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Notes from Underground - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The book was written in 1864 and serves as a precursor to his other greater works. It is written in the form of a confession.

The book is divided into two parts, the first is called " Underground" and the second part is "Apropos of the Wet Snow". Our narrator is a retired civil servant. The novel is contradictory in that he does not expect an audience for his notes but he also anticipates that the readers will continuously laugh at him throughout the book.


The first line of the book - "I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man. . ." sets the tone for the entire book. It is not typically what anyone would say about themselves and it definitely makes an impact on the reader. It gives the impression that the narrator is self - aware. He admits that he is educated enough not to be superstitious but he still is. It is about a man who wants to express himself fully but keeps finding himself at a loss of words. It is relatable in the fact that 1). In no instance are we ever able to express fully what we feel and 2). Even when we do express ourselves completely, the listener will have an understanding that is limited by their experience.

"And I lied about my myself just now when I said I was a wicked official. I lied out of wickedness"

"In short, man is comically arranged, there is apparently a joke in all this".

He is an unreliable narrator and there seems to be no logical flow to his thoughts or maybe it is supposed to make sense only to him. But he is clearly aware of the reader. He calls heightened consciousness a sickness and one that he takes pride in having. At a heightened consciousness you accept what you feel and know that no matter what steps you take the result would always be the same. Therefore, you end up taking pleasure in whatever you feel, even your humiliations. A heightened consciousness is a curse that he cannot escape.

"But it is precisely in this cold, loathsome half - despair, half-belief, in this conscious burying oneself alive from grief for forty years in the underground, in this assiduously produced and yet somewhat dubious hopelessness of one's position, in all this poison of unsatisfied desires penetrating inward, in all this fever of hesitations, of decisions taken forever, and repentances coming a moment later, that the very sap of that strange pleasure I was talking about consists."

"And why not? There is also pleasure in toothache," I will answer.

Maybe man does not love well-being only? Maybe he loves suffering just as much? Maybe suffering is just as profitable for him as well-being? For man sometimes loves suffering terribly much, to the point of passion, and that is a fact".

"Suffering - why, that is the sole cause of consciousness.

He states that consciousness leads to boredom which in turn leads one to cause their own suffering, to torment oneself for no reason at all. A ingenuous man thinks more simply and as a result suffers less. He also also talks about "profit". Is everything in life that we do calculated? Does every action depend on how much we will profit from it? and yet even if we do know that an action is the one we will profit from, it is not the one we will take. His argument that civilization does not annihilate man's need for war is not wrong.

"If man has not become more bloodthirsty from civilization, at any rate he has certainly become bloodthirsty in a worse, a viler way than formerly".

In the end man does what he wants, not what he must. The wanting to do something throws out all other reasons for profitability. And what kind of a man is a man without wanting. Wanting does not necessarily agree with reason. Maybe man loves to keep searching for answers but is afraid to find them and that is why he loves chaos and destruction.

"But man is a frivolous and unseemly being, and perhaps, similar to a chess player, likes only the process of achieving the goal, but not the goal itself".

"Something awkward, at any rate, can be noticed in him each time he achieves some such goal, Achieving he likes, but having achieved he does not quite like, and that, of course, is terribly funny. In short, man is comically arranged; there is apparently a joke in all this".

"Well, and this wanting, the devil knows . . ."

Apropos of the Wet Snow

In Part 2 we get an insight into underground man's life and the people he meets. He is very much concerned on how people around him perceive him. He says that he engages in debauchery because there was nothing else to do. One day he meets an officer that moves him while trying to disperse a fight. He then follows this officer in order to take revenge for that fact that the officer moved him without noticing him. He manages to bump this officer successfully but the officer barely noticed him.

"Every decent man of our time is and must be a coward and a slave".

"Reading was of course a great help - it stirred, delighted and tormented me". But at times it bored me terribly".

He then meets some of his friends at a going away party and there again he feels himself humiliated. It all stems from him thinking of himself as superior as he is an "educated" man while as the same time inferior as he is poor. After the party he follows his friends to a brothel. His friends are not there but he meets Liza. He tells Liza that her profession is such that she has sold her soul and that no one will truly love her, once she dies there will not be a single person to remember her.

"That's the end of your memory on earth, other people's graves are visited by children, fathers, husbands, but at yours - not a tear, not a sigh, not a prayer, and no one, no one in the whole world will ever come to you; your name will disappear from the face of the earth - as if you'd never existed, as if you'd never been born!"

She will die, never leaving a mark to say that she lived. He then leaves but not before giving her his address. Once he goes home, he dreads that she might visit. He dreads it mainly because although he has preached to her, he is poor and he finds that embarrassing. She does visit and he verbally attacks her again saying that he never meant to save her and that he had been just humiliated and he wanted to the same to someone else. She leaves and he goes after her but does not find her again. We get a note from Dostoevsky that although the notes do not end here, this is the best place to stop.

Notes from Underground is a book about a man who cannot be at peace with himself and who in the first part argues that man, will go looking for suffering and to humiliate himself and in the second part, demonstrates it in his real life. Although suffering is an essential part of life maybe we can alleviate it by being grateful for what we already have.

"I even think the best definition of man is; a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful".

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