Notes From the Underground

Notes From the Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This was such a strange book that I'm not very sure where to begin.  So I put off writing about it until I forgot some things...

Anyway, Dostoevsky wrote Notes from the Underground as a response to Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done?, which made him really mad.   From what I hear, Russians usually read the two together, but in the English-speaking world Chernyshevsky is practically unknown.  That must make Underground far more difficult to understand, because an awful lot of it is a direct reaction to a book most people have not read.

The first part of the book is a rant written by the Underground Man, the narrator, who is about 40 and has left a life in civil service to hide from the world.  In his disconnected, skewed sort of way, he is raging against the machine, and especially against the idea of a rationalist utopia such as Chernyshevsky and other radicals envisioned.  To the Underground Man (and, as he points out, to all of us), such a society would be a hell.  People aren't rational and don't fit into perfectly planned lives that way.  People are contrary and would destroy a planned, rational society simply because they would have to assert themselves as individuals with free will; if they were forced to be good they would have to be wicked in retaliation.  The Underground Man himself asserts--almost proudly--that he is a wicked and sick man, but as such he is just like any of us. 

The second part of the book is the longer part, and is the Underground Man's story of an earlier part of his life, when he was just starting off in his civil service job.  We get to know him as someone who has never, ever been comfortable in his own skin or in his society.  He wants to be popular, yet he dislikes everyone he knows and feels contempt for them.  He quarrels with all the people he wants to be friends with, insults them, and sabotages himself at every turn, then wishes he could make amends but just quarrels again when he tries.  He meets a young girl who has just entered a life of prostitution, spends hours convincing her that she can yet leave and be happy (as if he's in a position to save anybody), and treats her savagely when she tells him she wants to get out.  He can't manage to be honest, or good, or brave, or anything like that; he just has to do the opposite.

Dostoevsky was horrified by the vision of a rationalist utopia, where everyone would would be good and happy (because they would have to be?).  He seems to have spotted the pitfalls in such a vision when few others did, but I'm not sure anyone heard what he was trying to say.  I think he's putting his message in the mouth of a really unlikable person to point out that even social misfits are human beings, and what is a rationalist utopia supposed to do with them?  And aren't we all social misfits to some extent?  I'm not sure about that though.

He was particularly ticked off that Chernyshevsky used the image of a crystal palace as a symbol for his rationalist utopia, where everyone lives in buildings made of glass and aluminum.  They happily work in the fields under giant movable shade canopies, and in their copious free time they sing and live elegantly.  (The children do all the housekeeping, which they enjoy.  Remember how I said Chernyshevsky didn't know anything about running a house?)   Everybody also, by the way, lives much further south than cold ol' Moscow, because Russia has expanded into the Central Asian countries and turned them into bucolic paradises.  No word on how the Kazakhs and Uzbeks feel about that; they don't seem to be around.  Chernyshevsky picked up this crystal palace image from the real-life Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition of 1851, but he may not have realized that Dostoevsky had used it first.

While Chernyshevsky and his fellow progressives thought the Crystal Palace was a wonderful symbol of a new, materialist, rationalist, scientific way of life, Dostoevsky was appalled by it.  He thought that materialism, rationalism, and the worship of science-as-philosophy ignored the real complexity and depth of human nature, and he was particularly convinced that educated Russians were far too enamored of all things Western European--they scorned and dismissed the true Russian values he saw embodied in the lives of ordinary Russians.  Dostoevsky used the Crystal Palace as a symbol of all of that, and then Chernyshevsky used it to venerate the very same things!  How annoying.

Wow, I wound up writing a lot more than I thought I would.  It's all very interesting.  Next, after I finish August 1914 which I am really truly actually reading now, I'm going to read Nabokov's The Gift, which references all this too.  Oh boy, won't that be fun? :)


  1. So interesting, I want to read both of them. I think I'll add them to my TBR list.

  2. An absolutely fantastic review, Jean! You have managed to explain a book by Dostoyevsky, which is indeed a major accomplishment (I'm still trying to write a review of The Idiot). And thanks for the information about Chernyshevsky --- I had no idea Notes was a response to What Is To Be Done?. It doesn't sound like it might be easy to find a copy of it, but I'm going to start searching.

  3. Ruth, they are not exactly enjoyable, but they're hugely valuable for the arguments they're making. So I hope you have a good time with them.

  4. Thanks, Cleopatra--you will want to ILL the 1989 edition of What is to be Done? or else read one of the old translations that are floating around digitally. Check out the readalong recently hosted by Tom at Wuthering Expectations--he gives some help with that.

  5. I would not exactly say that Russians read the two books together, but they are much more likely to know that the Chernyshevsky novel at least exists and to have come across some of the literary history. It's not a complete mystery like it seems to be for most outsiders.

    You've read The Gift before, I think? I want to read it again soon, too. I referred to it once in a while, writing up Ch. and Dost., and was amazed at its density. And of course quality - it is Nabokov at his best.

  6. I have read The Gift before, yes, but in about 1994. I remember liking it, but nothing else, and I didn't know anything about Russian literature at the time, so I must have missed...well, everything. I wasn't very good at being a lit major, really. Library work now, I can totally do that.


Post a Comment

I'd love to know what you think, so please comment!

Popular posts from this blog

The Four Ages of Poetry

Dewey Readathon post

Howl's Moving Castle