Often referred to as a novel narrated by the first antihero in modern literature, Notes From Underground is considered by most literary critics as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first great work, the germ from which his later masterpieces would evolve. Notes From Underground was originally published in Russia as a two-part serialized story in January and February of 1864. It was the featured story in the journal Epoch, which Dostoevsky published with his older brother, Mikhail. The story has a rather dismal tone, which might reflect the particularly difficult time Dostoevsky was experiencing when he wrote it. Some of Dostoevsky’s biographers have called this period the lowest point of the author’s life: his finances were disappearing fast, his wife was dying, and his reputation, which had at one time enjoyed the backing of Russia’s liberal reading public, was fading. Dostoevsky’s philosophy was growing more and more conservative, and many of his readers did not like the change.
The most obvious tone of the unnamed narrator of Notes From Underground is a bitter one. He never quite fits in his social environment. At the time the story begins, the narrator has completely receded from society. Through a detailed discussion of his philosophy, the narrator uses the first part of the novel to explain why he has withdrawn. It is in the second part of the novel that the narrator offers examples of his social interactions, those that led to his isolation. However, throughout the story, the narrator frequently contradicts himself and becomes somewhat defensive as he tries to justify his actions.
Notes From Underground is also Dostoevsky’s first clear representation of some of his most intimate reflections on life. However, critics are not sure if the narrator of this novel represents Dostoevsky’s actual beliefs or if he was meant to satirize popular philosophies of the time. What is agreed upon is that the narrator believes that man can just as easily be irrational as he can be rational. And this antihero narrator argues that, perhaps, irrationality might be the more valid state.
1. Some critics see the Underground Man as insane, while others see him as a fairly lucid—if maladjusted—observer of society and his place within it. Evaluate the Underground Man’s sanity, using concrete examples from the text.
2. The city of St. Petersburg is an important presence throughout the novel. Select one passage and explain how St. Petersburg affects the Underground Man. How does the city function as a character in the text?
3. Though the Underground Man is not meant to represent Dostoevsky himself, interesting comparisons can be drawn between the two. What are the most significant similarities and differences between them?
4. Dostoevsky was famously wary of the Roman Catholic church. What evidence for this bias can be found in Part I of Notes from Underground?
5. Dostoevsky had a great talent for showing his readers the world through the confused eyes of his characters. How does he use this ability to heighten, rather than diminish, the sense of realism in the novel?
6. Though elements of Notes from Underground are tragic, the text is not a “tragedy” in the formal sense. How does Dostoevsky create this modern, realist story in a manner very different from the classical literary expectations of tragedy? Which elements from older forms of tragedy does he include, and which does he exclude?
7. The Underground Man abhors the way in which progressive thinkers of his era worship reason, but he does not necessarily totally reject reason outright. Discuss his attitude toward reason and logic. What value does he assign to logical, rational thinking, and how does he make use of it? For a starting point, pick a passage and begin your discussion with a close reading.