Notes From Underground

Kevin Yang, Staff Writer

Come Out From Underground and Explore this Great Read!

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.” With that opening sentence, Fyodor Dostoevsky started his most revolutionary novel, Notes from Underground. Written almost 160 years ago, the intelligent, middle-aged Underground Man lives “underground” and narrates the book in a very satirical yet self-aware tone. Set in the 19th century, the book explores a plethora of existential themes and the idea of individual freedom within a rationalized society.
The first part of the book, “Underground,” is a first-person confession told by the protagonist, who is unnamed and simply known as the Underground Man. The Underground Man introduces himself as an intelligent man, self-proclaimed that is, who has been living “underground” ever since he received an inheritance and retired as a mid-level government official, a position he detested due to his self-loathing, egotistical personality.

The Underground Man reveals that he is a hyper-conscious individual; he is so aware of his thoughts that it renders him unable to perform any action without overthinking the consequences, therefore he is never able to understand his intentions nor commit to any action. The Underground Man states that his consciousness is an illness, it paralyzes him and refuses to let him do anything, so the Underground Man concludes that the best thing to do is to do nothing. The Underground Man, who had called himself spiteful, states that he is not truly spiteful as he had described himself. He admits that he could never be spiteful because he could never become anything, neither an insect nor a hero, neither an honest man nor a scoundrel. The Underground Man is held back by a “conscious inertia” that refuses to let him become anything, and he argues that man cannot be bound to reason because all men have the innate will to act for themselves, not for the sake of being rational. Because of this, the Underground Man acts out of spite, refusing to act rationally because reason alone is not enough to satisfy his freedom. Thus, the underground man concludes that the only way to exert one’s “freedom” is to act unreasonably, against one’s self-interest; the Underground Man argues that an individual’s free will is more important to themselves than reason and rationality.

The Underground Man is alienated from society; he lives underground and isolated from society and its warmth, thus he loathes other people and prefers to be alone. Yet, he cannot keep this front up forever. Every few months he feels the urge to plunge himself back into society, to be within the warmth of society until he inevitably runs back into his isolation.
The Underground Man believes every man has a memory he is unable to tell; neither to their friends, family, nor themselves. He concludes the first part by stating this theory.
The second part of the book, “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” is a retelling from the Underground Man about his most vile and oppressive memory during his life; a story about his old school friends, his escape into his dreams, and his interaction with a person of a particular profession. In this part of the story, the Underground Man displays to readers the wickedness of his personality and his inability to make choices and communicate with other people. Every action he had done in his memory was done out of spite, not because he was spiteful, but because he could not act any other way. The Underground Man confesses that his fear of people, born from his acute consciousness, makes him unable to form any meaningful relationships; his ego would only allow him to feel spiteful toward his acquaintances.

The Underground Man had become a mid-level government bureaucrat, a job he hated. The Underground Man hated his coworkers, yet he was afraid of them as well, for he did not know what they thought of him. To escape from the boring demands of his life, the Underground Man would run into his dreams. Within the Underground Man’s dream, he would create scenarios where he takes revenge, something he is incapable of doing in reality because he is afraid of the consequences.

The Underground Man despises those that he thinks are above him; he resents authority and people of status. He acts against his own interests to insult and act maliciously toward his old acquaintances, even though he has no clue about the exact nature and intent of his behavior. Afterward, having already angered and embarrassed himself in front of his “enemies,” the Underground Man is overcome by remorse and seeks the forgiveness of those he has wronged.
No matter how much the Underground Man tries to apologize for his actions, he found that he would inevitably regret even his apologies and try to enact revenge because of his shame. The Underground Man is desperate to get the approval of those around him, but he is, even more, intent on receiving their reprimands. By the end, the Underground Man confesses that despite having more to his story, ending his “notes” would be in everyone’s best interest. The Underground Man concludes the book by stating that he no longer “wants to write more from Underground”’ to the audience.

In the footnotes of the book, Dostoevsky informs the reader that: in a society such as ours, the underground man—fictional in story—is an individual who not only exists in our world but must exist because he is a representation of all men who “live underground” due to the circumstances of our modern society. Notes from Underground informs us of something important: we are full of lies. We suppress our free will to act rationally, to prevent ourselves from becoming like The Underground Man. In Dostoevsky’s words, all men are ungrateful bipods. Notes from Underground is a short, yet impactful read. The sublime message, deep confessions, and the unique anti-hero protagonist makes it a book worth picking up. Being the frontier of all existential works, Notes from Underground is a worthwhile read for anyone who appreciates Dostoevsky’s work, and you might even learn something about yourself after reading.