Fyodor Dostoevsky is renowned as one of the world’s greatest novelists and literary psychologists. Born in Moscow in 1821, the son of a doctor, Dostoevsky was educated first at home and then at a boarding school. When he was a young boy, his father sent him to the St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, from which he graduated in 1843. Dostoevsky had long been interested in writing, and after graduation he immediately resigned from his minor military post to devote his time to his craft. His first novel, Poor Folk (1846), was immediately popular with critics.
Dostoevsky’s early view of the world was shaped by his experiences with social injustice. At the age of twenty-six, Dostoevsky became active in socialist circles, largely because of his opposition to the institution of serfdom. His political opinions were influenced by his experiences as a young boy—his father was murdered by his own serfs while Dostoevsky was away at school. Another experience that greatly affected Dostevsky, and that found its way into his writing, was the time he spent in prison. In April 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for his participation in a group that illegally printed and distributed socialist propaganda. After spending eight months in prison, Dostoevsky was sentenced to death and was led, with other members of the group, to be shot. But the execution turned out to be only a show, meant to punish the prisoners psychologically. After his brush with death, Dostoevsky spent four years at a Siberian labor camp and then served in the military for another four years. During his time in prison, he rejected his extreme socialist views in favor of an adherence to traditional, conservative Russian values—a change in ideology that is evident throughout his later works.
Dostoevsky spent most of the 1860s in western Europe, immersing himself in the European culture that he believed was encroaching on Russia—an issue he explores in Notes from Underground. These years in Europe were a difficult time for Dostoevsky, as he struggled with poverty, epilepsy, and an addiction to gambling. The publication of Crime and Punishment (1866), however, brought him a reversal of fortune, earning him popular and critical success and rescuing him from financial disaster. His later novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) brought him further critical success.
Dostoevsky was one of the pioneers of realism in the modern novel, and Notes from Underground (1864), along with his later novels, belongs to this genre. Realist writers—Honoré de Balzac in France, Charles Dickens in England, and Nikolai Gogol and Dostoevsky in Russia, among others—reexamined the entire purpose of the novel. Realism focused on “real” people, generally city dwellers, prostitutes, poor students, lowly craftsmen, and other types of characters who had been merely subjects of ridicule or providers of comic relief in previous literature. Prior to realism, everyday life had been considered below literature, which was meant to rise above the mundane. Dostoevsky’s work, often seen as the culmination of realism, aims not to rise above reality, but to portray it in all its complexity and difficulty.
Notes from Underground played an important role in the development of realist fiction. The novel probes the mind of an individual on the margins of modern society, and examines the effects modern life has on that man’s personality. The protagonist is a low-ranking civil servant in 1860s St. Petersburg who has gradually gone mad over a lifetime of inability to cope with the society around him. The Underground Man is an antihero, the kind of downtrodden, indecisive victim of society that Dostoevsky would continue to explore in his later works.
Dostoevsky may have been prompted to write Notes from Underground in response to a revolutionary novel called What Is to Be Done? (1863), written by the “rational egoist” N. G. Chernyshevsky. Rational egoism held that life could be perfected solely through the application of reason and enlightened self-interest. Along with many other radical social thinkers of the 1860s, the rational egoists put great emphasis on the powers of reason and natural law—principles ostensibly derived from inherent properties of the world. The rational egoists’ theories grew out of the social liberalism of the 1840s, in which Dostoevsky was interested.
During his prison time in Siberia, however, Dostoevsky learned that the peasants and undereducated workers of Russia associated progressive thinkers with the upper classes that oppressed them and limited their freedom. He decided that the theorists of the 1860s were too absorbed in European culture, and too far removed from inherently Russian values. Dostoevsky grew to believe that the way to create harmony among all Russian people was through a return to traditional Russian values, such as personal responsibility, religion, brotherly love, and the family. He believed that theories that seek universal social laws to explain and govern human behavior ignore the fundamental individuality of the human soul, the complexity of human personality, and the power of free will.
The Underground Man in Notes from Underground is both a mouthpiece for Dostoevsky’s ideas and an example of the kind of problems that modern Russian society inevitably produced. Like Dostoevsky, the Underground Man is critical of rational egoism and other dangerously totalitarian visions of utopia. He is extremely critical of dogmatism of any kind. At the same time, he is a victim of the modern Russian urban experience. Deprived of positive social interactions, the Underground Man tries to relate to the world according to the codes and examples he finds in European literature. The failure of these attempts makes him even more bitter and isolated, driving him deeper underground.