Study Guide for Dostoyevsky: Notes from Underground




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Notes from Underground is one of the most influential pieces of fiction in Western European history. It has attracted attention for many reasons. 1) It contains an all-out assault on Enlightenment rationalism and the idea of progress which foreshadows many such assaults in the mid-to-late twentieth century. 2) It is an outstanding example of Dostoyevsky's psychological skills, depicting a character motivated by many contradictory impulses. Such contradictions were not clearly understood in the nineteenth century, but Freud and modern psychology generally were to explore in depth the irrational bases of much human thought. 3) One of the most salient characteristics of the Underground Man is his profound self-contempt combined with an exquisitely sensitive ego--a combination that is much discussed these days. 4) The story contains one of the first characters whose childhood experiences have led him to fear love and intimacy even though he longs for them: another topic of intense interest currently. 5) It portrays one of the first anti-heroes in fiction, a protagonist utterly lacking every trait of the Romantic hero and living out a futile life on the margins of society. Such figures were to dominate much serious fiction in the mid-twentieth century, notably Albert Camus' Meursault in The Stranger.

Because the narrator (he has no name) of this story is a thoroughly disagreeable person who seems to go out of the way to offend his readers, some care is needed to read the story well. First, it is important to keep in mind that the Underground Man, as he is traditionally called ("UM" below) is not Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as the notes at the beginning and end of the story make clear. He shares some of Dostoyevsky's ideas, but he is also the target of Dostoyevsky's satire. Dostoyevsky enjoyed handicapping himself by placing some of his favorite arguments in the mouth of a character he despised. In this and in other works, he strongly resists the impulse to sweep the reader away by making his views irresistible. He wants you to be aware of both their strengths and weaknesses, and make your mind up independently. Second, although some readers find that they are identifying with the UM to some extent, unlike most popular fiction, this is not a story in which you are expected to identify with the narrator. The danger is, in fact, that the reader will become so exasperated with his tone and manner as to simply refuse to pay attention what he is saying. Consider the UM as a complex portrait, lacking surface appeal, but filled with fascinating detail which reveals itself only upon close examination. Third, it is crucial not simply to let the UM's self-contradictions cancel each other out and dismiss him as a madman whose ravings are not worth deciphering. It is precisely in the tension between various emotions and ideas that significance of the UM's narrative lies. Close reading will reveal a careful and consistent psychological portrait.

The page numbers cited below are those of the MacAndrew translation published by New American Library. If you are using a different translation you will have to adjust the page numbers to match it.

Part One is a sustained argument containing scraps of illustrative narrative, introducing the UM and articulating his assault on rationalism and progress and delineating what he thinks is wrong with the modern self-conscious intellectual (himself). Part Two is a much more easily comprehensible narrative of an episode from his life in which he is offered a chance to escape from his web of self-hate and spite. In Part One he is all scorn and contempt for the reader; in Part Two this contempt turns on himself. A sensitive reading will reveal that there is much to pity in him. The numbers preceding each paragraph indicate the page number in the story which the question relates to.

Part One

I

84: How many self-contradictions can you find in the first paragraph? Does he really respect medicine? Explain? What does the fact that he refuses medical help out of spite tell us about his attitude toward freedom?

85: What evidence is there that he is acutely self-conscious about how he appears to others? Is he aware of having any need for human affection? Is he able to tolerate such affection?

86: Is he really indifferent to his readers' reactions? How can you tell? He introduces what he calls a "stupid, useless excuse," which turns out to be one of his main theses in the rest of Part I. What does this "excuse" mean? Is he more worried about being despised or being laughed at? How can you tell?

II

87: How can you illustrate already his thesis that "unhappy nineteenth century intellectuals" like himself are too "abstract and premeditated?" What does he mean by this?

88: What evidence is there that he is a masochist? (Look the word up if you aren't familiar with it.)

89: What does it mean to be "guilty in the first place?" Is it possible to feel guilty without being aware of any specific wrongful act that caused the guilty feelings? Look for elements in his story later that might have led him to grow up feeling guilty, or--as people say today--with low self-esteem.

