LESSON 8 Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

Study Notes

Dostoevsky's Life and Career, 1859-1863

While in prison and exile Dostoevsky had associated closely with people of lower-class origins--peasants and poor city dwellers. He found that these common people identified the progressive intelligentsia (of which he himself had been a part before his arrest) with the land-owning, serf-holding classes. It was bitter for Dostoevsky to learn that those intellectuals, who worked for progress and improvement in the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, were considered by those whom they were trying to help to be not one whit better than those who were oppressing them. He was appalled at the convicts' deep and undiscriminating hatred for the upper classes. Dostoevsky began to feel that the only way to restore unity and harmony among Russians was for the educated upper classes to reject the imitation of European ways and ideas and to return to a uniquely Russian manner of life.

The specific characteristics of such a way of life would include the following: (1) a basis in family life, with patriarchal relations within families and democratic relations between families; (2) recognition of the primary importance of religion (that is, the Russian Orthodox church) and the religious way of life; (3) meek acknowledgement by all that their own faults are at the root of personal failure and social disorder--that is, that all are guilty; and (4) a striving for a life of mutual support, both moral and physical, and of brotherly love for all. The slogan for this program was "return to the soil," in the belief that the program gave a true representation of the uniquely Russian way of life and character. Hence the name of the group that formed around these ideas was the Pochvenniki (from pochva, the Russian word for soil). Dostoevsky's supporters included the critic and poet Apollon Grigoriev and the critic and philosopher N. N. Strakhov. In the politics of the time, the Pochvenniki were considered an anti-progressive group, conservative certainly, and perhaps even reactionary. Their program was publicized largely in the pages of the two magazines that Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail published in the early 1860s, Time (1861-63) and The Epoch (1864-65).

In 1862 Dostoevsky went abroad. He visited France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and England. In London he attended the 1862 World's Fair and had a first-hand look at the Crystal Palace, the architectural wonder of the age. The image of the Crystal Palace, which for progressive critics symbolized the dawning of a new age of reason and harmony, was to loom large in Dostoevsky's works to come, especially Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. In 1863, leaving his ailing wife behind, he made a second trip to Europe. (Marya Isaeva, Dostoevsky's first wife, died in 1864.)

Dostoevsky's Works, 1859-1863

The first of Dostoevsky's works to excite critical attention following his years of prison and exile was Notes from the House of the Dead (1860), an account of his experiences in prison, told in the form of a collection of biographical and psychological sketches of his fellow inmates. The book was especially welcomed by liberal critics because of its sympathetic approach to the subject and its realistic portrayal of the sufferings of the convicts. In 1861, Dostoevsky published his first long novel, The Insulted and the Injured, also to critical acclaim. It is the story of a young student of middle-class origins, a person of sensibility and talent, whose life is ruined by the ill will of a cynical aristocrat. The novel features a complicated plot with many separate lines and many characters. This book inspired the leftist critic N. A. Dobroliubov to epitomize Dostoevsky's leading quality as his "pain for man, his impassioned defense of the moral and human worth of downtrodden people."

In 1863 Dostoevsky promptly disillusioned his supporters in the liberal camp with his next work, "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions," an essay concerning his tour of Europe. In this essay, he attacked the west European dream of the triumph of reason. He resisted the idea that it was possible to achieve and ensure perfect human happiness and contentment on the basis of a rational ordering of society. Then, in a series of other essays, Dostoevsky began to attack the leading liberal critics outright, especially their views of art and the artist. Such are the articles "Mr. -bov [i.e., Dobroliubov] and the Question of Art" and "The Crocodile" (an attack on the views of N. G. Chernyshevsky).

Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground was first published in January and February of 1864 as the featured presentation in the first two issues of The Epoch, Dostoevsky's second journal of the 1860s. The novel was written at one of the lowest points of Dostoevsky's career. His first journal, Time, had recently failed, his new journal was threatened with failure, his wife was dying, his financial position was becoming ever more difficult and embarrassing, his conservatism was eroding his popularity with the liberal majority of the reading public, and he was increasingly the subject of attack in the liberal and radical press. On March 20, 1864, Dostoevsky wrote to his brother, Mikhail: "I sat down to work on my novel. I want to get it off my back as soon as possible, but I still want to do it as well as possible. It has been harder to write than I thought it would be. Still it is absolutely necessary that it be good: I personally want it to be good. The tone now seems too strange, sharp, and wild; perhaps it will not right itself; if not, the poetry will have to soften it and carry it off."

Many aspects of Notes from Underground--and especially, as Dostoevsky himself noticed, the tone--seem strange, sharp, and even bitter. To some extent, the bitterness of the novel is traceable to the many personal misfortunes Dostoevsky suffered while the novel was being written. Much more important, however, was the influence of his maturing world-view with its ever colder and more distant attitude toward the European liberalism, materialism, and utopianism of his younger years. Dostoevsky had begun his career as a writer in the 1840s as a romantic idealist, even a dreamer. (See his portrait of the young dreamer in his early story "White Nights.") At that time he had devoted a great deal of attention to utopian socialism and its vision of a perfectly satisfying, perfectly regulated life for humankind. This perfection of life was thought to be achievable solely through the application of the principles of reason and enlightened self-interest. In fact, it was maintained that given the dominance of the rational and the spread of enlightenment, perfection of life must necessarily follow.

While Dostoevsky was in prison and in exile, these ideas of utopian socialism were becoming stronger in Russia. They passed from the dreams of the 1840s to the basic revolutionary program of the late 1850s and 1860s. Dostoevsky, however, had concluded from his observations while in exile that there was more to "man" than reason and enlightenment. (Note that Dostoevsky, as did other writers of his time, used the term "man" or "men" to refer to all humankind.) He became convinced that men were capable of the irrational as well as the rational, and that, in fact, the irrational was in many ways man's essential element and the rational was often only a flimsy construction built upon it. More than any of his other fictional works, Notes from Underground clearly expresses this conclusion about the essential composition of the human mind.

In addition to expressing Dostoevsky's debate with the liberals and radicals of his time, Notes from Underground can also be seen as a specific and direct polemic with one of the most famous revolutionary novels of the 1860s, N. G. Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done. Chernyshevsky was the leader of the radicalist movement in Russia. In 1862 he was arrested, and during a solitary confinement lasting 678 days he wrote What Is To Be Done, which became his most famous work. This book has the general appearance of a novel but is really more a handbook of radicalism. The tenuous plot serves primarily to link one monologue or conversation on a point of radical policy with the next. The "revolutionary youth" of the time used What Is To Be Done as a guide to behavior and ideology for the next twenty years. Rakhmetov, the hero of the novel, became the prototype of hard-headed materialism and pragmatism, of total dissatisfaction with the government, and of the self-sacrificing nobility of spirit that was the ideal of many of the radical intelligentsia.

Critical Responses to Notes from Underground

In general, critics have taken Notes from Underground as an ideological document rather than as a novel. Thus, criticism has been radically divided--on the one hand, warm praise for the novel from Dostoevsky's kindred spirits and admirers of his views on personality and ideology, and on the other, denunciation from the liberal, optimistic, common- sensical, and rationalist camp. The division in critical thought existed from the very beginning. M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889), a journalist and novelist of liberal and even radical sympathies, was one of the first to attack Notes from Underground. His review of it appeared in the Contemporary in May of 1864. The review was a sharply satirical attack, focussed especially upon the portrayal of the main character. Saltykov-Shchedrin considered the underground man to be a totally fantastic character; he dismissed him as the product of a troubled mind, and as irrelevant to the human condition in general. At the same time, Apollon Grigorev (1822-1864), the most influential critic among Dostoevsky's friends and supporters, published a review in which he greatly praised the novel. First, he said, Notes from Underground offers an extremely perceptive and profound view of man. Second, the novel deserves high praise for its well-crafted construction (especially the relation between the two parts) and for its beautiful style. As had happened so often before, the opinion of the liberal critics prevailed. Dostoevsky's portrayal of the structure of the human mind and of human motivation was new and surprising to many people of his time. Most people found it hard to accept the idea that the "underground man" was in any way related to them. As a result, it was easy for them to dismiss the entire work as a fantasy or, at best, as an interesting study of a disturbed mind. (This was so often the fate of Dostoevsky's works! Even today, the name of people who regard the novel in this way is legion. In the Soviet Union, Notes from Underground was usually regarded as the darkest blot, with the possible exception of The Possessed, on Dostoevsky's record as an author. In the West, too, one often meets this view, though at present, very rarely in print. Yet one suspects the attitude is there, slumbering until fashions in criticism again allow it to appear.)

