Dostoyevsky’s novella is widely considered to be one of the first works of existentialist literature, credited as the precursor to everything from Kafka’s Metamorphosis to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The book is narrated by an anonymous and unreliable voice hailing from the underbelly of 19th century St. Petersburg, a city in the midst of mechanisation and scientific revolution. In the first part of the novel, the narrator leads the reader on a twisted, convoluted journey through his own personal philosophy: he rails against au curant theories of determinism, materialism, socialism and utopianism in a fractured, layered monologue constantly threatening to collapse in on itself. This Underground Man offers an account of his apathetic existence based in his belief that, contrary to the rationalist ideas of his contemporaries, socialist utopia is an impossible dream fatally reliant on a vision of man as an inherently rational creature driven to act in his own self-interest. For the Underground Man, though, ‘people are stupid.’ That is, they will often act against their self-interests for inscrutable reasons: whether out of petty revenge or simply to assert their own individuality. Man is a fundamentally self-destructive beast, the Underground Man argues, and therefore any hope of a collective utopia is doomed, and furthermore, any claim for an intrinisc meaning in human existence is unfounded.
In the second half of the novel the narrator reminisces about several scenes from his past which are illustrative of his beliefs, including an attempt at petty face-saving, a spiteful disruption of a farewell dinner, and the emotional abuse of a young prostitute. In this final episode, Dostoyevsky tantalises the reader with the possibility of some shared sense of repentence and resolution for the two characters. But as we know from the opening, set several decades later, the Underground Man will achieve no such salvation. Instead the novel is an exultation of human perversity without end, and indeed, the novel ends arbitrarily, with Dostoyevsky’s interjection: ‘one might as well just stop here.’ Despite the neurotic narrator and his dense, circular style, the book fairly hums along, and the theories it espouses–and the influence they have enjoyed–have lost none of their urgent appeal in the intervening years.
Genre: Philosophical Novel
Influences: Nikolai Gogol, Honore de Balzac, Edgar Allen Poe
Influenced: Albert Camus, Anton Chekhov, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka
From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword to the Signet Classic edition of Notes from Underground (1961):
‘[Dostoyevsky’s] early writings placed him politically and were greeted enthusiastically by Russian liberals. […] His humanitarian feelings led Dostoyevsky to join a liberal circle of enthusiastic young men who met to discuss socialism. […] During one such meeting of the Petrashevsky group, Dostoyevsky and his companions were surprised by the police. They were imprisoned and sentenced to death. This sentence, however, was nothing but a gruesome farce, devised by the tsarist authorities for the edification of subversives. […] The effect on Dostoyevsky was shattering. […] He was sentenced to eight years in the Omsk penitentiary in Siberia, a sentence which, again thanks to the tsar’s magnanimity, was reduced to four years, followed by a stretch in the army as an enlisted man. [Afterwards] all liberalism had left him; he was no longer a revolutionary, nor even a would-be reformer. […] Having renounced any attempt to alleviate the human condition through practical, man-made measures (he had tried and the tsarist authorities had taught him that there was nothing to be done in that direction), Dostoyevsky preaches submission and the acceptance of suffering, recommending it as a way to redemption and salvation. As he does so, however, he is still trying to convince himself of the existence of God.’