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Ideology and Experience in Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground is a notoriously enigmatic novel by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. Written from the perspective of a character known as the “Underground Man,” at first glance the novel seems to function solely as an entertaining peek into the mind of this eccentric character. Though the narrator is portrayed as unreliable and his thoughts seem convoluted, Notes from Underground actually comprises a careful critique of nineteenth-century European thought. Like Dickens and Balzac, Dostoevsky was a realist—his novels depicted the current state of society with all of its faults. However, Notes from Underground tackles intellectual problems instead of social injustices. Dostoevsky paints a vivid picture of the rift between real life and romantic ideals, a rift which punctuates the Underground Man’s misery and characterizes Dostoevsky’s own social critiques. I propose that one of Dostoevsky’s goals with Notes from Underground was to critique nineteenth-century intelligentsia by exploring the tension between ideology and experience. Three aspects of the novel support this interpretation: the inaction of the Underground Man wrought by his education, the Underground Man’s outright critique of rationalist and utopian ideas, and, along the same lines, passages in which Dostoevsky seems to resent the nineteenth century’s unrealistic, over-analytical assessments of human nature. Notes from Underground shows that society’s ideologies are often contradicted by its experiences.

   At the beginning of his account, the Underground Man declares that “an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being.”[1] As a modern, educated man, it comes as no surprise that he is incapable of action. He continues, “Perhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I’ve never been able to start or finish anything.”[2] Because he is an “intelligent man,” the Underground Man thinks rationally. But he soon discovers the futility of purely rational thought; it leads him down a rabbit hole of possibilities and logical connections, rendering him inert, indecisive, and trapped in his own head.

   In a way, the consciousness of the Underground Man serves as a metaphor for the state of European thought at the time the book was written. The Industrial Revolution had recently come to a close, making its mark both economically and intellectually. Specifically, it led to theories of optimistic humanism. Technological progress created the potential for much good in the world. All of this progress was spawned by human intelligence and man’s newfound reverence for reason. People wondered: were there any heights that man could not reach? Unfortunately, it was not long until such optimism was bitterly contradicted by human action. Friedrich Engels describes the condition of the English working class in 1844, writing that the towns were characterized by “filth, ruin, uninhabitableness, and defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation and health.”[3] Just as the optimism of the French Revolution was stifled by its incredible violence, the slums, bleak factories, and horrific working conditions produced by the Industrial Revolution caused confusion and despair among those who worshiped nineteenth-century progress. Experience once again contradicted ideology, and the results were paralyzing. The foundation of European humanism had crumbled. The aimlessness and disillusionment that would follow is poignantly reflected in the supposedly enlightened Underground Man’s account of his own unhappiness: “How am I, for example, to set myself at ease? Where are the primary causes on which I can rest, where are my bases? Where am I going to get them?”[4] Recent history led nineteenth-century thinkers to ask those same painful questions.

   Dostoevsky continues to develop his critique of nineteenth-century ideology through the character of the Underground Man by addressing philosophy in the seventh chapter and political science in the tenth. His misgivings stem from observable contradictions between the rationalist ideologies and human experiences. Chapter seven confronts the philosophical theory of rational egoism. This theory claims that man’s nature is fundamentally rational, and that his actions are rationally motivated by self-interest; in addition, rational egoism holds that man’s self-destructive tendencies may be cured by education. After all, if someone really knows what is best for him, his nature will compel him to do it out of self-interest (what the Underground Man calls “profit”). Because the rational egoists were staunch in their belief that human thought was logical, they thought that education would necessarily lead to human betterment. Consider the Underground Man’s response:

   When was it, to begin with, in all these thousands of years, that man acted solely for his own profit? What is to be done with the millions of facts testifying to how people knowingly, that is, fully understanding their real profit would put it in second place and throw themselves onto another path, a risk, a perchance, not compelled by anyone or anything, but precisely as if they simply did not want the designated path, and stubbornly, willfully pushed off onto another one, difficult, absurd, searching for it all but in the dark.[5]

   The Underground Man points out that people knowingly make detrimental choices all the time. It doesn’t seem like rationalist theories have a way of accounting for this. The Underground Man also points out that wars are waged by cultures that are supposed to be civilized and educated. “Look around you: blood is flowing in rivers,” he says, “Take this whole nineteenth century of ours … Take Napoleon—both the great one and the present one.”[6] If societies and countries are comprised of rational individuals, then how can they be the agents of senseless wars? This is a difficult question for rationalists to surmount.

