Notes from Underground

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The Crystal Palace Symbol Analysis

The Crystal Palace Symbol Icon
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.

The Crystal Palace Quotes in Notes from Underground

The Notes from Underground quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Crystal Palace. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Thought vs. Action Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the W. W. Norton & Company edition of Notes from Underground published in 2000.
Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

Who would want to desire according to some table? And that’s not all: he would immediately be transformed from a person into an organ stop or something of that sort; because what is man without desire, without will, and without wishes if not a stop in an organ pipe?

Related Symbols: The Crystal Palace
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has described the widely-held belief that as human civilization advances, we will eventually reach a "crystal palace," a state in which everyone lives happily and harmoniously according to the laws of nature. The Underground Man believes that this is neither possible nor desirable, and in this passage explains that if human free will was reducible to science, this would make a person nothing more than an "organ stop." The "stop" is the part of the organ (a musical instrument) that pushes wind through the organ's pipes in order to make sound, and it is only activated by someone pressing the keys. The Underground Man thus implies that rational, scientific viewpoints see people as a mechanism controlled by an external force – in this case, the laws of nature – and in so doing eliminate their free will, their very personhood.


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Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Related Symbols: The Crystal Palace
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has returned to the concept of the crystal palace, and in this passage he provides a more detailed explanation for why the idea is so reprehensible to him. He is disturbed by the notion that the palace is "indestructible," representing a frozen, unshakeable state of existence that can never be challenged or changed. However, what the Underground Man seems to find most horrifying is the prospect that in the crystal palace it would be impossible to "stick one's tongue out" or make another "rude gesture." This passage is comic, and at first seems entirely absurd. If people were living in a perfect state of reason, compassion, and peace, would it really matter that they couldn't stick their tongues out?

However, this superficial silliness belies a more incisive and serious point. The freedom to act in a rude and stupid manner is valuable not because stupidity is important, but because freedom is. As the Underground Man has previously argued, if people do not have the ability to act in a foolish and self-destructive manner, then they are really nothing more than machines. Note that sticking one's tongue out in particular is a gesture reminiscent of childhood; this is significant, as many opponents of scientific rationalism embrace childhood as a state of existence in opposition to the oppressive forces of logic and authoritarianism. 

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The Crystal Palace Symbol Timeline in Notes from Underground

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Crystal Palace appears in Notes from Underground. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 7
Human Nature Theme Icon
Reason and Rationality Theme Icon
Spite, Pain, and Suffering Theme Icon
Literature and Writing Theme Icon
...more people will live peacefully in accordance with the “laws of nature,” in a perfect crystal palace . But he thinks such an existence would be horribly boring and that people would... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 10
Human Nature Theme Icon
Reason and Rationality Theme Icon
Spite, Pain, and Suffering Theme Icon
The underground man says his readers believe in the ideal world of the crystal palace , but says that the palace is a hoax. He says he’d rather crawl into... (full context)