This 1864 novella from the legendary Russian great is one of the first existential novels. Notes From Underground (Записки из подполья—Zapíski iz podpólʹya) was something of a pessimistic landmark in its day.
It highlights a sense of societal alienation running deep for many of us in life. What, in the name of bloody hell, is someone to do when they feel like they’re not fitting in?
Notes From Underground
Fyodor Dostoyevsky remains a literary giant. Readers associate him with genius, Crime and Punishment, plus an assortment of mad characters.
But mad in the sense they’re struggling with a sense of self and/or a mental health issue. These aren’t wacky characters, more lost in the overwhelming nature of society, government, and business.
Dostoyevsky took a long peer into the human soul and Notes From Underground is a fine example of his canon. Split into parts, we enter the conscience of the confusing narrator:
- Apropos of the Wet Snow.
The unnamed 40-year-old narrator is lost in society, confused by his total insignificance:
"Not only did I not become spiteful, I never even managed to become anything: neither spiteful, nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. And now I'm living out my life in my corner, teasing myself with the spiteful and utterly worthless consolation that an intelligent man cannot make himself anything and that it's only fools who manage to do that."
And with great conviction he explains through bitter ire why he’s not conforming to society. As well as how he can’t.
In fact, he has a complete withdrawal from everything into the underground.
The narrator is a former official. This individual held a role of some worth, but has abandoned that in disgust at social utopianism.
Dostoyevsky had Crime and Punishment published in 1866, two years after Notes From Underground.
And that advances, enormously so in the great Russian epic novel sense, the themes here in further detail through the antics of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov.
But in novella from, the unnamed narrator’s contemplations from the fringes of society (no, the work isn’t set underground at any point) are just as compelling. Although much more accessible. As Crime and Punishment is a laborious read, even for ardent literary buffs.
Notes, although self-contradictory at times, tears right into as our “sick” and “spiteful” man tells us about why he’s upset with his lot:
"Even now, after so many years, all this comes back as a nasty memory. Many things are now nasty memories, but... shouldn't I really end the 'Notes' here? It seems that writing them in the first place was a mistake. At least, I felt ashamed the whole time I was writing this tale. That means it is not literature, but corrective punishment. For example, telling a long story about how I missed out on life in my corner through moral decacy, through lack of human contact, through losing the habit of living and through my narcissistic, underground spite - God, that's of no interest! A novel needs a hero but here I've deliberately gathered together all the features of an anti-hero and the main thing is, all this will produce a most unpleasant impression, since we have all lost touch with real life, we are all cripples, each one of us to a greater or lesser degree."
He wraps up:
"We have become so unaccustomed to living that we sometimes feel a kind of loathing for 'real life' and that's why we cannot bear to be reminded of it."
Echoes of Notes From Underground reverberated long into the 20th century, where philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre (particularly in Nausea) took the concept of existential dismay to logical limits.
The sense of dread and weight due to the political climate of the 1860s in Russia, you find the themes of nihilism and a raging ego happy to rationalise his perspective.
If you’re looking to read a Dostoyevsky work and can’t quite ready yourself for one of his epics yet, then this is a fine introduction.
His prose is brilliant. His wit and reasoning sharp and insightful. The narrator may come across as unnerving and disturbing to some, whilst seem remarkably familiar to others.
The narrator is unreliable. But there is, deep down in amongst all that misanthropy, some sort of humanity left. And that’s why it makes for such a fascinating read.
Notes From Underground is seminal—its themes continue to generate a steady stream of texts across film, TV, novels, and video games.
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) is a prime example from the early 20th century.
But as technology advanced, Dostoyevsky’s impact spread across the world of cinema. You can find the underlying sense of malaise in films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and more recently in Joker (2019).
Nihilism, exisentialism, frustrations with modern life—it’s something most people have felt at one point or another in their life.
Or, if you’ve totally gone for it, then these will define your very existence.