he realizes that his visions and fantasies are not original. For example, at one point in the text, the Underground Man entertains a lengthy fantasy of revenge against his old nemesis Zverkov, only to stop and admit that of course the entire fantasy is taken straight from literary texts such as “Pushkin’s Silvio and Lermontov’s Masquerade.” Feeling mortified at this recognition of his own lack of originality, he stops the coach in which he is riding, steps out, and stands motionless in the street, his suddenly stationary condition mirroring his own sense that there is really no point to doing anything at all.

Dostoevsky and the Modern: The Underground Man, Alienation, and Ressentiment

In addition to his status as an early existentialist character, the Underground Man epitomizes the very modern psychic phenomena of alienation (first described by Karl Marx) and ressentiment—a key concept elaborated by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Michael André Bernstein, for example, identifies the Underground Man as a key example of the modern form of what he refers to as the “abject hero,” a figure with roots that go back to ancient texts such as the satires of Horace, but who is an “essentially modern” character who “makes his first full appearance” in Denis Diderot’s Horace-influenced Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew,a product of the French Enlightenment that was mostly written in 1761–1762, but not published until 1805) (18). The abject hero, for Bernstein, is a contradictory figure whose grandiose sense of his own worth is balanced by an equally powerful sense of self-doubt and self-loathing. The abject hero is also tormented by an intense awareness that his character is derivative and potentially ridiculous.

This situation is very much the one in which the Underground Man finds himself. Indeed, for Bernstein, the abject hero begins to take on a new and even more modern form in the fiction of Dostoevsky, whose innovation is to add to the initial abjection of this hero figure a further note of Nietzschean ressentiment, a key ingredient of the slave morality that Nietzsche rails against in The Genealogy of Morals (1887). For Nietzsche, ressentiment is the refuge of a particularly debased sort of modern character who seethes with resentment, endlessly replaying insults (real or imagined) in his head, but unable to take true revenge, thus becoming even more resentful of his own weakness and responding with repeated fantasies of imaginary vengeance instead. Nietzsche specifically praised Notes from Underground as a literary demonstration of the kind of psychology he is describing here, and Bernstein, following Nietzsche, identifies Notes as a key text as well, noting that “in fiction, it is hard to think of any work that has chronicled the inscape of ressentiment with greater narrative flair than Notes from Underground” (102).

For Bernstein, the sense of being a mere imitator of others becomes, in the Underground Man, not only an intense awareness that even his most seemingly insightful thoughts are actually derived from the literary works he has read but a resentment against time itself, since he has come along so late that others have already thought all his thoughts before he had a chance. He responds to what he sees as the tyranny of time by refusing to “acknowledge any moral or psychological continuity linking his present to the future” (Bernstein 106). This refusal allows the Underground Man to assume the pose of the genuinely monstrous villain who has no remorse because he refuses to acknowledge the continuity between his past actions and his current self. This strategy, though, ultimately collapses beneath its own inauthenticity, because “he is far too lucid to believe his own pose” (106). This refusal of continuity is also doomed to fail to release the Underground Man of his sense of being, as Bernstein puts it, nothing more than “a pastiche of countless prior texts,” a realization that is made worse by the “additional burden of finding this existence-as-pastiche intolerable” (109). Even his worst suffering, which he desires to think of as monumental and unprecedented, is merely a secondary and degraded copy of the sufferings he has read about in books, a fact of which he is intensely and bitterly aware.

Bernstein’s focus on the abject hero helps to identify the Underground Man as a predecessor of a whole family of characters in modern Western literature. In our course, for example, James Duffy, the protagonist of “A Painful Case,” one of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, has much in common with the Underground Man. In addition, Daraiseh and Booker have noted the extent to which the Underground Man serves as a direct predecessor to T. S. Eliot’s radically alienated Alfred J. Prufrock, whom we will also encounter later in our class. Indeed, they note that the Underground Man serves as a predecessor to any number of even later characters, up to and including Arthur Fleck, the protagonist of the 2019 film Joker.

