Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground (pre-reform Russian: Записки изъ подполья; post-reform Russian: Записки из подполья, tr. Zapíski iz podpólʹya), also translated as Notes from the Underground or Letters from the Underworld, is an 1864 novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Notes is considered by many to be one of the first existentialist novels.[1] It presents itself as an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator (generally referred to by critics as the Underground Man), who is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. The first part of the story is told in monologue form, or the underground man's diary, and attacks emerging Western philosophy, especially Nikolay Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?[2] The second part of the book is called "Apropos of the Wet Snow" and describes certain events that appear to be destroying and sometimes renewing the underground man, who acts as a first person, unreliable narrator and anti-hero.[3]

Notes from Underground
AuthorFyodor Dostoevsky
Original titleЗаписки изъ подполья
GenrePhilosophical fiction
PublisherEpoch; January–April 1864
Vintage; Reprint edition
Publication date
891.73/3 20
LC ClassPG3326 .Z4 1993

Plot summary

The novel is divided into two parts.

Part 1: "Underground"

Serving as an introduction into the perplexing mind of the narrator, this part is split into nine chapters. The introduction to the chapters propounds a number of riddles whose meanings are further developed as the narration continues. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 deal with suffering and the irrational pleasure of suffering. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the moral and intellectual fluctuation the narrator feels along with his conscious insecurities regarding "inertia"—inaction. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 cover theories of reason and logic, closing with the last two chapters as a summary and transition into Part 2.

The narrator's desire for unhappiness is exemplified by his liver pain and toothache. The narrator mentions that utopian society removes suffering and pain, but man desires both things and needs them to be happy. According to the narrator, removing pain and suffering in society takes away a man's freedom. This parallels Raskolnikov's behavior in Dostoevsky's later novel, Crime and Punishment. He says that the cruelty of society makes human beings moan about pain only to spread their suffering to others. He builds up his own paranoia to the point that he is incapable of looking his co-workers in the eye.[4]

The main issue for the Underground Man is that he has reached a point of ennui[5] and inactivity.[6]

Unlike most people, who typically act out of revenge because they believe justice is the end, the Underground Man is conscious of his problems and feels the desire for revenge, but he does not find it virtuous; the incongruity leads to spite towards the act itself with its concomitant circumstances. He feels that others like him exist, but he continuously concentrates on his spitefulness instead of on actions that would help him avoid the problems that torment him. He even admits that he would rather be inactive out of laziness. To the reader, the Underground Man has a contradictory personality because he gives the reader concepts that are commendable, but the reader is repulsed by his actions later in the novel.

The first part also gives a harsh criticism of determinism and intellectual attempts at dictating human action and behavior by logic which the Underground Man mentions in terms of a simple math problem two times two makes four (see also necessitarianism). He states that despite humanity's attempt to create the "Crystal Palace," a reference to a famous symbol of utopianism in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, one cannot avoid the simple fact that anyone, at any time, can decide to act in a way that might not be considered to be in self-interest; some will do so simply to validate their existence and to protest and confirm that they exist as individuals. The Underground Man ridicules the type of enlightened self-interest (egoism, selfishness) that Chernyshevsky proposes as the foundation of Utopian society. The concept of cultural and legislative systems relying on this rational egoism is what the protagonist despises. The Underground embraces this ideal in praxis, and he seems to blame it for his current state of unhappiness.[7] This type of rebellion is critical to later works of Dostoevsky as it is used by adolescents to validate their own existence, uniqueness and independence (see Dostoevsky's The Adolescent); rebellion in the face of the dysfunction and disorder of adult experience that one inherits when reaching adulthood under the understanding of tradition and society.

In other works, Dostoevsky again confronts the concept of free will and constructs a negative argument to validate free will against determinism in the character Kirillov's suicide in his novel The Demons. Notes from Underground marks the starting point of Dostoevsky's move from psychological and sociological themed novels to novels based on existential and general human experience in crisis.

Part 2: "Apropos of the Wet Snow"

The second part of the story consists of three main segments that lead to a furthering of the Underground Man's consciousness.

The first is his obsession with an officer who has once disrespected him in a pub. This officer frequently passes by him on the street, seemingly without noticing his existence. He sees the officer on the street and thinks of ways to take revenge, eventually borrowing money to buy a higher class overcoat and bumping into the officer to assert his equality. To the Underground Man's surprise, however, the officer does not seem to notice that it even happened.

The second segment is a going away dinner party with some old school friends to bid Zverkov, one of their number, goodbye as he is being transferred out of the city. The underground man hated them when he was younger, but after a random visit to Simonov's, he decides to meet them at the appointed location. They fail to tell him that the time has been changed to six instead of five, so he arrives early. He gets into an argument with the four of them after a short time, declaring to all his hatred of society and using them as the symbol of it. At the end, they go off without him to a secret brothel, and, in his rage, the underground man follows them there to confront Zverkov once and for all, regardless if he is beaten or not. He arrives at the brothel to find Zverkov and the others already retired with prostitutes to other rooms. He then encounters Liza, a young prostitute, with whom he goes to bed.

The story cuts to Liza and the underground man lying silently in the dark together. The Underground Man confronts Liza with an image of her future, by which she is unmoved at first, but after challenging her individual utopian dreams (similar to his ridicule of The Crystal Palace in Part 1), she eventually realizes the plight of her position and how she will slowly become useless and will descend more and more, until she is no longer wanted by anyone. The thought of dying such a terribly disgraceful death brings her to realize her position, and she then finds herself enthralled by the underground man's seemingly poignant grasp of the destructive nature of society. He gives her his address and leaves.

After this, he is overcome by the fear of her actually arriving at his dilapidated apartment after appearing such a "hero" to her and, in the middle of an argument with his servant, she arrives. He then curses her and takes back everything he said to her, saying he was, in fact, laughing at her and reiterates the truth of her miserable position. Near the end of his painful rage he wells up in tears after saying that he was only seeking to have power over her and a desire to humiliate her. He begins to criticize himself and states that he is in fact horrified by his own poverty and embarrassed by his situation. Liza realizes how pitiful he is and tenderly embraces him. The underground man cries out "They—they won't let me—I—I can't be good!"

After all this, he still acts terribly toward her, and, before she leaves, he stuffs a five ruble note into her hand, which she throws onto the table (it is implied that the Underground Man engaged in sexual activity with Liza and that the note is compensation for her). He tries to catch her as she goes out to the street but cannot find her and never hears from her again. He tries to stop the pain in his heart by "fantasizing", "And isn't it better, won't it be better?... Insult—after all, it's a purification; it's the most caustic, painful consciousness! Only tomorrow I would have defiled her soul and wearied her heart. But now the insult will never ever die within her, and however repulsive the filth that awaits her, the insult will elevate her, it will cleanse her..." He recalls this moment as making him unhappy whenever he thinks of it, yet again proving the fact from the first section that his spite for society and his inability to act like it makes him unable to act better than it.

The concluding sentences recall some of the themes explored in the first part, and tells the reader directly, "I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway.” The work as a whole ends with a note from the author that while there was more to the text, "it seems that we may stop here."

Ideological themes

The narration by the Underground Man is laden with ideological allusions and complex conversations regarding the political climate of the time period. Using his fiction as a weapon of ideological discourse, Dostoevsky challenges the ideologies of his time, mainly nihilism and rational egoism.[7] In Part 2, the rant the Underground Man unloads on Liza as they sit in the dark is a moment in which such a discussion of clashing ideologies occurs. Liza believes she can survive and rise up through the ranks of her brothel as a means of achieving her dreams of functioning successfully in society. However, as the Underground Man points out in his rant, such dreams are based on a utopian trust of not only the societal systems in place but also humanity's ability to avoid corruption and irrationality in general. The points made in Part 1 about the Underground Man's pleasure in being rude and refusing to seek medical help are his examples of how idealised rationality is inherently flawed for not accounting for the darker and more irrational side of humanity. The Underground Man argues that underlying the gilded understanding of society is what he tells Liza will end up leading her down a calamitous path and ultimately destroy her.[8]

Where the Underground Man places himself in this messy view of society is rather complicated. He is very open about his irrational and spiteful interaction with the world, but he also admits that he understands the pleasure in "a doll to play with" or "a cup of tea with sugar in it" (these being symbols of a non-corrupted society).[9] The important distinction here is that the Underground Man would lie awake grinding his teeth for months after because of such an indulgence in society. The shame displayed here is what separates him from rational egoists and utopian dreamers, but the desire that he sometimes feels to buy into such ideals leaves him on the fringe of society or what can be understood as what drove him underground.

Writing style

The unreliable narrator is used in the entire story. Although the novel is written in first-person narrative, the "I" is never really discovered. The novel's style is also linked to the St. Petersburg Tales in which there is an unreliable narrator. The writing style is very dense and at times difficult to understand. The sentence structure can at times seem "multi-layered"; the subject and the verb are often at the very beginning of the sentence before the object goes into the depths of the narrator's thoughts. The narrator repeats many of his concepts.[10]

When the narrator says that he is "underground", he speaks metaphorically; he is not actually underground. Rather, in chapter 11, he refers back to his inferiority to everyone around him and describes listening to people like "listening through a crack under the floor". The word "underground" actually comes from a bad translation into English. A better translation would be a crawl space: a space under the floor that is not big enough for a human, but where rodents and bugs live. According to Russian folklore it is also a place where evil spirits live.

The Stone Wall is one of the symbols in the novel and represents all the barriers of the laws of nature that stand against man and his freedom. Put simply, the rule 2+2=4 angers the Underground Man because he wants the freedom to say 2+2=5, but that Stone Wall of nature's laws stands in front of him and his free will.

