Notes from the Underground is a fictional, first-person "confession" told by a hateful, hyper-conscious man living "underground." Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian thinker living in St. Petersburg, wrote Notes in 1864. His wife was dying at the time, so you can speculate on how that might have affected his work. When writing, Dostoevsky said of the work: "It will be a powerful and candid piece; it will be truth."
Later, Notes from the Underground was hailed as a forerunner to existential literature of the 20th century. Dostoevsky explores themes of absurdity, isolation, and radical personal freedom. Philosophers and writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett would take these ideas and run with them, developing more fully an entire school of thought, the seeds of which can be found in Notes. Existentialism, the philosophical belief that individuals (rather than a god or a government or authority) define the meaning of their own lives, blossomed in the 20th century. In other words, Dostoevsky was way ahead of his time.
Even outside of existentialism the impact of Notes from the Underground is staggering. It made popular a distinct and often imitated approach to the novel: the fictional "confession." We see it again in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; in fact, the first paragraphs of Ellison's novel are an explicit reference to Notes. Since Dostoevsky published Notes, we've seen everything from homage to parody, and a mountain of literary criticism.
Of course, all of this criticism, being good criticism and all, isn't just talking about Notes from the Underground itself. It's viewing the work in the context of its intellectual history. As you'll soon find out, to study one piece of Russian literature often means studying many pieces of Russian literature. This stems from the fact that guys like Dostoevsky were carrying out their arguments on the written page. It worked like this: someone would write a treatise or argumentative novel, and instead of disagreeing in person, some other guys would just write a treatise or novel back. (This is why there are so many Russian texts.)
Before Dostoevsky wrote Notes, Ivan Turgenev published Fathers and Sons. Go back for a minute to Russia in the 1840's, where, according to Turgenev, there's a growing divide between the older generation (the traditionalist liberal "fathers") and the younger (the growing group of nihilist "sons"). Traditionalists are steeped in Russian Orthodoxy (i.e., a belief God and morality), while the nihilists reject any notion of God or objective truth. Turgenev picks up on this growing divide, makes it the focus of the aptly-named Fathers and Sons, and publishes his earth-shattering novel in 1862.
Meanwhile, big changes are going down in Russia. Feudalism is coming to an end, the plight of the peon is finally brought to light, and governing this all is the European Enlightenment blowing in from the West, bringing with it social, political, and scientific change. (As one example, Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859 and first translated into Russian in 1864. This is a big rejection of the classic, age-old idea that God made everything.) The Enlightenment introduces rational egoism, the idea that man will always act reasonably and according to his own best interests.
So in 1863, a year after Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky publishes his response to the work, a novel called What Is to Be Done? This becomes known as "the handbook of radicalism" (source). It embraces the Enlightenment, praises socialism and rational egoism, and promises to turn all of society into "a Crystal Palace," a technologically-advanced utopia (or ideal society).
Now what about Dostoevsky? Well, back in the 1840's he's hanging out with radical socialist thinkers and loving the idea of reform for Russia. Great, until 1849 when he gets thrown into prison for his intellectual troublemaking. When he finally gets back to St. Petersburg in 1859, he is singing a different tune. Rather than praising the virtues of reform, Dostoevsky is Mr. Traditional Russian Values – just in time to rail on Western European values for changing Russian institutions. Talk about being in the wrong intellectual camp at the wrong time.
And so, finally, in 1864, Dostoevsky writes Notes from the Underground, at least in part as a response to Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? from a year before. Remember, Chernyshevsky was all about rational egoism and the Crystal Palace – both of which are slandered and mocked in Notes from the Underground. Notes argues that man can never be confined to reason – to think as much would be to ignore free will, which, you will soon see, is quite the force of nature.
"There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused, and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis. My punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing."
Oh, Dostoevsky, lighten up!
Wait a minute.
That's not Dostoevsky. It's Christian Bale in American Psycho. And now that we've completely distracted you, we're going to talk about Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky's Underground Man, despite the fact that he's living in a dirty abode underground and has no friends, manages to imagine a life that is, for him, an even worse reality. What if, he wonders, we could someday figure out all the rules of nature? If the world is governed by a series of formulas and laws, and we knew what they all were, we could see everything that was ever going to happen in the world. According to the Underground Man, this would be terrible. For our miserable narrator, this is something out of science fiction. Although conceivable in some far-distant future, this result is in fact a fantasy – that is, it's highly, highly unlikely. And likewise, for us today, it's still highly, highly…
Now wait just another minute. How unlikely is this chilling prediction? Because the fact is, with the burgeoning field of genetics, we're getting closer and closer to writing about the dreaded "little table" with a gridded list of everything man's supposedly "free will" may desire. As Matt Ridley points out in his 2000 bestseller Genome, we claim (and indeed, many of these are subject to debate) to have identified genes for diseases, sexual preferences, intelligence, and personality. How far can we be from an Excel spreadsheet that reads in one tiny box: "Tuesday, August 17, 2017: eats cornflakes for breakfast. Goes for a jog, beats personal mile time by .57 seconds."
This probably makes you uncomfortable, if not outright upset. We rebel against this spreadsheet for the same reasons we rebel against the idea of fate and our parents deciding what we're going to do with our lives. There's a fancy, scholarly, scientific name for this. It's called the "I Can Do Anything I Want!" theorem, a subset of the "You're Not the Boss of Me!" principle. And, as it turns out, it's been making people angry for a long time. For the Underground Man in the 1860s, this principle came to life as an argument against Rationalism, in which the laws of nature took away our control. And now, in the 21st Century, some argue that genetics jeopardizes our ability to decide who we are and what we will do. So, in the words of another very famous Russian, What is To Be Done? How do we reconcile scientific certainty with individual freedom?
Who can say. But we think it's a pretty good sign that we just went from Christian Bale to Rationalism in…seven paragraphs. We don't know about you, but our free will is flexing its muscles. And now we're going to go try to make 2+2 equal 5, just because we say so. If that sounds random, read on… the Underground Man has something to say about that.