A Review Of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground

Notes from the underground is the famous fiction novel by the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1864. It is one of the great books of the 19th century. It was one of the preeminent examples of philosophical literature and the first existentialist novels, ‘few works in modern literature are more widely read or more often cited than Dostoyevsky’s notes from underground.’ For these reasons I would recommend the book to others. It was written during the disenchantment of the world and the degradation of religious influence. The book is based in Russia in the mid nineteenth century, this helps explain the demoralising tone. The book is written from the first person perspective of the ‘underground man’ around the it consists of two parts. In the first part of the book he outlines his general philosophy, the second part of the book is written in retrospect before he became the underground man

He outlines an embarrassing experience with some old friends which caused him to become alienated and isolated. His interactions usually reveal the nihilistic outlook. The book reveals the alienation felt as a wave of disenchantment spread across Europe the loss of religion meant people had to find meaning through their own lives and ideas.

The ideas in the novel are existentialist ideas, existentialism being a school of philosophy that questions the meaning and purpose of life from the perspective of human beings as opposed to more sublime values and religious perspectives. It was started by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in books such as Either/Or his core ideas were continued through philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche in books like Thus Spoke Zarathustra which was written around the same time period. The idea of nihilism is prevalent in the book nihilism being the belief that life is innately meaningless in the context of the 19th century it usually emerged from loss of religious values and principles that resulted from the ‘death of God’ (as Nietzsche famously). The themes espoused throughout the protagonist are similar to fears and anxieties that of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche however it is evident in the style of the narrative present in both parts of the books that the underground man seems out of touch shown in the first lines of the book he writes “I am a sick man. ... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.” It is likely Dostoyevsky’s novel is at least partially a satirical criticism of excessive existentialism and nihilism growing in the 19th century, while Dostoevsky is an existentialist, in this book he is nonetheless critical of an overly nihilistic worldview. ‘The narrator of Fyodor Dostoyevsky Notes from underground is representative base zero of human existence. As he points out in his tirade against every positive principal all multiples of zero contain the same depressing result.’ So while it was similar to other works in the 19th century there were significant differences in its philosophy.

It is a significant book as it one the first books to build a bridge between the storytelling and the complex and deep ideas of philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard. This is particularly evident in the two separate parts of the book the first putting focus on the philosophical ideas of existentialism and nihilism this is more akin to the works of Kierkegaard, the second part focusing on narrative weaving in philosophical ideas when possible this is more akin to the works of fictional literature. Furthermore, it revolutionised philosophical literature. ‘Few literary works of the nineteenth century pose more difficult critical problems than Dostoyevsky’. 

This book was particularly influential at the time it had an immense influence on the philosophical literature following it. Aside from himself, many other writers were influenced by notes from the underground. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote thus spoke Zarathustra later which discussed complex themes alongside an engaging narrative and Albert Camus wrote the stranger which explored similar themes of nihilism through an alienated protagonist. In the 20th century’s most celebrated literary works generally had more philosophical theme examples being 1984, brave new world and a clockwork orange. Notes from underground even influenced subcultures of literature the most prevalent example of this is African-American literature with there is a resemblance of the alienation of the underground man and the alienation African-Americans faced ‘Writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison discovered and emulated Dostoevsky’s Notes from underground works like ‘the man who lived underground’ and ‘invisible man.’

Even one hundred years after it was published notes from the underground has influenced modern art and culture through the archetype of ‘the underground man’ it has been replicated numerous times. The taxi driver is an example of this ‘Dostoevsky's The Underground Man and Scorsese's Travis Bickle, the protagonists of the two novels, see metropolitan society as an earthly hell in an age of a dying or already dead God (or gods). They place themselves in an adversarial relationship with the world at large, and they pursue the ideals of spiritual reconciliation and self-realization in ironically repugnant actions.’ Generally speaking ‘The designation “underground man” has entered the vocabulary of the modern educated consciousness and the character has now begun… to take on the symbolic stature of one of the great archetypal literary creation’.

In conclusion Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the underground is one of the great works of philosophical literature its exploration of nihilism and its dangers are intertwined with character development and engaging narrative with the two working alongside each other it is significant because it’s influence of philosophical literature and literature as a whole its development of an alienated, nihilistic character has been replicated in books like the stranger and films like the taxi driver.

16 December 2021
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