Notes from Underground

by: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part I, Chapter I

Summary Part I, Chapter I

Another important factor that contributes to the Underground Man’s indecision is his intense self-consciousness. Though the Underground Man is frequently irrational, he is also extremely analytical and acutely conscious of every thought, urge, and feeling that crosses his mind. It is this heightened consciousness that makes him aware of all of the “opposite elements” inside him, so much so that he can never make a decision or act confidently on any of his desires.

The Underground Man is also highly conscious of what others think of him. He is intensely aware of our presence as readers. He addresses us frequently and directly, calling us “gentlemen,” and he constantly analyzes and revises his statements in the fear that we are judging him. Indeed, the Underground Man treats us like a panel of hostile judges, looking down upon his underground life from our comfortable position above ground, from the vantage point of the social world he has fled.

Because we are aware that the Underground Man is conscious of our presence, we must question the validity of any statements he makes about not writing for our benefit. The Underground Man is a prime example of what is known in literature as an unreliable narrator: because everything we learn from the Underground Man is filtered though the lens of his own nihilistic, anguished perspective, we can never be sure he is telling us the objective truth about anything. We must use what we learn about the Underground Man’s psychological state to fully understand his motives for telling us something, and to get a clear picture of the facts of his interactions with people.

Dostoevsky’s note highlights the fact that the Underground Man is an unreliable narrator. By telling us that the Underground Man is fictional, and by describing the social conditions that might have produced someone like the Underground Man, Dostoevsky distances himself from his narrator. Because Notes from Underground is written in first person, it is easy to imagine that Dostoevsky and the Underground Man share the same perspective. However, one of the hallmarks of all of Dostoevsky’s works is his ability to create distance between himself and his characters. One of the techniques he uses to accomplish this distance is humor. Indeed, in this novel, the Underground Man’s behavior is so absurd that it often verges on the comic. Though Dostoevsky may share many of the Underground Man’s opinions about society, he prefers to put those opinions in the mouth of someone rather unappealing and unconvincing. Dostoevsky feared that if he made his arguments too well, his readers would accept them without weighing their good and bad points.

The fact that the Underground Man is a civil servant is another important element. Many of Dostoevsky’s most famous characters are low-ranking civil servants who are lost in the society of nineteenth century St. Petersburg. The Underground Man is just an average man, neither a philosopher nor a professional writer. As such, he does not use any philosophical terms when discussing his ideas. Although in his youth he was a great admirer of “the literary,” by the time he is writing these notes, he has generally abandoned literary language, except in cases when he uses it ironically. Instead, the Underground Man uses everyday language with a kind of deliberate awkwardness.