Review: Notes From Underground - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Title: Notes From Underground
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Pages: 112
Genre: Classic Literary Fiction
Release Date: November 1983, (Original, 1864)
Publisher: Bantam Classics
Source: Personal Copy

Notes From Underground is the first Dostoevsky work I've read. I wasn't even aware of this title until I found it at a used bookstore. With the two most famous of his works (Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment) coming in at 500+ pages, I kept shying away and was unwilling to make the commitment. However, since this book was so slim, I figured I'd give such a classic author a chance.

Dostoevsky starts his brilliant analysis of the human condition by introducing us to the forty year old anonymous narrator living in St. Petersburg, Russia in the 1860s. In Part One, we are presented with the man's 'notes' containing his views on modern society. The man has become disillusioned with the corruption, depression, and the mindless acceptance of authority from his fellow men. From the first few pages the man is shown as spiteful, lazy and a wholly unreliable narrator, which adds to the school of thought that the man suffers from psychological disorders.

'But do you know, gentlemen, what was the main thing about my spite? Why, the whole point, the vilest part of it, was that I was constantly and shamefully aware, even at moments of the most violent spleen, that I was not at all a spitefull, no, not even an embittered man.

Utilitarianism is tackled next, with the rest of the first part arguing that man's primary desire is to assert his free will whether or not it is in his best interest. He begins to compare and contrast between the 'Westernized' man, who seems wholly influenced by capitalism , materialism, and modern science, and the average man in Russia who only does what he's told and refuses to think for himself, as represented by Officer Zverkov. The anonymous narrator feels neither is the solution, and begins to question the merits of the recent Enlightenment. One consistent question Dostoevsky asks is whether a man is inherently a rational being, doing only which generates the most happy, pleasurable consequence?

Part Two begins the true 'story' of the novella. The man recounts specific memories during his life twenty years earlier. These pivitol moments help provide concrete examples to the man's abstract ideas in the first section. We see a man's transformation from a romantic to a cynical recluse. 'On the Occasion of Wet Snow' showcases the man's relationships and interactions with other humans and sets up one of the best anti-heroes of modern literature.

Dostoevsky's take on man was a sensational rollercoaster of a journey. From the first line to the last, I read Notes from Underground with rapt fascination, and was surprised at the vast array of emotions even just one chapter could evoke. To me, the mark of great writing is the ability to make the reader feel something, whether good or bad, so powerfully that the effects are physical. While reading of the man's painful social interactions, I was embarrased, uncomfortable and judgemental yet, deeply reminded of my own insecurities. Reading this work left me tired, both emotionally and mentally, and looking forward to a another thrill ride with a closer re-reading.

Rating: 5/5


  1. I may have to look for this one! I haven't read Dostoevsky either, and I admit to being intimidated by big books, especially the classics. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  2. You're welcome! I'm actually really glad I read this one before any of his other works. I feel like I have a better basis for understanding his other characters ideals and motivations. Definitely a good primer.

  3. I own it but have yet to commit to it. Honestly, I tackled Crime and Punishment first. It's been a bit and I can't provide any other information aside from the fact that it was heavy in some of these themes. Emotionally taxing because you witness the psychological breakdown of the protagonist. I'm very interested in getting to his other work, especially The House of the Dead, which recreates his time spent in a prison in Siberia. Can't wait to share.

  4. Another note: that sounded far too cheerful considering the content. I'm really fascinated with classical Russian literature so I hope to be able to share other works in the future.

  5. Beth -

    The House of the Dead sounds really good! It's interesting that in the synopsis for it that it mentions the character's "spiritual reawakening," while only two years later he writes about the emotional and mental breakdown of his character. Philosophical change of heart maybe?

    Dostoevsky is one of those authors I really wish I had taken a class on in college... or could at least read with a group. Discussing all the ideas he was trying to convey would be so enjoyable, because I know I'm going to miss things/only see one angle.

    I think one of the aspects of Russian Literature that makes it so intriguing is how relatively unknown it is here. In fact, I don't really remember reading any in high school and college.


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