Notes from Underground
Study Questions & Essay Topics
1. How much should we trust what the Underground Man tells us? Pick one section of the text in which you feel he is particularly reliable or unreliable, and discuss what this might tell us about the text as a whole.
2. The Underground Man uses several images or phrases—the Golden Age, the idea of the crystal palace, “two-times-two-makes-four,” the mouse-man, and so on—as metaphors to convey his ideas. Pick two of these images and discuss their relationship with each other and with the Underground Man’s arguments.
3. Much of the Underground Man’s social world centers on people whom he integrates into his power structure. How does this obsession with rank and power manifest itself throughout Notes from Underground? How it is consistent with the Underground Man’s character?
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Some critics see the Underground Man as insane, while others see him as a fairly lucid—if maladjusted—observer of society and his place within it. Evaluate the Underground Man’s sanity, using concrete examples from the text.
2. The city of St. Petersburg is an important presence throughout the novel. Select one passage and explain how St. Petersburg affects the Underground Man. How does the city function as a character in the text?
3. Though the Underground Man is not meant to represent Dostoevsky himself, interesting comparisons can be drawn between the two. What are the most significant similarities and differences between them?
4. Dostoevsky was famously wary of the Roman Catholic church. What evidence for this bias can be found in Part I of Notes from Underground?
5. Dostoevsky had a great talent for showing his readers the world through the confused eyes of his characters. How does he use this ability to heighten, rather than diminish, the sense of realism in the novel?
6. Though elements of Notes from Underground are tragic, the text is not a “tragedy” in the formal sense. How does Dostoevsky create this modern, realist story in a manner very different from the classical literary expectations of tragedy? Which elements from older forms of tragedy does he include, and which does he exclude?
7. The Underground Man abhors the way in which progressive thinkers of his era worship reason, but he does not necessarily totally reject reason outright. Discuss his attitude toward reason and logic. What value does he assign to logical, rational thinking, and how does he make use of it? For a starting point, pick a passage and begin your discussion with a close reading.
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