For N. K. Mikhaylovsky (1842-1904) Notes from Underground was the prime example of that "menagerie of beasts of prey" of which he maintained Dostoevsky was the cruel and heartless trainer. Further, in his essay "A Cruel Talent," Mikhaylovsky wrote: Dostoevsky purposely teases his animals, shows them a sheep or a piece of bloody meat, beats them with a whip and a red-hot iron, in order to observe one detail or another of their anger and cruelty--to look for himself and, of course, to show it to the public. Of "that section of the menagerie which is called Notes from Underground" Mikhaylovsky wrote that ...the hero tortures because he wants to, he likes to torture. There is neither reason nor purpose here, and, in the opinion of Dostoevsky, they are not at all necessary, for absolute cruelty an und für sich is interesting.

V. V. Rozanov (1856-1919) approached Dostoevsky's work as a student of philosophic and religious thought. He had already rejected positivism, materialism and rationalism, and the approach to Dostoevsky advocated by rationalists like Mikhaylovsky and Dobrolyubov. Rozanov found in Dostoevsky a spiritual teacher and leader and valued him as a great prophet. He was one of the first to point out that in many respects Notes from Underground was the intellectual key to understanding the novels that followed it. He understood Notes from Underground as a sort of textbook to the mature work of Dostoevsky. Rozanov found that Notes from Underground concerned itself with the following major points: (1) criticism of the idea that it is possible for humankind, by means of reason, to create a perfect society and to abolish suffering. (2) the idea that human imperfection is a law of nature and the cause of human suffering; by this reasoning suffering is, if not justified, at least made acceptable. (3) the idea that humans are essentially irrational and incomprehensible beings, capable of the most noble and at the same time the most base actions.

Before the 1917 revolution, Maksim Gorky (1869-1936) was a major writer of the liberal, progressive, and protesting camp. After the revolution he became an important figure in the Communist government and the opinion-setter for much of Soviet criticism, especially after 1932. This was especially true of the attitude toward Dostoevsky Soviet critics usually adopted. Between 1906 and 1913, Gorky worked on a history of Russian literature but left it unfinished. Some fragments were published in 1939. Of Notes from Underground Gorky wrote that it was the perfect example of Dostoevsky's "very tormenting and barren" writing. Moreover, he said: Notes from Underground clarifies nothing, does not exalt the positive in life, but, dwelling on the negative aspects only, fixes them in the mind of man, always depicts him as helpless amid a chaos of dark forces, and can lead him to pessimism, mysticism, etc. He summarized the ideas present in Notes from Underground as the "anarchistic ideology of the defeated."

