Notes from Underground

by: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part I, Chapters IX–XI

As for why he writes at all, the Underground Man finds writing to be a cathartic experience, allowing him some relief from his nagging memories. It also relieves his boredom and makes him feel like he is doing something productive. He then introduces the next part of Notes from Underground: the dull, wet snow he sees falling outside his window reminds him of an anecdote from his past that he cannot forget, so he decides to tell his story “apropos of the wet snow.”

Analysis: Chapters IX–XI

The Underground Man’s discussion of the creative and destructive instincts of humankind is closely related to the nature of the society in which he lives. During the time the Underground Man was a civil servant in St. Petersburg, he faced a burdensome, pointless bureaucracy in his day-to-day existence. Furthermore, in various parts of the novel he has commented on the city’s artificiality. In this regard, Notes from Underground is the forerunner of a slew of literary works about the human condition in the modern era, many of them expressing similar concerns about the alienating effect modern bureaucratic existence has on the common man. Whereas preindustrial man engaged in a constant physical struggle to stay alive, producing tools that were directly related to his survival, postindustrial man does work that has no direct connection to his daily physical needs. He does not see the results of his labor and feels alienated him from his work. Advances in technology only assure that there will be less for man to do and achieve. As a result, the boredom of modern life makes suffering into a kind of diversion or release. Dostoevsky was fully aware of this sense of alienation in postindustrial man, and he supported a somewhat conservative movement that emphasized the importance of community, religion, and personal responsibility in combating this alienation. The name of this conservative movement translates as “Back to the Soil,” implying a rejection of the postindustrial society to which the Underground Man belongs.

The crystal palace was an important symbol for the progressive thinkers and utilitarians of the 1860s. Chernyshevsky imagined a crystal palace as an ideal living space for his utopian society, basing its structure on the real-life Crystal Palace that was shown in London at the Great Exhibition of 1851, which Dostoevsky saw during a trip to Europe. The Crystal Palace at the Exhibition, built entirely of glass and cast iron, represented the height of modern building technology. Clear as crystal, made with modern methods, and constructed entirely with modern materials, the Palace embodied the values of rational egoism, liberal socialism, and utilitarianism that the Underground Man derides in the later chapters of “Underground.” When the Underground Man says that he despises anything at which he cannot stick out his tongue, he is imagining the physical embodiment of progressive and utopian theories. If the imaginary crystal palace represents the triumph of reason over disorder, sticking out his tongue represents the Underground Man’s determination to prevent reason from overcoming his obstinate free will.

Even though the Underground Man begins Chapter X by deriding the utilitarians’ crystal palace, he suddenly insinuates that the palace represents everything he desires but can never have. This odd twist can be explained by the fact that the chapter was severely censored before it was published. Dostoevsky later claimed that the omitted passages expressed an idea central to the entire novel—the need for religion and faith. Indeed, in the second half of Chapter X, the Underground Man speaks with more feeling and conviction than he uses elsewhere, suddenly clinging to an idealism that he says he will never abandon. These passages suggest that he rejects Chernyshevsky’s crystal palace not because of its perfection but because it tries to pass off something banal, ordinary, and limiting (such as a chicken coop) as a palace. Chernyshevsky’s philosophy is flawed because it neglects the freedom of the human will. The Underground Man will only accept a utopia that offers man all of the “advantages” he needs, even though such a utopia is impossible to imagine. Inevitably, though, the Underground Man rejects this idealism at the end of the chapter. At the beginning of Chapter XI, the Underground Man recovers his bitter and contradictory nature, saying, “[L]ong live the underground!” and then immediately revising that comment to “Devil take the underground!” We see yet again that he refuses to make a genuine ideological statement.

At the end of “Underground,” the Underground Man offers a reasonably in-depth analysis of his own psyche and the motives that are compelling him to write. He also addresses his need to behave as though he has an audience of judges even though he plans never to publish his manuscript. This somewhat convoluted and tangled analysis is ahead of its time. Though Dostoevsky wrote long before Freud, Notes from Underground tackles the psychological complexity of its main character with an awareness and depth previously unknown in nineteenth-century literature. Now that we have such a deep sense of the Underground Man’s character, as “Apropos of the Wet Snow” opens we are given the opportunity to see how those character traits work in the social world.