Essay on Dostoevsky's Underground Man

An essay I wrote for school. It's quite dull to the common reader (sorry), but if you do manage even part of it I'm looking for ways to be more engaging when doing dull writing. What was good? What was boring? Thanks.


Notes from Underground: Dostoevsky the Comic

The first sense a reader will get from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is one of confusion. We are presented with a nameless man adrift in a sea of meaninglessness and angst, and from thence comes no easy resolution. The book in fact has no proper ending, but rather a footnote at the end explaining that Dostoevsky’s fictional editor of the work found it a good place to stop. That such a seemingly pointless book has survived nearly 200 years in good standing is due to the brilliant parody of Determinism, Romanticism, and Utilitarianism found in its just over 200 pages. Specifically, Dostoyevsky wrote to bring to a test of extremes the ideas presented in a fellow Russian author, Chernyshevsky’s rational- egoist Utopian novel, What Is to Be Done?. As James Scanlan, author of Dostoevsky the Thinker, explains, “Dostoevsky set out in Notes from Underground to create, in contrast to Chernyshevsky’s sham egoists… an authentic… morally repugnant egoist” (The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”, 554).What resulted was a character that accepts fully the precepts of a meaningless universe and feels he can do nothing to change his path. Thus, he can justify and so does nothing, and becomes a miserable and conflicted man. I will show how Dostoevsky takes apart the utilitarian, rational egoist mindset as impossibly damaging to Russian society and ignorant of the true nature of free will, and how the romanticism of the previous generation was not only corrupt in its own way, but helped to spawn the more serious evil of Nihilism.

            To do that, however, it is imperative that the nature of the book is explained. N.K. Mikhaylovksy (1842-1904), a critical reviewer of some acclaim and coeditor of The Northern Messenger literary magazine, shows one common strain of criticism when he notes “There is neither reason nor purpose here[in Notes from Underground]” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 7). Such is not the case. As Joseph Frank, the author of the authoritative five- volume biography of Dostoevsky notes, “It is now clear that whole sections of Dostoevsky’s novella- for example, the attempt of the underground man to bump into an officer on the Nevsky Prospect, or the famous encounter with the prostitute Lisa- were conceived entirely as parodies of specific episodes in Chernyshevsky’s book… What they have failed to realize is that Notes from Underground as a whole—not only certain details and episodes—was conceived and executed as one magnificent parody” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 5) It is then obvious that a book such as this, especially one originally deigned to be a pamphlet- style response essay, need not have an opposing thesis at all. To accuse a parody of not having a point is, well, silly- all it has to do is point out flaws in the original argument. To do this, Dostoevsky found that all he had to do was make his man accept without qualification every tenet and implication of the so-called- reasonable philosophy.

            So, what is it that actually comes about when a person fully accepts Nihilism? There are two big opposing viewpoints, either that in the face of the apparent void man must strive for a socially ordered utopia or that in the face of scientific predictability and distance it is the greatest right of man to make non- socially optimal choices. Popular in Russia in the 1800s were several movements distinctly European in origin, including left Hegelianism and utopian Nihilism. Before these two came romantic utopian Socialism, an idea that espoused a more perfect world by design but viewed this as a fulfillment of Christian ethics, not a replacement. I will discuss that movement more particularly later, but it is important for now to know that the evolution of thought exported to Russia later kept the utilitarian aspects and made the rationalism more coldly logical while getting rid of God. Such movements brought forth in Russia a great debate, which Dostoevsky saw that he was losing. He argued simply for the freedom to make irrational choices. But, of course, it seemed natural to his opponents that he would lose- scientific determinism, an idea not lost on utilitarianism but found much more prevalently in so-called “passive nihilism”, demands of nature a determined outcome, not due to some greater being but simply universal laws. Dostoevsky writes to combat such scientific determinism by parody. In doing so, interestingly enough, he brings himself closer to Nietzsche that to the greater body of thinkers, who himself said of science, “metaphysics, religion, morality, science — all of them only products of his [man’s] will to art, to lie, to flight from truth” (Will to Power, p. 151-52, aphorism 853, I.).  Both great thinkers recognize the need to be free, and both would criticize the foolishness of using “objectivity” to supplant critical thinking.

But what does the book say? Frank writes, “The underground man… is quite well up on the most enlightened opinion of his time; he knows all about science and the laws of intensified consciousness; and he accepts the fact that whatever he does is inevitable and unalterable because it is totally determined by the laws of nature” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 19). This is excellently borne out in the text:

“Whatever happened, happened in accordance with the normal and fundamental laws of intensified consciousness and by a sort of inertia which is a direct consequence of those laws, and… therefore you could not only not change yourself, but you simply couldn’t make any attempt to.”

