Notes From Underground

Published 31 May 2017

Notes From Underground, also known as Memoirs from a Mousehole, was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1861 at the low point of his career. It is important and should be studied in coursework because Dostoevsky’s influence on modern literature is unparalleled. Also, the themes of the loneliness of the urban man and f the nature of happiness are explored from the guise of the narrator who is an existential archetype –the underground man. The excursions of the sick soul of this character is a case history in persecution mania and is the best portrayal we have of Dostoevsky’s themes and intonations and formulas. This novel is a veritable concentration of Dostoeskianism Nabokov, 115).

While Dostoevsky was still a student, his father, a doctor, was killed by a man who worked for him on his estate. The murder of his parent caused the author to develop a preoccupation with death. When he began to write, murder and death were often the subjects of his books. (“Dostoevsky,” UMN.ed, 1).

Dostoevsky was considered revolutionary because he spoke out against the government. During the period in which he wrote there were two forces attacking 19th century Russian authors. The first was the government which prevented any work which veered towards too creative thought because they were concerned with the fear of revolution. The second force fighting the artists of this time was the anti-governmental, social-minded utilitarian criticisms, the political and radical thinkers. These radical critics were concerned with the welfare of the people and saw literature, science, and philosophy as a way to ameliorate the situation of the underdog (Nabokov, 118).

In 1848 Dostoevsky was condemned by the government. He was blindfolded and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Minutes before he was to die, the Czar sent a reprieve and he spent four years in Siberia instead. His prison years proved to be formative in his pathological philosophy involving suffering leading to salvation. In prison the author discovered how greatly the lower classes despised the land owners. Additionally, they associated the intelligentsia, of which Dostoevsky was a part, with the landed classes. This revelation was severely difficult for Dostoevsky because his desire had been to help these lower class peasants. After experiencing their proclamations, Dostoevsky rejected the upper class imitations of the European lifestyle and advocated a return to a uniquely Russian style of life. These essential ideas were refined after his return from Siberia and are as follows:

The importance of family life.
Recognize the primacy of religion; particularly Russian Orthodox Christianity.
Realize own faults are at foundation of personal failure.
Strive to live in an attitude of brotherly love for all.
(“Dostoevsky,” UMN.ed,1)

Dostoevsky had formulated a new philosophy, one that used the term “ return to the soil” as its slogan. He had learned that the reason and rationalization and belief in man’s perfectibility as advocated by N.G. Chernyshevsky in What is to be Done? was not an accurate picture of man. Man, he had discovered, was a mixture of behavior; both irrational and rational; capable of both grandeur and baseness. (Dostoevsky, introduction of Notes from Underground, ix, xii).

Notes from Underground is a semi-autobiographical effort to capture his new philosophy as a piece of fiction. With his idea of the ethical supremacy of suffering, Dostoevsky refutes the theories of utopian socialism and the communal life. His depiction of urbanism is as the cause of illness, and of losing one’s identity. With his call to rejection of antichrist Europe and the embracing of brother-Russia-Christ, Dostoevsky let his readers see the sweetness of the narrator’s own degradation and how he delighted in it.( Nabokov, 125).

As such Notes from Underground is an antidote to the perfectibility of man and should be on the course reading list for students to discover the existential archetype and the themes which are pervasive throughout Dostoevsky’s five subsequent novels.


  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1960.
  • “Dostoevsky,” UMN.ed. Internet. Accessed 6 December 2006.
  • “Dostoevsky,” Wikipedia. Internet. Accessed 8 December 2006.
  • Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Russian Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch, 1981.
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