Many Soviet critics accepted Gorky's disparaging comments on Dostoevsky as substantially correct. But they tried to save as much of Dostoevsky's work as possible from oblivion. Their main stratagem was to interpret Dostoevsky's works as criticism of his time rather than as universal and timeless portraits of humankind. This approach is fruitful to a certain extent with a few of the novels, notably some of the early works and Crime and Punishment. It fails almost completely with Notes from Underground. The best that the timid apologists for Notes from Underground were able to do was to paint a sympathetic picture of the author's personal wretchedness at the time the novel was written and to suggest that the strangeness and bitterness of the work are the result of Dostoevsky's personal unhappiness. In short, they seem to suggest, it is Dostoevsky's personal misery that speaks in Notes from Underground, not Dostoevsky himself. And in fact it is possible to list several causes for Dostoevsky to have been miserable: his recent exile; the illnesses and resultant deaths of his wife and his brother; a guilty love affair; the suspension of his journal, and the danger faced by its successor; his own debts, and the huge debts of his brother for which he had assumed responsibility; and his steadily worsening epilepsy. Leonid Grossman, a very able Soviet critic, at one time sought to picture Notes from Underground as a somewhat out-of-focus version of what he regarded as one of Dostoevsky's most important themes--the inviolability of the human personality. In Notes from Underground, Grossman said, this theme is distorted from defense of the inviolability of the personality to advocacy of an "arrogantly defiant self will." Thus, he suggested that it was possible to read even Notes from Underground if one read it in a certain way--making mental allowance for Dostoevsky's unfortunate perversion of what he meant to say. Grossman published this notion in the 1920s. Later on he was forced to recant, to withdraw even this partial attempt at reclaiming Notes from Underground for the Soviet reader. A recent statement adequately summarizes the prevailing attitude of Soviet critics until quite recently. Notes from Underground is said to be a counter-revolutionary slander; the characters in it are "marionettes, mere semblances of people. They move in a void, and no efforts of the genius could conceal the white strings with which he set them in motion." No doubt the coming of "glasnost" and the fall of the Soviet state will mean many new voices in Russian Dostoevsky criticism.

Notes from Underground has met with far greater success in the West than in the Russia. Unlike Soviet scholars, Western critics do not compile lengthy lists of personal calamities to account for the tone and ideas of the novel. They have, in general, worked from the notion that Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground as he did not because his wife was dying, his epilepsy was worsening, or his financial position was bad, but simply because the way he did it was the way he wanted to do it. Notes from Underground is assigned a most prominent place within Dostoevsky's works by existentialist critics. Jean-Paul Sartre, especially, has found in the underground man a forerunner and spokesperson for existential philosophy. To Sartre, the book and the character are especially important in the clear acknowledgement they make of man's essentially irrational nature.

Perhaps the most balanced work on Notes from Underground is the section devoted to it in Edward Wasiolek's book, Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction. Wasiolek works with the novel, mainly from the philosophical rather than aesthetic viewpoint. He understands its value in much the same way as Rozanov did, as a key to understanding the longer novels. Wasiolek outlines the major themes touched upon by Dostoevsky through the underground man: (1) attack on rationalism (2) attack on social utopianism and materialism (3) the vision of man as a being who is capable of the most incredible generosity and nobility and, at the same time, also of the greatest baseness. (4) the portrayal of man's motives as stemming ultimately from man's slavish desire to gratify his own self-will. Furthermore, Wasiolek points out the ambiguity of Dostoevsky's portrayal of the underground man. In the novel, the underground man is both a thoroughly despicable and petty person and a "hero," a typical man. Dostoevsky's ambiguous relation to the underground man is typical of his apparent relation to the strong-willed heroes of his later novels-- Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov.


Supplemental (Not Required) Literary Text

Notes from Underground

Supplementary Reading

Dostoevsky's story "White Nights" (1848) is recommended reading; it will help you to understand Dostoevsky's early ideas

The following works provide further reading on Dostoevsky's career during 1859-1863: Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal
Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation
Terras, F. M. Dostoevsky: Life, Work, and Criticism
Wasiolek, Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction
Frank, Joseph, "Nihilism and Notes from Underground," Sewanee Review, 69 (1961), pp. 1-33
Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature pp. 275-291.

For Futher Thought

Be able to define and discuss each of the following as they appear in Notes from Underground.

Optional and Personal

What do you think of the underground man? Do you find him repugnant, crazy, familiar? Is there anything sympathetic about him, any point at which you feel close to him?

Have a question?

Students who are formally enrolled in Russian 3421 or Russian 5421 at the University of Minnesota are invited to send questions to: