Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

by Kristopher Cook
Time to Read: 2 minutes

Initially published in 1864, Notes from the Underground is considered to be one of the first existentialist novels, a topic popping up similarly in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.

The short novel is split into two sections;

‘Underground’ – which deals with the majority of Dostoyevsky’s philosophical thinking. The chapters are in monologue form, or the underground man’s diary, and portray an attack on western attitudes.

‘Á Propos of the Wet Snow’ – the narrative that deals with the themes underlined in the first section. Taking up around two-thirds of the book, this section is a fictional autobiographic piece, it describes events that are slowly destroying the underground, and then further renewing it.

Written from a first-person perspective, Notes from the Underground has an unreliable narrator who’s also somewhat an anti-hero to the plot.

The book is surprisingly easy-to-read given the depth of thinking that’s gone into it, which just goes to show what a talented writer Dostoevsky was.

‘You’ is referenced throughout, representing the audience or ‘rational thinker’ as it were.

“Ha, ha, ha! Next you’ll be finding pleasure in a toothache!” you will exclaim, laughing. “And why not? There is also pleasure in a toothache,” I will answer.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Chapter 4

The main character takes great pleasure in his own humiliation and suffering. Masochism riddles the book’s philosophy throughout the ‘underground’ section, displaying the narrator’s hatred towards mankind’s thinking. As this quote suggests, pleasure can be garnered from any aspect of life, including pain.

Alongside this is the narrators need for purpose. The desire to do something because it has a plausible end-goal and not just for the sake of doing it.

I feel this is where the existential elements come into play, raising interesting questions about our own ‘purpose’ in life. Why do we do what we do?’

Closing Thoughts

Overall, I’d recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for a deep-thinking philosophical read, that’s also not too hard on the eye.

However, at times it is a little slow and intricate, but it’s worth ticking off the ever-growing to-read list. Plus it’ll give you something new to talk about at your partner’s dinner-parties.

Adding to this, who doesn’t enjoy a good piece of philosophical Russian literature?

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