Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Principles

By Fyodor Dostoevsky


But the reason why he wants sometimes to go off at a tangent may just be that he is predestined to make the road, and perhaps, too, that however stupid the "direct" practical man may be, the thought sometimes will occur to him that the road almost always does lead somewhere, and that the destination it leads to is less important than the process of making it. (1.9.2)

The best evidence for this particular principle is the Underground Man's notes, which he can never finish.

Perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, […] not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as […] twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, […] but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, […] but to […] really to find it, he dreads. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern […] – and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? (1.9.2)

This quote helps to explain the Underground Man's circular and irrational reasoning, as in, he doesn't ever want to arrive at certainty.

You see, if it were not a palace, but a hen-house, I might creep into it to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the hen-house a palace out of gratitude to it for keeping me dry. You laugh and say that in such circumstances a hen-house is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to keep out of the rain.

But what is to be done if I have taken it into my head that that is not the only object in life, and that if one must live one had better live in a mansion? That is my choice, my desire. You will only eradicate it when you have changed my preference. Well, do change it, allure me with something else, give me another ideal. But meanwhile I will not take a hen-house for a mansion. (1.10.2-3)

This example of stark idealism is where the Underground Man comes closest to filling the role he ascribes to the Russian romantic.

I will put up with any mockery rather than pretend that I am satisfied when I am hungry. […] I will not be put off with a compromise […]. Destroy my desires, eradicate my ideals, show me something better, and I will follow you. (1.10.3)

The Underground Man's idealism comes from books and proves to be horribly unrealistic in the real world. In this way, the Underground Man suffers for his idealism: reality can never satisfy him, and so he retreats underground.

It is clear to me now that, owing to my unbounded vanity and to the high standard I set for myself, I often looked at myself with furious discontent. (2.1.1)

Not only is reality unsatisfying to him, but he can never be satisfied with himself, either. Dissatisfaction is the price he pays for literary ideals.

They were all stupid, and as like one another as so many sheep. Perhaps I was the only one in the office who fancied that I was a coward and a slave, and I fancied it just because I was more highly developed. But it was not only that I fancied it, it really was so. I was a coward and a slave. I say this without the slightest embarrassment. Every decent man of our age must be a coward and a slave. That is his normal condition. […] Only donkeys and mules are valiant, and they only till they are pushed up to the wall. It is not worth while to pay attention to them for they really are of no consequence. (2.1.2)

The Underground Man's idealistic principles are actually self-serving. He defines what is decent and good by what he sees in himself; his principles are dubiously (doubtfully) subjective.

The characteristics of our romantic are to understand everything, to see everything […] more clearly than our most realistic minds see it; to refuse to accept anyone or anything, but at the same time not to despise anything; to give way, to yield, from policy; never to lose sight of a useful practical object […] and at the same time to preserve "the sublime and the beautiful" inviolate within them to the hour of their death. […]The romantic is always intelligent, and […] although we have had foolish romantics they don't count. (2.1.6)

Again, the Underground Man draws an artificial distinction between the Russian romantics and those in France or Germany. The distinction is self-serving, as it reflects his own character.

Yes, I'd sell the whole world for a farthing, straight off, so long as I was left in peace. Is the world to go to pot, or am I to go without my tea? I say that the world may go to pot for me so long as I always get my tea. (2.9.28)

It seems the Underground Man's one consistent governing principle is his egoism (self-centeredness).

That is why there are so many "broad natures" among us who never lose their ideal even in the depths of degradation; and though they never stir a finger for their ideal, though they are arrant thieves and knaves, yet they tearfully cherish their first ideal and are extraordinarily honest at heart. Yes, it is only among us that the most incorrigible rogue can be absolutely and loftily honest at heart without in the least ceasing to be a rogue. (2.1.7)

The Underground Man uses "ideals" and "principles" to justify contradictions and illogic.

I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what's more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves. (2.10.23)

The Underground Man accuses us of doing what he has done: crafting ideals and definitions to justify our behavior.