Notes from Underground

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Literature and Writing Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Thought vs. Action Theme Icon
Loneliness, Isolation, and Society Theme Icon
Human Nature Theme Icon
Reason and Rationality Theme Icon
Spite, Pain, and Suffering Theme Icon
Literature and Writing Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Notes from Underground, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Literature and Writing Theme Icon

One of the ways in which the underground man differs from others and isolates himself is through his obsession with literature. As he recalls in part two, he grew up without many friends and spent much time reading. Similarly, he says that much of his time underground is spent reading. As a solitary activity, reading isolates the underground man from others. Moreover, his excessively literary sensibility prevents him from functioning normally in society. He is obsessed with the idea of duels, for example, a dated practice from traditional literature. He imagines challenging someone to a duel in a bar, but then thinks better of it because he realizes everyone will laugh at him for his talking about such literary things as points of honor. And when he actually does challenge Ferfichkin to a duel, everyone does laugh at him. Moreover, Liza tells him that he talks like a book, referring to his highly literary language. The underground man’s preoccupation with literature thus makes him socially awkward. Even when among others, his habit of reading has an isolating effect on him.

Literature does, however, offer one possible way for the underground man to overcome his isolation: through writing. By writing, the underground man can enter into a kind of conversation with a community of readers. While most of the novella is made of his interior monologues, he is able to turn his writing into a kind of dialogue by imagining the responses of his readers and replying to them. The conversational qualities of the underground man’s writing can be seen as an attempted response to isolation, as his writing becomes a conversation with himself and with his imagined readers. However, at the end of part two, the underground man rejects even this community of readers, when he says that he shouldn’t have even written his notes. Thus, literature, writing, and reading remain ultimately solitary pursuits for the lonely underground man. Even when not reading or writing by himself, he is trapped within his fantasy-tinged world influenced by what he has read. But literature is not wholly detrimental. While his obsession with literature tends to isolate the underground man, it can also be seen as offering him a kind of personal escape from his bleak life. And, ironically, it is through the very medium of literature that Dostoevsky is able to communicate these negative, potentially harmful aspects of excessive reading and writing.

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Literature and Writing Quotes in Notes from Underground

Below you will find the important quotes in Notes from Underground related to the theme of Literature and Writing.
Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

Of course, I hated all my fellow office-workers from the first to the last and despised every one of them; yet, at the same time it was as if I were afraid of them. Sometimes it happened that I would even regard them as superior to me. At this time these changes would suddenly occur: first I would despise them, then I would regard them as superior to me. . . . All others resembled one another as sheep in a flock. Perhaps I was the only one who constantly thought of himself as a coward and a slave; and I thought so precisely because I was so cultured. But not only did I think so, it actually was so: I was a coward and a slave. I say this without any embarrassment. Every decent man of our time is and must be a coward and a slave. This is how he’s made and what he’s meant to be. And not only at the present time, as the result of some accidental circumstance, but in general at all times, a decent man must be a coward and a slave.

Page Number: 30-31
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has jumped back in time, recalling his life at the age of 24 when he worked as a civil servant. He has recalled that he had no friends, and in the office didn't even look at anyone. In this passage, he describes the mixed feelings he possessed toward his coworkers––he "despised everyone one of them," but also felt inferior to them and was fixated on the idea that he himself was "a coward and a slave."

Once again, this passage powerfully describes the contradictory, irrational, and self-sabotaging nature of modern subjectivity. The Underground Man's conflicting feelings about his coworkers, while seemingly paradoxical, actually reinforce one another. He resents them for their conformity ("as sheep in a flock"), but can't help but feel isolated from the group.