(Notes from Underground, 145)

This is the underground man himself coming to that realization. He is, perhaps, educated to a fault. He’s a member of the intelligentsia, a literate and intelligent man, and he has been schooled and has thought himself into such a corner that while feeling higher impulses he may simultaneously, of a crippled form of free will, reject those same feelings as impossible. Dostoevsky writes, “And the worst of it was, and the root of it all, that it was all in accord with the normal fundamental laws of over-acute consciousness, and with the inertia that was the direct result of those laws, and that consequently one was not only unable to change but could do absolutely nothing” (Notes from Underground, 56). He condemns himself to an animal- like existence, unable to justify action beyond subsistence, and forcefully shuts the door on any sort of meaning in life. This is the danger, Dostoevsky shows, with Nihilism. Take away higher powers, and all mankind is left with are laws. And, as science has shown, the law of entropy is always snapping at the coattails of higher achievement. It does not make sense to espouse determinism in one breath, teach it to the university students, and then turn around and say that man ought to rise above the path of least resistance and build some idealist utopia. For example, consider the underground man’s reason for not visiting a doctor:

 “No, I refuse to treat it [liver disease] out of spite… Of course I can't explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "get even" with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else.”

(Notes from Underground, 1)


The underground man is looking for a way to exercise his free will in any way possible here. He is doing something irrational, partly perhaps because he wants do die, but because of “spite” more likely his own anger and sense of powerlessness. There is a conflict tearing the man apart, in which he is forever looking in small ways to control his own responses while reminding himself that rationally, the control of choice does not exist. Frank writes, “Since there is nowhere else for him to assign moral responsibility, by the most irrefutable logic he and he alone is to blame for everything” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 16). He knows everything is determined and explained, but he finds a need to assign some way, to say, forgive a slap. It’s not the man’s fault for slapping him any longer—he’s merely a body acting on predictable laws. The anger the underground man feels must be directed at himself. To reform society with the goal of rationality everywhere will produce a lot of underground men and thus no real results.  In the final paragraph of the book, the underground man puts it so, “We are oppressed at being men -- men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man” (Notes from Underground, 154). Frank writes that “Dostoevsky here is obviously talking about the formation of Russian society” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 23). The conflict inherent in rejecting freedom is not one that can be resolved.

      Further, free will itself cannot be bounded by simple calculation. Dostoevsky writes, “Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!” (Notes from Underground, 67). Not only does it simply torture men to believe in determinism, such belief simply doesn’t address the nature of free will itself. The argument here is that of course some things are determined by natural law, but the nature of human will is not something as easily determinable. I haven’t left off the part of the quote where Dostoevsky explains free will—he simply doesn’t. That’s likely because, as with his own Christian faith, even this monumental thinker could not explain it. It is observable fact that people work against utilitarian egoism by the millions every day, as written here (note that the quote starts with the title he rebuts):

“What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men… fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing… there is a most advantageous advantage… for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws … this advantage is remarkable from the very fact that it breaks down all our classifications, and continually shatters every system constructed by lovers of mankind for the benefit of mankind.”

(Notes from Underground, 112)

      Indeed, what is to be done? Dostoevsky can no more pen the reasons for such irrationality than Chernyshevsky, but he recognizes that it’s not for calculations to replace what separates us from the animals. This, fundamentally, is his killer contention against determinists and their ilk: you attempt to build a better world based on laws, but the most important law is the one you seem most ready to break- that man must not be controlled. Dostoevsky notes, “Nature doesn't ask your permission; it doesn't care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not. You're obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well”(Notes from Underground, 93).

It is a secondary argument as to what would become of people under such a system, because the important part is that amending nature in this way is in itself unnatural in the worst sense of the word. However, as Alina Wyman, assistant professor of Russian at New College of Florida, puts it, Nietzsche used a similar idea in Genealogy of Morals: “Ressentiment…[is a phenomenon] in which the subject’s immediate emotive responses, such as the impulse for revenge…[are] turned inwards… finding no other target but one’s own anguished pride” (The Specter of Freedom: "Ressentiment" and Dostoevski's "Notes from Underground"). A result like that is what we see in the underground man himself, both in the first section in which a failure to act is reflected inwards and in Apropos of the Wet Snow, which will be discussed later. It may then be assumed that many under a system would be affected in just the same way.

