Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Notes from Underground (Записки из подполья) is a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the earliest (if not the first) existentialist works of fiction, and was first published in 1864. It is very short (my edition was 123 pages), and oh, so very difficult! 

It's divided into two parts - 'The Underground' and 'Concerning the Wet Snow'. It's unnamed narrator - possibly the most trying narrator in literature, is even more awful than Salinger's Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye). There is a great deal of bitterness in Notes; anger, and seething resentment. He is the outsider, burning away in spite and fury, unnoticed and uncared for: there is much energy in Notes from Underground and it is quite remarkable.

In 'The Underground', in which the narrator "presents himself" (to quote Dostoyevsky's preface) we start to learn about the man, as far as we can at least as he even admits to lying in what he has written. It has one of the best and most memorable opening lines in literature:
I am a sick man... [Dostoyevksy's ellipsis] I am a spiteful man. I'm an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.
He goes on tell that he will not get his liver checked:
No, it's out of spite that I don't want to be cured. You'll probably not see fit to understand this. But I do understand it. Of course, I won't be able to explain to you precisely whom I will hard in this instance by my spite; I know perfectly well that I cannot in any way 'sully' the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that in doing this I shall harm no one but myself. Anyway, if I'm not receiving medical treatment it's out of spite. If my liver is hurting, then let it hurt all the more! 
At this point it's almost funny. The narrator is like a nasty drunk rambling on to a stranger about his liver, as though that is of any importance to a stranger. And as the reader, we are almost like the stranger, but in reading Notes from Underground we can't laugh then walk away when it isn't funny any more. He has a platform now; we read, and quite soon it is no longer funny. The mention of the liver is either an attempt to elicit sympathy, or it's a way of making us feel bad or somehow guilty being in good health and in the presence of someone who is not. Whatever the case we quickly learn that he hates himself and everyone around him. 

But, he is not a stupid man, he's very intelligent and clearly well-read, but we know this from his dismantling and rejection of some of the leading philosophical ideas of the time; Romanticism, for example, and Utilitarianism. Everything explained seems to be via negativa, if I may borrow a phrase more associated with Christian theology. He is clearly misanthropic and contrary, though I say the latter cautiously: in his rejection of the mainstream he harming himself, and indeed his liver: it is not simply "spite" at all that stops him from being cured, it is a refusal to conform to the dull existence of the bourgeoisie in Russia. 

The first section concludes - 
Today it's snowing, almost wet, yellowish, dull snow. Yesterday it snowed as well, and the day before. It seems to me that it was the wet snow that caused me to recall this anecdote which I can't get out of my head. So, let this be a tale concerning the wet snow.
And from here we move to the second part, Concerning the Wet Snow. At this point it becomes more 'novel-like' (or, rather, 'novella-like'). There are three distinct episodes; the first concerning a soldier who bumped our narrator out of his way. He then becomes obsessed with the episode and wishes to seek revenge for being made to feel so very bad about what happened so he takes the opportunity to bump the soldier back. The soldier doesn't even notice. In the second, though clearly painfully introverted, our narrator seems to suffer from "fear of missing out" and inflicts his presence on his former school friends one evening. It is a disaster. And finally, he meets and converses with Liza, a prostitute, and she goes back home with him.

There, then, is a very basic outline of the intensely complex novella. It's an excruciatingly sad piece of writing. In the beginning Dostoyevsky (Dostoyevsky as himself, in a sort of preface) writes,
Both the author of the notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, types such as the creator of these notes not only could, but are also bound to exist in our society, taking into account the circumstances that have shaped our society. I wanted to present to the public, in a more striking manner than usual, one of the character types belonging to the very recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation still surviving. 
Could such a man exist? Yes, certainly. Then and now there are people such as he. That is what makes this story so upsetting and frightening. It is an excellent tale.

Finally, I've learned from Cleo of Classical Carousel that Notes from Underground is part of a 'conversation': in 1862 Turgenev published Fathers and Sons; in 1863 Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? was published - a response to Fathers and Sons. Notes from Underground is in turn a response to those two books. I have read Fathers and Sons but it was such a long time ago I'm afraid I don't remember it. But Cleo has read and posted on both of these books so for more information do read these posts: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev and What is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. I hope to read Fathers and Sons very soon, maybe this weekend. As for What is to be Done? - I don't have that book, but I hope I can get a hold of it soon!

Further Reading


  1. Oooo, have fun with What Is To Be Done?. I can't wait to hear your thoughts about it. I'll be ready with a good, stiff drink when you finish.

    I've come to the conclusion that to gain a really good understanding from all three of these books, you have to have a background of Russian history that few of us have. With this book, I'm assuming that Dostoyevsky is ranting against Chernyshevsky's worldview, but from what I can gather, I don't think that Chernyshevsky's views were mainstream. He was ranting against the proposed reforms of the time, arguing that they weren't radical enough. In any case, it's really hard to tell if you don't have the background, which seems complex enough for another set of non-fiction books to explain it. :-Z

    Thanks for mentioning my reviews! In spite of struggling a little with the length of What Is To Be Done? and the verbosity of Chernyshevsky, I've really enjoyed reading all the books and comparing. I'm starting "Notes" in the next few days and can't wait to finish up the trio!

    1. I went book shopping yesterday and sadly couldn't find What Is To Be Done? so I may buy it online fairly soon. It looks a tough one! And, no, my understanding of Russian history is not good at all and all I know pretty much comes from Tolstoy!

      I'm really looking forward to your post on Notes and seeing how you conclude reading this trio - I had no idea they sort of went together, so I'm looking forward to learning more :)

  2. Interesting, I didn't know those three books were related! 'What is to be Done?' is on my list. I'm not sure I can envision the connection between Fathers and Sons and Notes...but it could be, in the process of responding to it, Dostoyevsky focused more on his own trail of themes and the current trends.

    I took a Russian history class a few years ago... from what I can remember, there were many legal reforms in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the effects were not such that the social structure changed in a big way. For instance, the emancipation of the serfs happened in 1861, and these books were written after that.

    My reaction to Notes was the same - even though there were many funny moments, overall it was very depressing. I felt bad for the guy, at least in the first half or so.

    1. MH - I didn't know either! Right now I'm grateful Cleo blogs :)

      I felt sorry for the narrator as well - so much hate and bitterness... Astonishing book, and Dostoyevsky did a good job making such an awful character sympathetic. But this is why I love Dostoyevsky!

      I'm glad you find some parts funny - I felt heartless when I wrote that in the post!

  3. What Is To Be Done? is definitely a tough one. Because it is so bad.

    Last year, I hosted a big What Is To Be Done readalong event. If you trace the chain of blogs back from cleo, you will find many interesting people writing about not just Chernyshevsky but about Fathers and Sons, Dostoevsky, Leskov, and many other books that were responding to Chernyshevsky. There are way more than a trio, although this cluster of three are in particularly direct response, one per year. I even made a reading list.

    o, if you ever come across D. S. Mirsky's A History of Russian Literature, grab it.

    1. I will, I've made a note of it - thanks! And thanks for those links, I'll have a look at them all. I'll probably read Fathers and Sons in the next few weeks, and I'll have to order What is to be Done? very soon and I'll no doubt make a study of all the posts! Thank you again :)


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