III

90-91: Can you contrast what the UM calls "the spontaneous man" or l'homme de la nature et de la vérité (man of nature and truth) with the "unhappy nineteenth century intellectual" he discussed earlier? What are the differences between them? What are his feelings toward each of them?

92-93: Look closely at the paragraph that begins "Thus you may. . . ." Does he care about our reactions? How can you tell? In the last full paragraph he satirically presents the central ideas of nineteenth century pragmatism, which argues that all morality is an illusion founded on self-interest, that there is no such thing as altruism (much as Voltaire had done earlier). He objects to the way in which such pragmatists (like the social Darwinists) complacently presented self-interest as scientifically proven superior to altruism. What is the point he is making about two plus two making four?

IV

94-95: How does his example of the toothache illustrate this idea of the self-conscious intellectual? What changes when he becomes too self-aware about the pain he is experiencing? Examine the last paragraph in this section. He seems to be having a dialogue with his imaginary reader. How does he try to defend himself against this reader? How does this paragraph illustrate the point he was just making about self-consciousness?

V

95: Is it possible to be sincerely in love and faking it at the same time? Do you believe him when he says he fell in love simply out of boredom?

VI

He is so desperate for some kind of identity that he is willing even to have an absurdly trivial identity. What example does he use? Your notes in the Afterword of this volume explain that this paragraph contains an attack on an artist named Gué (whose name begins with the same letter as the Russian word for "s___" and a writer named Saltykov-Shchedrin, who had written a story called "Something to Everybody's Liking." How serious is his last sentence? Do you think he feels ambivalently about it?

VII

99-102: He begins by satirizing the ideals of the Enlightenment thinkers who thought that if people only acted out of enlightened self-interest they would become "kind and noble." What examples does he use to try to prove this theory wrong? Why does the notion of automatic moral reform make him so angry? Why does he say it makes a human being into a "piano key or an organ stop?" (Today we would say a robot, or a cog in a machine.)

103-104: The first full paragraph is specifically aimed at Chernyshevsky's What is to Be Done? It was a utopian novel which used the metaphor of the Crystal Palace (the world's first all steel-and glass building, erected to display modern machinery at a fair celebrating Queen Victoria's reign in England). What are his major objections to living in a perfect world? Do you agree with him that individual freedom and utopianism necessarily conflict?

VIII

105: The UM says that if we ever completely understand human psychology to the point that we clearly grasp out motivations for our feelings, we will cease to have true, spontaneous feelings. Can you think of any examples where self-awareness of this kind has interfered with spontaneous feelings in your own life or anyone else's?

106: How does he say desire relates to reason?

109: What is his reaction to the fact that at his time very little was known about what determined human desires? How do you think he would have reacted to today's psychologists?

IX

109-111: What is his argument against the typically Victorian notion that the essence of the human spirit is to be found in creativity and accomplishment?

112: Why does he keep talking about "twice two?" What is he using it as a metaphor for?

X

112-113: How do you think he would have reacted to Marxism?

XI

114-116: How accurate do you think the self-analysis of the UM is? What does it show about his self-awareness? What evidence is there on this page that he feels he has revealed too much about himself in that paragraph? What does he mean by the sentence that begins "But there are things, too, that a man won't dare to admit event to himself . . . ?" How does this theory relate to the Freudian concept of the unconscious mind (incorrectly often called the "subconscious")? Rousseau's autobiography was famous for revealing some very unpleasant details about his private life. If a person is scrupulously honest, as the UM says he is going to be, does that make him a good person? Why does the UM keep repeating that he intends that this writing will never be read by anyone?

Part Two

I

117: Nekrasov was a popular Romantic poet. This poem recurs in the story at p. 152. What situation does Nekrasov seem to be depicting here? The UM seems to break off in embarrassment in the middle of quoting this poem. How does this interruption relate to the major themes of Part One?

120: What does he say is the main difference between German and Russian idealists?

122: What are his vices? Are they really very vicious? What is it about the military officer's action that offends him so much?

123: What does he mean by saying he longed for something more literary? How does it relate to the themes of Part One?

125: Why do you think he didn't send the exposé of the officer in under his own name? Do you believe him when he says it was rejected because such exposés weren't in vogue?

126-129: In the code of gentlemen the proper response to an insult was to challenge the offending party to a duel with swords or pistols. In what ways is the UM's revenge a ridiculously inadequate substitute for such a duel? Note that in the last paragraph of this section he refuses to tell us how he felt when he finally realized what a fool he'd made out of himself. See if you can find other passages in which he censors what he is willing to reveal to us, despite the fact that he is usually eager to run on and on about his faults.

II

131: What is absurd about the fantasies he describes? What evidence is there that even though he ridicules these fantasies, he is defensive about them?

III

133: In what way does his treatment by his former school companions compare with his treatment by the officer?

139: Do you think these young men were really "incredibly depraved?"

140: What evidence does he present here that he is incapable of tolerating love and affection even though he desperately yearns for it? What do you think causes some people to be like this, powerfully attracting others and then rejecting them once it is clear the victim truly loves and admires the lover? Note that his passage strongly foreshadows his relationship with Liza.

IV

145: Why do you think he doesn't tell us the amount of his salary?

147-148: Can you analyze his emotions while he is denouncing the others at the party? How do they react to him?

V

153-154: What does it tell you about him that even a prostitute insults him? How do his plans for revenge illustrate his self-portrait in Part One? He seems to feel that by leaving his coat open he is making a boldly suicidal gesture. Winters in St. Petersburg can be brutal, but what evidence is there that it is not all that cold?

156: Why does he hope he is repulsive to the prostitute he chooses?

VI

Nineteenth century authors usually avoided explicitly depicting sexual activity, so much so that modern readers sometimes miss their subtle cues that sex has occurred. You may take it for granted that when this section begins the UM has had sex with Liza and is lying beside her on the bed afterwards. An old stereotypical line used by a man to a prostitute is to ask, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" Try to figure out what the UM's motives are in trying to convince Liza that she should not be a prostitute. Why doesn't he succeed at first in making her feel ashamed of herself at first?

161: What does Liza's reaction to his saying that she could still marry suggest about her background? What is it that he especially objects to in the life a prostitute which relates to a central theme of Part One?

164: What does her reaction to his portrait of a loving father reveal about her? Does she accept the argument that poverty is responsible for criminal behavior?

166: What does she mean by saying he's "just like a book?" How accurate is she in her judgment of him?

VII

During the time this story was published there was an immense amount of discussion about the social problem posed by prostitution, and there were many books and articles propounding exactly the same theme that the UM uses here. His speech to Liza is a chain of journalistic clichés.

167: What are in his motives in telling her all this? See also p. 177 for further evidence.

173: Why does she bring him the letter?

174: What do you think is the "obscene truth" he is realizing at the end of this section?

177-179: How do his fantasies about Liza illustrate his ideas about self-consciousness in Part One? Even rather poor persons could afford a single servant in the nineteenth century. Masses of them subsisted on negligible wages. What is ironic about the UM's servant's name?

IX

184-185: What are his reactions when Liza appears?

186: Compare his silence with Liza with the incident at the dinner party earlier.

187-189: Why do you think he pours out this confession to her when she asks him to save her? What is the "very strange thing" that happens? Why do you think she reacts to him the way she does? Why does he react to her reaction the way he does?

X

191: Again Dostoyevsky does not describe the sex that takes place between these two sections (during the missing quarter hour). Why do you think the UM has specifically chosen to have sex with her? What is he trying to convey to her? How has it made her feel?

192: What do you think he slipped in her hand? Why does he say that this act was cruel?

193: Explain this sentence: "Won't I hate her even more tomorrow, just because I've kissed her feet today?"

194-196: What emotions does the UM feel in the aftermath? Has the underground man learned from his experiences? What effect have they had on him? Does understanding one&'s motives necessarily make one behave better? Can you see any way for the UM to escape from his trap?

Dostoyevsky was a devout Christian (his The Brothers Karamazov is one of the few great Christian novels). Can you find any evidence for his religious beliefs in this story, direct or indirect?

What do suppose his attitudes toward Voltaire were? In what ways is he like Faust? Have you ever met anyone like the UM? What effect did that person have on you?


Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

First mounted June 17, 1995.

Last revised March 28, 2006

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