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One morning, although I never engaged in literary activities, it suddenly occurred to me to draft a description of this officer as a kind of exposé, a caricature, in the form of a tale. I wrote it with great pleasure. I exposed him; I even slandered him. At first I altered his name only slightly, so that it could be easily recognized; but then, upon careful reflection, I changed it. Then I sent the tale off to Notes of the Fatherland. but such exposés were no longer in fashion, and they didn’t publish my tale. I was very annoyed by that. At times I simply choked on my spite. Finally, I resolved to challenge my opponent to a duel. I composed a beautiful, charming letter to him. . . But, thank God (to this day I thank the Almighty with tears in my eyes), I didn’t send that letter.

Related Characters: The Officer
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has described an evening when he saw a man be kicked out of a bar for fighting, inspiring the Underground Man himself to try to get into a fight. His attempt to provoke an officer is unsuccessful; at first he considers challenging the officer to a duel, but instead goes home and writes a letter slandering the officer. This passage reveals the bizarre and comic lengths to which the Underground Man goes in his attempt to create conflict with the officer. He boasts of having "exposed" and "slandered" the officer, but it is unclear what this actually means––the officer treated him in an entirely nonchalant, disinterested fashion, and thus it is difficult to imagine what there is to "expose." 

This passage also highlights the fact that the Underground Man is continually out of step with the rest of society. The journal to which he sent his letter rejects it because "such exposés were no longer in fashion," and the Underground Man's reaction to this is to pursue the even more outdated, unfashionable gesture of trying to challenge the officer to a duel. The implication of these details is that the Underground Man's interest in literature has left him disconnected from the reality of contemporary society. His hope to be perceived as a bold, reckless individual results in him appearing flamboyantly and ridiculously pathetic.  

Part 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

Naturally, it’ll all be over after that. The department will banish me from the face of the earth. They’ll arrest me, try me, drive me out of the service, send me to prison; ship me off to Siberia for resettlement, Never mind! Fifteen years later when they let me out of jail, a beggar in rags, I’ll drag myself off to see him. I’ll find him in some provincial town. He’ll be married and happy. He’ll have a grown daughter. . . . I’ll say, “Look, you monster, look at my sunken cheeks and my rags. I’ve lost everything—career, happiness, art science, a beloved woman—all because of you. Here are the pistols. I came here to load my pistol and . . . and I forgive you.” Then I’ll fire into the air, and he’ll never hear another word from me again. . . .
I was actually about to cry, even though I knew for a fact at that very moment that all this was straight out of Silvio and Lermontov’s Masquerade.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker), Zverkov
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has embarrassed himself at Zverkov's party, drunkenly making a toast in which he insults Zverkov. Although the other guests react furiously, he nonetheless decides to follow them when they go to a brothel after the party, and begs Zverkov for forgiveness. The Underground Man journeys to the brothel separately from the other guests, and as he does so he fantasizes about violently avenging himself against Zverkov. His idea of being exiled to Siberia and returning to kill Zverkov in a duel is clearly melodramatic, with the narrative arc and detail of a fictional story––and indeed, at the end of the passage the Underground Man reveals he has derived this fantasy from actual works of fiction: Pushkin's short story "The Shot" and Lermontov's play "Masquerade." 

Once again, it is clear that the Underground Man's view of reality has been distorted by his indulgence in literature. The texts he mentions have evidently had such a great influence over him that he begins to confuse their plots with his own life. In one sense, this can be read as a subtle criticism of the literature the Underground Man describes. While these texts have given him grandiose ideas about honor, revenge, and dueling, these notions seem far from reality. The characters depicted in Notes From the Underground, rather than being courageous and noble, are instead narrow-minded, conformist people who behave in an unglamorous, unappealing manner. Although this makes for a less dramatic narrative, it is arguably closer to the truth of human nature.

Part 2, Chapter 7 Quotes

For a while I felt that I’d turned her soul inside out and had broken her heart; the more I became convinced of this, the more I strived to reach my goal as quickly and forcefully as possible. It was the sport that attracted me; but it wasn’t only the sport. . . . I knew that I was speaking clumsily, artificially, even bookishly; in short, I didn’t know how to speak except “like a book.”

