LESSON 8 Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
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
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
For Futher Thought
Be able to define and discuss each of the following as they appear in Notes
- 1. man of consciousness
- 2. man of action
- 3. wall
- 4. organ stops
- 5. Crystal Palace
- 6. inertia
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: