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Themes

In Notes from the Underground, the Underground Man has retreated from reality to a world of books. He lives in literary fantasies – duels, chivalry, impractical love affairs, redemption – and then (not surprisingly) has difficulty reconciling these dreams with real life. He goes so far as to conclude that we all live in books, that in fact we all need books to tell us how to live. Notes itself is steeped in literary references and clichés, and reflects Dostoevsky's disdain for the Western European ideals seeping into his country. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Underground Man's discussion of romanticism. He argues that French and German romantics are silly and idealistic, while Russian romantics are able to appreciate "the sublime and beautiful" while remaining grounded in the real world.

Questions About Literature and Writing

  1. Check out the description of the Underground Man's literary dreams in Part II, Chapter Two (the passage where he talks about Lake Como). What is he fantasizing about?
  2. Do these fantasies make sense based on his life in the real world?
  3. How do these fantasies relate to the three stories we are told (the tiff with the officer and the Nevsky, Zverkov's dinner, and the encounter with Liza) about the Underground Man's real life?
  4. In Part I, the Underground Man claims that he is most inclined to "sink into mire" at the moments when he is most capable of appreciating "the sublime and beautiful." Why is that?
  5. What about his surroundings has led the Underground Man to the conclusion that "soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea"?
  6. The Underground Man openly admits that most of his fantasies are recycled clichés from literature he's read. Why doesn't this bother him? Why does he feel restricted by the "laws of nature," but not the laws of romantic literature?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

What the Underground Man calls "hyper-consciousness" is really an inability to distinguish the literary world from reality.

Despite common opinion, the real climax of Notes from the Underground occurs when Liza tells the Underground Man that he speaks "somehow like a book."

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