Political climate and legacy

In the 1860s, Russia was beginning to absorb the ideas and culture of Western Europe at an accelerated pace, nurturing an unstable local climate. There was especially a growth in revolutionary activity accompanying a general restructuring of tsardom where liberal reforms, enacted by an unwieldy autocracy, only induced a greater sense of tension in both politics and civil society. Many of Russia's intellectuals were engaged in a debate with the Westernizers on one hand, and the Slavophiles on the other, concerned with favoring importation of Western reforms or promoting pan-Slavic traditions to address Russia's particular social reality. Even though in 1861, Tsar Alexander emancipated the serfs, Russia was still very much a post-medieval, traditional peasant society.

However, when Notes From Underground was written, there was an intellectual ferment on discussions regarding religious philosophy and various 'enlightened' utopian ideas.[11] Dostoevsky, however, along with his notable contemporary, Soren Kierkegaard, rejected such ideas for proto-existentialist themes.

Most importantly, the legacy that the work leaves is a challenge to and a method of understanding the larger implications of a utopian society.[1] Utopianism largely pertains to a society's collective dream, but what troubles the Underground Man is this very idea of collectivism. The point the Underground Man makes is that the people will ultimately always rebel against a collectively perceived idea of paradise; individuals dreaming of a utopian image such as The Crystal Palace will always conflict because of the underlying irrationality of humanity. The challenge of an enlightened society laid the groundwork for later writing. The work thus earned the title of "probably the most important single source of the modern dystopia".[12]

The seminal influence of the work has seen a wide impact on subsequent various works in the fields of philosophy, literature, and film, with Friedrich Nietzsche's writings, Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis, Brett Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver deriving inspiration from Dostoevsky's novella.[13][14]

English translations

Since Notes from Underground was first published in Russian, there have been a number of translations into English over the years, including those by:

  • C. J. Hogarth (1913, as Letters from the Underworld)
  • Constance Garnett (1918)
    • Revised by Ralph E. Matlaw (1960)
  • David Magarshack (1955, as Notes from the Underground)
  • Andrew R. MacAndrew (1961)
  • Serge Shishkoff (1969)
  • Jessie Coulson (1972)
  • Mirra Ginsburg (1974)
  • Michael R. Katz (1989)
  • Jane Kentish (1991, as Notes from the Underground)
  • Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1994)
  • Ronald Wilks
  • Boris Jakim (2009)
  • Kirsten Lodge (2014, as Notes from the Underground)


  • In 1995, a film adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella was released, with Henry Czerny and Sheryl Lee playing the leading roles.
  • Turkish director Zeki Demirkubuz's 2012 film Inside was inspired by Dostoevsky's novella.
  • In the 2018 HBO movie Fahrenheit 451, Notes from Underground features prominently; Guy Montag saves a copy from being burned, and reads from it throughout the rest of the movie.


  1. Kaufmann, Walter (1956). Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian Books. p. 52.
  2. "The views that brought Chernyshevsky to this vision were close to utilitarianism, meaning that actions should be judged in terms of their expediency. Naturally, utilitarians assumed that we can know the standard against which expediency can be measured: usually it was economic well-being. In Chernyshevsky's rational egotism, utlitarianism as a method coincided with socialism as a goal: in essence, it is in everyone's individual self-interest that the whole of society flourish." Notes from Underground By Fyodor Dostoevsky page X in the introduction by Robert Bird
  3. Furst, Lillian (March 1976). "The Romantic Hero, Or is he an Anti-Hero? Studies in the Literary Imagination". Studies in the Literary Imagination.
  4. Paris, Bernard (2008). Dostoevsky's Greatest Characters: A New Approach to Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and the Brothers Karamazov. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. and it was all from ennui, gentlemen, all from ennui ; inertia overcame me. Notes from Underground ch5
  6. Chief among them is the Underground Man, who confesses to his own inertia (inercija), defined as "conscious-sitting-with-arms-folded" and also criticises his supposed antitheses, men of action and men of nature and truth for their active, machine-like existence. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-11-01. Retrieved 2017-09-06.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. Scanlan, James (1999). "The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground". Journal of the History of Ideas.
  8. Notes From Underground Part 2 "Apropos of Wet Snow" Chapter 6
  9. Notes From Underground Part 1 "Underground" Chapter 1
  10. Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1973). Problems in Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis. pp. 150–159.
  11. Wanner, Adrian (1997). The Underground Man as Big Brother: Dostoevsky's and Orwell's Anti-Utopia. Penn State University Press. p. 77.
  12. Morson, Gary (1981). The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 130.
  13. "Can Dostoevsky Still Kick You in the Gut?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  14. A paragraph from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground is quoted at the beginning of the first chapter of American Psycho.
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