Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

In Notes from the Underground, hyper-consciousness distinguishes the Underground Man from the rest of the world. Cursed with acute-awareness, he can't act because consciousness causes him to believe that no action is truly justified. If a conscious man can't act, the argument goes, then he can't ever become anything. This notion of "the conscious man" is tied with "the intelligent man" and also "the decent man," so the concept carries both moral and intellectual implications. Although consciousness arises from suffering, allows for suffering, and necessitates suffering, it also makes possible free will and individuality. With consciousness, man must suffer, but without it, man will never be free.

Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

  1. How can consciousness be both an illness and man's most essential attribute?
  2. The Underground Man says that the primary difference between man and animals is that man can "launch a curse upon the world." What does this have to do with man's consciousness?
  3. The Underground Man flip-flops back and forth; sometimes he's extolling the virtues of a life underground, and other times he's wishing he could be a normal man. Ultimately, which does he favor?
  4. What exactly is the relationship between consciousness and suffering? Is one of them dependent on the other? Which is cause, and which is effect?
  5. Does the Underground Man distinguish between "the conscious man," "the intelligent man," and "the decent man"? If so, then what are the differences between them? If not, what is the reasoning behind equating these terms? Does this reasoning hold water?

Chew on This

The Underground Man uses his hyper-consciousness as a scapegoat for all his personal failings.

The flaw in the Underground Man's argument lies in his inability to distinguish between "consciousness" and "intelligence."

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