Related Characters: Liza
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has continued to taunt Liza by describing how awful her life will be; he tells her that she will become old and ugly, that she will be beaten and humiliated, and that she will grow sick and die in the brothel, and that everyone will forget her once she's dead.

Having said all this, he announces that he has "broken her heart," and describes the process of having done so as "sport" and speaking "like a book." On one level this passage reveals the alarming extent of the Underground Man's cruelty; on the other hand, it suggests that his actions are somewhat beyond his control. His obsession with literature has left him unable to communicate normally or to care about Liza's feelings.

Part 2, Chapter 8 Quotes

I felt particularly reassured and relaxed after nine o’clock in the evening and even began to daydream sweetly at times. For instance: “I save Liza, precisely because she’s come to me, and I talk to her. . . . I develop her mind, educate her. At last I notice that she loves me, loves me passionately. . . “Liza,” I say, “do you really think I haven’t noticed your love? I’ve seen everything. I guessed but dared not be first to make a claim on your heart because I had such influence over you, and because I was afraid you might deliberately force yourself to respond to my love out of gratitude. . . No, I didn’t want that because it would be . . . despotism. . . . It would be indelicate (well, in short, here I launched on some European, George Sandian, inexplicably lofty subtleties. . .) . . . In short, it became crude even to me, and I ended by sticking my tongue out at myself.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker), Liza
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has spent days in fear that Liza will come to visit him, and regrets giving her his address. However, after a few days pass he relaxes and begins to fantasize about behaving in a kind, loving manner to Liza. In this dream, the Underground Man adopts a different tone from the one he uses while addressing the reader; he speaks to Liza in a gracious, magnanimous manner, telling her that he noticed her love but that he was wary of having too much power over her. This is a stark contrast to the Underground Man's earlier behavior, as well as his opinions on interpersonal relationships. While he previously confessed to being a despot, in this passage he rejects despotism, and instead of taunting Liza wishes to "save her." 

Note that these fantasies emerge only after the Underground Man has convinced himself that Liza will not see him in real life. This highlights the disconnect between the Underground Man's delusions about people (including himself) and the way in which people (and the Underground Man himself) actually behave. Indeed, the Underground Man was highly disturbed by the notion that Liza might actually come to his house, highlighting the fact that he doesn't want real people to shatter his delusions. This explains why the Underground Man is so obsessed with literature––it provides material for his fantasies (note the mention in this passage of the writer George Sand) while not threatening to destroy those fantasies in the way that real life inevitably does.

Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

Perhaps I should end these Notes here? I think that I made a mistake in beginning to write them. At least, I was ashamed all the time I was writing this tale: consequently, it’s not really literature, but corrective punishment. . . . A novel needs a hero, whereas here all the traits of an anti-hero have been assembled deliberately.

Page Number: 90-91
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has confessed to the reader that he never suffered as much as he did during that night with Liza, and that after she left he never saw her again. He ponders ending his "Notes," and admits that he is ashamed of having written them. He claims that the Notes are "not really literature" because they do not have a hero but "an anti-hero" whose negative traits "have been assembled deliberately." This metafictional moment indicates a level of self-awareness different from the kind previously displayed in the novella, in which the Underground Man presupposes that the reader will laugh at or disagree with him. 

Rather than express paranoid fears about being ridiculed, the Underground Man takes seriously the idea that literature needs a "hero" with different qualities from those displayed in his story. Indeed, the Underground Man's reference to his narrative as "not really literature" suggests that the Underground Man himself has a level of awareness of the innovative, avante-garde nature of the novella. As the Underground Man implies, works of art that seem strange and unconventional at the time in which they are produced can be the very works that push a medium forward into new, unexplored territory. The Underground Man's self-awareness about the literature he is writing here also has the effect of making him seem more human, less fictional – because of the way he analyzes his own work, his own writing, the Underground Man starts to feel in a way as "real" as Dostoevksy, the actual author of the book.