Notes from Underground and the Carnivalesque

The Underground Man’s revulsion toward scientific rationality was clearly intended by Dostoevsky as an endorsement of traditional religious thinking. But it can also be read as a horror of excessive rigidity, order, and stagnation and as an attempt to embrace the notion of freedom, disorder, and ongoing change. From this point of view, the Underground Man’s narrative (or non-narrative) suddenly seems less like a bitter expression of frustration and paralysis and more like the rambunctious shenanigans of a writer such as Rabelais, Bakhtin’s central example (other than Dostoevsky) of what he calls the “carnivalesque”—raucous, carnival-like celebrations of the physical realities of human life—in literature[5]. Bakhtin has suggested that the most important generic carrier of the carnivalesque in literature is a particular mode of satire known as “Menippean” satire (named for the Greek satirist Menippus but exemplified by the work of the French writer Rabelais, another of Bakhtin’s favorites). Meanwhile (surprisingly to many), Bakhtin also argues that Dostoevsky is one of the most important writers of Menippean satire in the modern era. Even more interesting is the fact that Bakhtin identifies Notes from Underground as one of the best examples of Menippean satire in Dostoevsky’s entire oeuvre, listing the numerous characteristics of the genre that are prominent in the text (Problems 154­–55).

If nothing else, it is clear that Notes from Underground, with its fragmented, truncated narrative and unlikeable, unreliable narrator,breaks almost all of the rules of realist fiction. In this sense, the text might be seen as Dostoevsky’s attempt to resist the pull of realist fiction, an attempt that paradoxically conforms to the fundamental tendencies of realist fiction and of bourgeois ideology, with their drive for innovation and their almost total lack of respect for tradition. Dostoevsky’s text represents an anti-authoritarian challenge to its own genre, but that genre already endorses such challenges in advance.

The carnivalesque energies of Notes from Underground can also be seen in the fact that it can be quite funny. For, the entire episode with Liza, which seems so grim, gains humor if one recognizes that it is a parody of an episode in What Is to Be Done?, though the ways in which Dostoevsky parodies Chernyshevsky (including stylistically) would have been much more apparent to his contemporary Russian readers than they would be to most Western readers today. Indeed, one of the funniest episodes of Notes from Underground also riffs on an episode in What Is to Be Done?, though (luckily) the episode still functions as humor even without a knowledge of Chernyshevsky’s novel.

This particular episode begins as the Underground Man observes a fight inside a tavern and goes inside, apparently hoping to get involved in the fracas, perhaps to get beaten up. Instead, though, he finds himself simply being overlooked and ignored by a large and imposing officer whom he encounters, which for the Underground Man is far more painful than being punched or kicked: “I was standing by the billiard-table and in my ignorance blocking up the way, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and without a word—without a warning or explanation—moved me from where I was standing to another spot and passed by as though he had not noticed me. I could have forgiven blows, but I could not forgive his having moved me without noticing me.” On the other hand, the Underground Man also does nothing to rectify this situation: “Devil knows what I would have given for a real regular quarrel—a more decent, a more literary one, so to speak. I had been treated like a fly. This officer was over six foot, while I was a spindly little fellow. But the quarrel was in my hands. I had only to protest and I certainly would have been thrown out of the window. But I changed my mind and preferred to beat a resentful retreat.”

“Resentful” is the key word here, and the Underground Man harbors this resentment until he becomes obsessed with it, a situation made worse by the fact that he continually encounters the officer in the streets of Petersburg. He even goes to the extent of writing a satirical novel with this officer as its target, though he is unable to find a publisher for it. Finding that he repeatedly defers to the officer in the street, stepping aside to let him pass, the Underground Man grows increasingly resentful. Finally, he resolves to “avenge” himself on the officer and even purchases special clothing for the occasion. Then, when the big moment comes, he loses his resolve and again steps aside; when he has another chance, he even trips and falls at the feet of the officer, who calmly steps over him without breaking stride:

“I made every preparation, I was quite determined—it seemed as though we should run into one another directly—and before I knew what I was doing I had stepped aside for him again and he had passed without noticing me. I even prayed as I approached him that God would grant me determination. One time I had made up my mind thoroughly, but it ended in my stumbling and falling at his feet because at the very last instant when I was six inches from him my courage failed me. He very calmly stepped over me, while I flew on one side like a ball. That night I was ill again, feverish and delirious.”

