Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Literature and Writing

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Literature and Writing

Then I should have chosen a career for myself, I should have been a sluggard and a glutton, not a simple one, but, for instance, one with sympathies for everything sublime and beautiful. How do you like that? I have long had visions of it. That "sublime and beautiful" weighs heavily on my mind at forty But that is at forty; then – oh, then it would have been different! I should have found for myself a form of activity in keeping with it, to be precise, drinking to the health of everything "sublime and beautiful." I should have snatched at every opportunity to drop a tear into my glass and then to drain it to all that is "sublime and beautiful." I should then have turned everything into the sublime and the beautiful; in the nastiest, unquestionable trash, I should have sought out the sublime and the beautiful. I should have exuded tears like a wet sponge. An artist, for instance, paints a picture worthy of Gay. At once I drink to the health of the artist who painted the picture worthy of Gay, because I love all that is "sublime and beautiful." An author has written As you will: at once I drink to the health of "anyone you will" because I love all that is "sublime and beautiful." (1.6.1)

The Underground Man imagines for himself a life as a professional aesthete, where his sole occupation would be to enjoy works of art. Great, except in doing so he imagines himself as a fat and lazy man. It's also interesting that he imagines what his life would be like if steeped in art and literature, and from what we'll soon see, this is already the case (because of the dramatic, romantic notions he applies to his interactions with others).

In the first place I spent most of my time at home, reading. I tried to stifle all that was continually seething within me by means of external impressions. And the only external means I had was reading. Reading, of course, was a great help – exciting me, giving me pleasure and pain. But at times it bored me fearfully. One longed for movement in spite of everything, and I plunged all at once into dark, underground, loathsome vice of the pettiest kind. My wretched passions were acute, smarting, from my continual, sickly irritability I had hysterical impulses, with tears and convulsions. I had no resource except reading, that is, there was nothing in my surroundings which I could respect and which attracted me. (2.1.10)

Compare this passage to the moment in the end of Part II when the Underground Man sees the crumpled five-rouble note left behind by Liza. In Liza, finally, he finds "something which [he can] respect" – something in another human being and not just in the world of literature. Of course, he manages to drive her away because of his own "literary concerns" (i.e., he gave her the note in the first place because it was a contrived and literary cliché to give a prostitute money at a moment like that).

What I was afraid of was that everyone present, from the insolent marker down to the lowest little stinking, pimply clerk in a greasy collar, would jeer at me and fail to understand when I began to protest and to address them in literary language. For of the point of honour – not of honour, but of the point of honour ( point d'honneur) – one cannot speak among us except in literary language. You can't allude to the "point of honour" in ordinary language. I was fully convinced (the sense of reality, in spite of all my romanticism!) that they would all simply split their sides with laughter. (2.1.19)

The Underground Man suffers from an inability to reconcile two different worlds: reality and the world of literature. He operates under the rules of the latter but finds that they frequently come into conflict with people in the former. To some degree, he knows how foolish his romanticism is – but rather than admit this, he simply labels the majority of men as uncultured fools.

And what loving-kindness, oh Lord, what loving-kindness I felt at times in those dreams of mine! in those "flights into the sublime and the beautiful"; though it was fantastic love, though it was never applied to anything human in reality, yet there was so much of this love that one did not feel afterwards even the impulse to apply it in reality; that would have been superfluous. Everything, however, passed satisfactorily by a lazy and fascinating transition into the sphere of art, that is, into the beautiful forms of life, lying ready, largely stolen from the poets and novelists and adapted to all sorts of needs and uses. (2.2.2)

The Underground Man makes no attempt to reconcile his dreams with reality. As will soon become evident, his idea of reality is a world of suffering. Dreams and literature, then, are a world of perfection. There is no happy medium for the Underground Man (as he will establish later on).

With despair I pictured to myself how coldly and disdainfully that "scoundrel" Zverkov would meet me; with what dull-witted, invincible contempt the blockhead Trudolyubov would look at me; with what impudent rudeness the insect Ferfitchkin would sn***** at me in order to curry favour with Zverkov; how completely Simonov would take it all in, and how he would despise me for the abjectness of my vanity and lack of spirit – and, worst of all, how paltry, unliterary, commonplace it would all be. (2.3.40)

Interestingly, this interaction ends up being quite literary, given the threat of a duel and the emotionally charged verbal scuffles between the Underground Man and Zverkov.

Of course, after that everything will be over! The office will have vanished off the face of the earth. I shall be arrested, I shall be tried, I shall be dismissed from the service, thrown in prison, sent to Siberia. Never mind! In fifteen years when they let me out of prison I will trudge off to him, a beggar, in rags. I shall find him in some provincial town. He will be married and happy. He will have a grown-up daughter.... I shall say to him: "Look, monster, at my hollow cheeks and my rags! I've lost everything – my career, my happiness, art, science, the woman I loved, and all through you. Here are pistols. I have come to discharge my pistol and ... and I ... forgive you. Then I shall fire into the air and he will hear nothing more of me ...."

I was actually on the point of tears, though I knew perfectly well at that moment that all this was out of Pushkin's Silvio and Lermontov's Masquerade. And all at once I felt horribly ashamed, so ashamed that I stopped the horse, got out of the sledge, and stood still in the snow in the middle of the street. The driver gazed at me, sighing and astonished. (2.5.18-9)

Dostoevsky was actually sent to Siberia himself, after a stint in prison for being a socialist radical. The Underground Man claims that such calamities belong only to realm of literature, but Dostoevsky himself knows that these atrocities are very real.

"Why, you ... speak somehow like a book," she said, and again there was a note of irony in her voice. (2.6.118)

The idea of an older man "saving" a prostitute by rallying her moral awareness is in fact a common theme in Russian literature. So Liza is right; there is something romantic and ridiculous about all this.

Why, we don't even know what living means now, what it is, and what it is called? Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. (2.10.23)

The Underground Man's claim that books dictate how we live is absurd, given that he's admitted already his own retreat from reality and into the world of literature. Living according to books is very much at odds with real living.

We are oppressed at being men – men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea. (2.10.23)

This may be where we most clearly hear Dostoevsky addressing readers directly – unfiltered and unadulterated. The problem with romanticism – with living life concerned only with "the beautiful and sublime" – is that we remove ourselves from reality, much like the Underground Man.