   As we might expect, Dostoevsky is incredulous of the utopian visions that stemmed from movements like rational egoism. One such vision was the crystal palace. The Industrial Revolution left in its wake a sentiment that machines possess a sort of divinity, and societies may be perfected to the point where they, too, function as smoothly efficient mechanisms. The crystal palace was a popular symbol of this rationalist perfection. It was a glamorous structure built on the foundation of infallible, indestructible logic. The Underground Man hates the crystal palace. He even says that it frightens him. Consider the following passage:

You believe in a crystal edifice, forever indestructible; that is, in an edifice at which one can neither put out one’s tongue on the sly nor make a fig in the pocket. … I’m afraid of this edifice precisely because it is crystal and forever indestructible, and it will be impossible to put out one’s tongue at it even on the sly.[7]

Dostoevsky knows that the crystal palace is not a realistic goal. Reason and knowledge can never form the entirety of human society, because they do not form the entirety of human nature. Dostoevsky does not see the value of generalizing human nature with philosophical theories. Rather, he is interested in first-person observations of human nature. In a world obsessed with analyzing human beings, each analysis fails to describe real human experiences. Scientific theories miss something vital about human nature: the wackiness, the pettiness, the stubbornness—all traits of creatures whose motivations cannot be fully described in terms of practical benefit, or economic cause and effect. Nevertheless, “Man is so partial to systems and abstract conclusions that he is ready intentionally to distort the truth, to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, only so as to justify his logic.”[8] Once again, Dostoevsky points out that humans dislike complexity, and cling to the simplicity of our ideologies even in the face of blatant contradiction.

   The end of Notes from Underground was censored and never recovered. Perhaps the Underground Man finally finds happiness in the missing pages—we’ll never know. It is easy to get our hopes up. Maybe he could fall in love and be redeemed. Maybe the Underground Man could be a hero, his story one of romance and redemption. I am convinced that were this the case, Dostoevsky would be guilty of hypocrisy. We like to forget that real life does not have fairytale endings, crystal palaces, and machine-like societies. As the Underground Man says in the final pages of his story, “We’ve all grown unaccustomed to life, we’re all lame, each of us more or less. We’ve even grown so unaccustomed that at times we feel a sort of loathing for real ‘living life,’ and therefore cannot bear to be reminded of it.”[9] The Underground Man relates to us that he fantasizes about being the hero of a romantic novel as a way of escaping the guilt and misery of his real life. The intellectual elite often do the same thing, giving credence to their childish fantasies with scientific terms and philosophical theories. The tension between fantasy and reality is the foundation of Dostoevsky’s message in Notes from Underground. The tension between ideology and experience can be difficult to accept. What are we to do with it? We all experience this tension because we are human beings. As human beings, we are all unhappy, stubborn, and self-destructive in some way or another. To recognize this fact is not to be cynical, but to embrace our humanity. To reject our humanity in favor of whatever glamorous, vacuous, theories populate the academic world of our day is to mistake “cowardice for good sense, and find comfort in thus deceiving ourselves.”[10] So let us embrace our humanity whole-heartedly, laugh at it, learn from it, and work with integrity to better ourselves and our societies in a genuine way.


[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. Notes from Underground (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 2.
[2] Ibid. 18
[3] Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. Notes from Underground (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 17.
[5] Ibid. 20-21
[6] Ibid. 22-23
[7] Ibid. 35
[8] Ibid. 22
[9] Ibid. 129
[10] Ibid. 130