Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground
is, at least partially, a response to Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to Be Done?
In this book, Chernyshevsky espoused an optimistic confidence in human rationality. He thought that if people could be taught well enough, they would naturally desire what is best for them, and society could continually improve until we reached a utopian existence symbolized by the image of a crystal palace—a perfect building where everyone lived in harmony. This same symbolic building shows up in part one of Notes from Underground
, where the underground man
vehemently disagrees with Chernyshevsky, championing the importance of irrationality and free will against the logic and laws of nature. The underground man says that he would hate to live in the crystal palace, because he wouldn’t be able to stick out his tongue rudely there. In other words, he wouldn’t be free to indulge his spite and irrational desires. The crystal palace thus symbolizes essentially the same thing in Dostoevsky’s novella as it had in Chernyshevsky’s novel: a utopian place of purely rational living. In Notes from Underground
, though, this utopia is denigrated as an impossible dream, and one that wouldn’t even be desirable if it were possible.