“I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway”: so challenges the Underground Man, a nameless, retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg.

Published in 1864, Dostoevsky’s novella portrays a man in physical, mental, and spiritual decline, but passionate in his revolt against modernity: against the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment; against the determinism of modern science; and against the utopian visions of socialism.

Image: R Boed, Victims of Communism, Flickr

Jacob Howland on the importance of the humanities

Faculty

Jacob Howland

Jacob Howland is Chief Academic Officer and Director of the Intellectual Foundations Program at UATX. His research focuses on ancient Greek philosophy, history, epic, and tragedy; the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud; Kierkegaard; and literary and philosophical responses to the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism. His most recent book is Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings:

  • Notes from Underground, Pevear’s Foreword and Part I: Underground (pp. vii–41)
  • Selection from Aristotle, Politics
  • Dante, Canto 3, Inferno
  • Selections from Nikolay Chernyshevsky, “The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy” (1860)


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does the author claim to be “a sick man … a wicked man”? Why does he regard consciousness as a sickness? Why does he nevertheless find pleasure in despair, and in the consciousness of his own nastiness? Is this pleasure merely sick or wicked?
  2. Why couldn’t the author become anything—“neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect”? Why does intelligence dictate that he be “characterless”? How does he compare to Dante’s wretched neutrals?
  3. How does the author criticize the scientific reductivism and utopianism of his age? How relevant are his criticisms today? Do they illuminate his retreat from life? To what extent does he point toward a positive conception of human desire, health, and goodness?
  4. What understanding of speech, reason, and human nature does the author convey, both in what he says and how he says it? Does his performance refute Aristotle’s view of these matters? Does it refute the “gentlemen’s” Chernyshevskian assumptions?
  5. Dostoevsky says the author “had to appear among us.” What compels him to “appear”? How can a life lived in the (necessarily hidden) underground make itself apparent? Does this problem illuminate the author’s feints and shifts in addressing his imagined readers?

Readings:

  • Notes from Underground, Part II: Apropos of the Wet Snow, Sec. I–V (pp. 42–87)
  • Joseph Frank, “Nihilism and ‘Notes from Underground’” (1961)


Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the “underground” of Notes? Is this image psychological, social, metaphysical, or something else? How does the author understand what we might call the “above-ground” in his early adult life, the 1840s? How does he regard that early view today?
  2. Why was the author so drawn to reading? How did the act of reading and the books he read shape his understanding of life and of himself? Does Dostoevsky’s implicit critique of literary fantasy and liberal romanticism apply also to Chernyshevskian nihilism?
  3. This part of Notes is both outrageously funny and painfully sad. Why is tragicomedy the proper form for this content? What—who—are we laughing at, or pitying, as we read about the author’s adventures? Does Notes hint at a life that transcends tragicomedy?
  4. Why is the author, like so many today, consumed with obtaining recognition? Should we blame the conditions of modern life and society? What does this section show us about the psychological, political, and ethical implications of the obsession with recognition?
  5. Does the author’s digression on the Russian romantic (pp. 45–47) help to explain why a “developed” man must be a coward and a slave? Does it help to explain why the romanticism of the 1840s was succeeded by the nihilism of the 1860s?

Readings:

  • Notes from Underground, Part II: Apropos of the Wet Snow, Sec. VI–X (pp. 87–130)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Selection from On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874)


Discussion Questions:

  1. The author converses with Liza in the dark, with him feeling as if in a “cellar.” How does this underground setting help him lie his way to a truth that affects her profoundly? What “game” does he play there? Is he an insect in this scene, or a hero, or both—or neither?
  2. When Liza expresses the same thought as the author, he thinks “that’s curious, it’s—akin.” In what ways are they “akin”? Does their kinship help to explain how he can speak so movingly of love, the holy mysteries of marriage, her soul, and her probable fate?
  3. Why does the author wish to “efface” himself after moving Liza to total despair? What “nasty truth” throws his soul into turmoil, and what is the nature of his inner struggle? Why can’t he re- or over-write his bad behavior with Liza, as he does with Simonov?
  4. What role does Apollon play in the story? “He was my thorn, a scourge visited upon me by Providence”: does this remark illuminate the meaning of the author’s struggle to master his servant? How is this “hangman” victorious—and what does his victory mean?
  5. Why can’t the author accept the gift of Liza’s love? What lessons does this “anti-hero” draw from his failure (cf. Nietzsche)? Why can’t he even now escape the tragic fatality of the literary imagination? What does the wet snow signify (cf. p. 35, on not getting wet)?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Richard A. Florsheim, Sleeping City, 1965, color lithograph, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Utopia & Dystopia

Explore visions of utopian & dystopian societies in three short novels.

Dostoevsky’s Demons

Study Dostoevsky's great novel on the nature, logic, and social origins of revolutionary politics.

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Meditate on Dostoevsky’s final – and greatest – novel.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Study this monumental work on race, identity, and citizenship in America.

Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate

Read the novel known as the Soviet War & Peace, and reflect on the nature of totalitarianism.

Russia: A Return to Rivalry

Examine U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.