 The Underground Man gives up the plan, but again encounters the officer in the street by accident; this time, he finally confronts the officer, bumping him shoulder-to-shoulder, rather than yielding. To the Underground Man, this occasion is momentous, one of his greatest and most heroic victories. Nevertheless, he himself makes clear in his narration of the event that he is so slight and the bump so inconsequential that the officer likely didn’t even notice it, though the Underground Man desperately attempts to convince himself that the officer is merely pretending not to have noticed:

“And suddenly it ended most happily. The night before I had made up my mind not to carry out my fatal plan and to abandon it all, and with that object I went to the Nevsky for the last time, just to see how I would abandon it all. Suddenly, three paces from my enemy, I unexpectedly made up my mind—I closed my eyes, and we ran full tilt, shoulder to shoulder, against one another! I did not budge an inch and passed him on a perfectly equal footing! He did not even look round and pretended not to notice it; but he was only pretending, I am convinced of that. I am convinced of that to this day! Of course, I got the worst of it—he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had attained my object, I had kept up my dignity, I had not yielded a step, and had put myself publicly on an equal social footing with him. I returned home feeling that I was fully avenged for everything. I was delighted. I was triumphant and sang Italian arias.”

This moment of happiness, celebrating a nonexistent victory, does not last long. By the end of the text, the Underground Man has achieved nothing—except even more disgust with himself for the seemingly pointless activity of having composed his notes in the first place. But compose his notes he does, apparently endlessly, though the frame “editor” interrupts the discourse at the end and mercifully announces that “it seems to us that we may stop here.” I will do the same.


Alexander-Davey, Ethan. “Ugliness, Emptiness, and Boredom: Dostoevsky on the Secular Humanist Social Religion.” Dostoevsky’s Political Thought. Eds. Richard Avramenko and Lee Trepanier, Lexington Press, 2013, pp. 115–139.

Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, 1984.

Bernstein, Michael André. Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Greenwood Press, 1994.

Booker, M. Keith. Joyce, Bakhtin, and the Literary Tradition: Toward a Comparative Cultural Poetics. Ann Arbor; University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Daraiseh, Isra, and M. Keith Booker. “Jokes from Underground: The Disintegration of the Bourgeois Subject and the Progress of Capitalist Modernization from Dostoevsky to Todd Phillips’s Joker.” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol.48, No. 3, Summer 2020, Available on-line at

Holquist, Michael. Dostoevsky and the Novel. Princeton University Press, 1977.

Hudspith, Sarah. “Why We Must Laugh at the Underground Man.” Aspects of Dostoevskii: Art, Ethics, and Faith. Eds. Robert Reid and Joe Andrew, Rodopi, 2012, pp. 67–79.

Jackson, J. A. “Freedom and Otherness: The Religious Dimension of Notes from Underground.” Religion and Literature, Vol. 43, No. 3, Autumn 2011, pp. 179–86.

Kaufmann, Walter, ed. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Rev. and expanded ed. New American Library, 1975.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. 1943. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes, Washington Square Press, 1993.


[1] Dostoevsky’s concerns about the possible negative impact of modern Western ideas on Russia were rooted in his personal experience. After an early flirtation with radical Western ideas (including socialism), Dostoevsky was arrested and nearly executed for his political activities in 1849, followed by five years of exile to a Siberian prison camp, then five more years of compulsory military service. He emerged in 1859 a changed man; after two visits to Western Europe, he became convinced that the Western ideas he once supported should be resisted in Russia at all costs. Notes from Underground was one of the first texts he wrote in this mode.

[2] For a general discussion of the religious aspects of Notes from Underground, see J. A. Jackson. For a discussion of Dostoevsky’s animosity toward secular humanism, see Alexander-Davey.

[3] The modern view of Dostoevsky as one of the first writers to have engaged with existentialism has been heavily influenced by Walter Kaufmann’s classic introduction/anthology, tellingly entitled Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.

[4] See Michael Holquist for an argument that such a problematic sense of temporal continuity was typical of nineteenth-century Russian culture. Holquist relates this sense of temporal fragmentation to the Russian sense of being outside the narrative flow of Western history, leaving Russians in a confused and marginalized position with regard to their vision of the narrative of their own history.

[5] See also Hudspith for a discussion of the comic aspects of Notes from Underground from a slightly different perspective.