About Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

by Jen Marder, Mike Meyer, and Fred Wyshak

Arguably one of the greatest novelists in history, Fyodor Dostoevsky is especially notable for interweaving deep philosophical, psychological and theological threads into his brilliant fiction. As a result, his works become much more than stimulating, entertaining stories but actual representation of 19th century intellectual history. This can not be any more true for his most philosophical work of all, Notes from Underground. Notes is Dostoevsky's groundbreaking philosophical prologue to his later novels, and it wrestles with modern existential questions which deal with Man's role in a world where the idea of God was being rejected more and more.

The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries espoused the value of reason, proclaimed the potential improvement of Man and Society, and freed humanity from superstition. By the 19th century, with the belief in God declining, Dostoevsky saw mankind having lost its moral bearing, wafting directionless in the tempest that is life. Instead of liberating Man for the better, the Enlightenment had renounced his spiritual connection. Where Dostoevsky saw a creature of God, his contemporary philosophers were seeking a new definition of modern man, out from under the definition of God.

Notes provides a greater perspective in European thought. The 19th century was the characterized by a brutal polarization of existential thinking in which there was no synthesis. Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche epitomize this philosophical schism: at one end, Dostoevsky calls for Man to embrace faith and Christian morality; at the other stands Nietzsche, rejecting religion as unnatural and entreating Man to transgress contemporary moral values. By the turn of the century, Man and God were still as much a mystery as before, and so remain.

In Notes, Dostoevsky shows us the Underground Man, a despicable and pitiable creature who betrays himself and is not even aware of it. He is the creation of a thoroughly anti-modern author imploring his fellow Russians to resign from the West.


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