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Literature / Notes from Underground

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"...what is man without desire, without will, and without wishes if not a stop in an organ pipe?"

Notes from Underground is an 1864 novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky about an unnamed social outcast living in St. Petersburg. Depressed by the city and his own inadequacy, this mysterious Underground Man begins to write a rambling, philosophical journal — the Notes from Underground.

The novel's divided into two parts: first, the notes ("Underground"), and second, an account of the humiliating events which led to his self-imposed seclusion ("Apropos to Wet Snow").

Deals with themes of Existentialism (it is considered one of the first existentialist novels), free will, and the modern disconnect from others.

This work provides examples of

  • Anti-Hero: The character calls himself exactly that ("антигерой" in Russian).
  • Author Tract: Noticeably averted — the author's opinions fell just about opposite of the Underground Man's. Dostoevsky was actually using the character as an example of what he saw as the degradation of the human condition.
  • Big Ham: The thing with a lot of Dostoevsky's characters is that they work on extremes. They may not always be in your face bombastic and they may not be loud, but they take whatever trait they have to (or past) its logical extreme to the point of ridiculous, and it serves a purpose.
  • Downer Ending: The Underground Man drives Liza, and with her any hope of a positive human connection, away, leaving him even more lonely and bitter than before. As for her fate... well, we never find out either way.
  • Foregone Conclusion: A minor case, since the second half of the book is a Flashback.
  • Hikikomori: Possibly the most famous example in western literature. Disgusted by his society and himself, the Underground Man has decided to hide himself away from the world.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: The innocent, compassionate Liza contrasts sharply with the cynical, selfish narrator. (He still tries to lecture her about morality, though.)
  • How We Got Here: The novel's second half is a flashback showcasing a few of the experiences that molded the narrator into the person he is when we first meet him.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Debatable on the "heart of gold" part, but he does seem to regret everything he's done.
  • Loners Are Freaks: The narrator is really terrible at making friends, partly because he's abrasive and rude, and partly because he has major social anxiety.
  • Mind Screw: It's Dostoevsky, after all. Among other things, most of the book is a screed for a worldview that the author doesn't even hold.
  • No Name Given: The narrator only ever calls himself "I". Subsequent generations of readers and critics have come to refer to him as "The Underground Man".
  • Philosophical Novel: A famous example (the whole first half of the book is a diatribe about the state of the world and the nature of humanity), though notably the nihilistic philosophy which the narrator espouses is just about the opposite of what Dostoevsky himself really believed.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Played straight and then invoked. The Underground Man is quite cynical, but works himself up to an idealistic zeal when lecturing the prostitute (whom he's just slept with) on family.
  • Straw Nihilist: The Ur-Example. The Underground Man is, essentially, Dostoevsky's caricature of a nihilist.
  • Take That!: Dostoevsky intended the book as a retort to Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 socialist/utopian novel What Is to Be Done?, specifically, as well as a takedown of nihilism and modernity in general. (Funnily enough, Chernyshevsky's book was itself a response to Ivan Turgenev's 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, which first popularized nihilism as a term and an ideology in Russia; Dostoevsky also included an unflattering No Celebrities Were Harmed version of Turgenev in his later novel, Demons.)
  • Unreliable Narrator: We're not actually supposed to agree with the Underground Man in the end, and the second half of the book is largely there to show how morally bankrupt the philosophy he's been preaching to us really is.