Truly, damning arguments both. But these only take up around half the book. The second half, the Apropos of the Wet Snow, is a sketch from the underground man’s younger years. He is, just as the Russian intellectual elite were at the time, a social romantic. Again in parody, Dostoevsky copies the redeemed prostitute scene so often used in literature of the time, from Tolstoy and nearly every other major social romantic writer, to show the flaws of that school of thought as well. Frank explains that for Dostoevsky, the romanticism of that era produced a deathly change in Russian high society, writing “All spontaneity and unself—consciousness was lost; not to live by the light of the latest ideas was literally unthinkable” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 29). Dostoevsky writes, “They said it was not really worth the trouble to become angry and curse—that everything was so dirty that one hardly had the desire to wiggle a single finger” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 27). The combination of removal from practicality and a unified thinking populace led to a nihilist 60’s after the generation of the 40’s, and thus it is in the Apropos of the Wet Snow that Dostoevsky lays  the blame for the current state of affairs at the feet of the previous generation.

            Frank calls Apropos “the inevitable dialectic of an egoism which cannot forget about itself for a moment, and, in seeking to wrest recognition from the world, only receives dislike and hostility in return” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 26). So the beginning of the section goes. Most important is Dostoevsky’s dismantling of the character of the intelligentsia from the 40’s, when they encounter someone genuinely in need of help. The underground man says of his first meeting with the prostitute Lisa, “My flustered face looked utterly revolting to me: pale, evil, mean, with disheveled hair. ‘It’s all right, I’m glad of it,’ I thought, I’m glad that I’ll seem repulsive to her. I like that…” It is of value to him to exact cruelty upon the girl. He likes the idea of forcing someone against their will, holding power over another. He is an egoist in the simplest sense. But physical power is nothing for him; there are nastier ways to parody helping a prostitute. And, indeed, his next step is to destroy the cynicism and indifference she protects herself with and to make her feel real pain. The underground man waxes lyrical about the horrors of prostitution, as Frank puts it, “simply… carried away by the power of his own eloquence” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 28). He doesn’t really mean it of course. For all the man’s social idealism, he, like the rest of the romantics, has never truly even considered helping another in the way he’s imagined. He speaks to her to get a negative response, but the poor girl buys his speech. Suddenly, he finds himself playing the role of the hero he’s always been in his mind. He can help!—but then he recalls that he is merely building a storybook character. He becomes scared that Lisa will see him for who he is, and be revolted. Importantly, as Frank says, “never for a moment does it occur to him that he might help her nonetheless” (Nihilism and "Notes from Underground", 30). Once the man gets going thinking about himself, all pretensions to heroism go out the window.

      When the girl finally does visit him as he magnanimously offered her to do, he is so frightfully embarrassed of the rottenness of his real self that he lashes out and says “To avenge my wounded pride on someone, to get my own back, I vented my spite on you and I laughed at you” (Notes from Underground, 204). He then proceeds to rape her, and attempts to give the thoroughly broken woman 5 ruble note on the way out. This speaks to the character of romantics. They build Potemkin villages of grand ideology and well meaning, but behind the façade Dostoevsky finds them to leave sad, pitiful, angry lives full of pomp and spite. Even when they may live up to their pretensions, they refuse, and if they feel slighted, they will not hesitate to utterly destroy people. Linda Williams, a teacher with 24 years of teaching experience at Kent state university, explains the root of such anger: “To the underground man, everything is one humiliation piled on top of another… due to his vain interpretation that everyone is… wondering about him” (The Underground Man, 133). Due to this vanity, those who claim the highest moral authority are in fact the most depraved. Such rampant egoism in sentimental idealism is, however, preferable to the nihilism it gives rise to. At least romantics recognize individual will: Dostoevsky does incriminate them, but worse than their own flaws is the system such unified opinion and idealism gave rise to: Nihilism.

In conclusion, Dostoyevsky, it is clear, wrote Notes from Underground deliberately to assault the worldview he increasingly saw springing to life around him. The world of science was removing motive force from the human experience. He deeply disagreed with Nietzsche and others who found Nihilist teachings the base of philosophy as to whether a life with no God can be lived with value. He backs this up by saying a man with a truly full grasp of the implications of Nihilism must realize that he is boxed in by laws- he himself has no more power than an asteroid. The Ubermensch status Nietzsche promotes as a solution to purposelessness is a fallacy, as to truly understand that you control nothing is to surrender all chance to striking out on your own to change the world. Dostoevsky also finds the romantic idealism of the previous age repugnant, and describes the moral bankruptcy to be found in one who advocates for an ideal. Notes from Underground has stood the test of time because it so cuttingly demolishes two major branches of philosophical thought, and while it may not propose some alternate solution, it’s value to the discourse of the era is indisputable.



Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and Richard Pevear. Notes from underground. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print.

Williams, Linda L. "THE UNDERGROUND MAN: A QUESTION OF MEANING." Studies in the Novel, University of North Texas 27.2 (1995): 129-40. JSTOR. Web. 5 Apr. 2014. <>.

Frank, Joseph. "Nihilism and "Notes from Underground"" The Sewanee Review 69.1 (1961): 1-33. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

Scanlan, James P. "The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground"" Journal of the History of Ideas 60.3 (1999): 549-67. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2014. <>.

Wyman, Alina. "The Specter of Freedom: "Ressentiment" and Dostoevski's "Notes from Underground"" Studies in Eastern European Thought 59.1/2 (2007): 119-40. JSTOR. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <>.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. The will to power. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.



Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and Richard Pevear. Notes from underground. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print.

Pretty useful when reading the text


Williams, Linda L. "THE UNDERGROUND MAN: A QUESTION OF MEANING." Studies in the Novel, University of North Texas 27.2 (1995): 129-40. JSTOR. Web. 5 Apr. 2014. <>.

Question of meaning in response to rise of reason, utilitarianism


Scanlan, James P. "The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground"" Journal of the History of Ideas 60.3 (1999): 549-67. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2014. <>.

Rational egoism, nihilism criticism is more than emotional, irrational rejection


Frank, Joseph. "Nihilism and "Notes from Underground"" The Sewanee Review 69.1 (1961): 1-33. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

Most important scholar on issue, recent, exhaustive

“the first section shows the underground man in the ideological grip of the idealism of the nihilism of the 60s; the second, as a perfect product of the social romanticism of the 40s.”

Dostoyevsky isn’t just presenting a perfect opposite of chernevsky’s, he is parodying.

Underground man is a picture of a man giving up free will because he is told laws of nature are deterministic- and becomes despicable

Chernyshevsky flatly denies free will


Wrong, Dennis H. "Is Rational Choice Humanity's Most Distinctive Trait?" The American Sociologist 28.2 (1997): 73-81. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2014. <>.

Not very useful, could bear more research for closing arguments


Beardsley, Monroe C. "Dostoyevsky's Metaphor of the "Underground"" Journal of the History of Ideas 3.3 (1942): 265-90. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

“underground” as a sentiment that runs through all Dostoyevsky novels

Stuchebrukhov, Olga. ""Ridiculous" Dream versus Social Contract: Dostoevskij, Rousseau, and the Problem of Ideal Society." Studies in Eastern European Thought 59.1/2 (2007): 101-17. JSTOR. Web. 5 Apr. 2014. <>.

D-dog as a follower of Rousseau merging morality and the Word


Harris, Bernard J. "Notes from Underground: A Horneyan Analysis." PMLA 88.3 (1973): 511-22. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr. 2014. <>.

Psychological portrait of the underground man himself


Beatty, Joseph. "FROM REBELLION AND ALIENATION TO SALUTARY FREEDOM: A Study in "Notes From Underground"" Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 61.2 (1978): 182-205. JSTOR. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <>.

Freedom as more than caprice


Rosenshield, Gary. "The Fate of Dostoevskij's Underground Man: The Case for an Open Ending." The Slavic and East European Journal, 28.3 (1984): 324-39. JSTOR. Web. 9 Apr. 2014. <>.

Documentation of d- dog’s private letters about how censors botched his conveyance of faith/Christ


Wyman, Alina. "The Specter of Freedom: "Ressentiment" and Dostoevski's "Notes from Underground"" Studies in Eastern European Thought 59.1/2 (2007): 119-40. JSTOR. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <>.

Ressentiment, nihilism, Nietzsche, and underground.


Offord, Derek. "Dostoyevsky and Chernyshevsky." The Slavonic and East European Review 57.4 (1979): 509-30. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <>.

Actual relation of Dostoyevsky to other guy


Kavanagh, Thomas M. "Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground : The Form of the Fiction." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14.3 (1972): 491-507. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

How he builds the novel


Meyer, Mike. "Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground Study Guide." <i></i>. Middleburry, n.d. Web. 4 May 2014. &lt;;.

Website idea guide


Eggers, Whitney. "Philosophies in Crime and Punishment." <i></i>. Centerstage, n.d. Web. 1 May 2014. &lt;;.



Eggers, Whitney. "Nihilism, Evil, & God: Dostoevsky Versus Nietzsche." <i></i>. Philosophy Major, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. &lt;;.



Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. The will to power. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.

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