Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Plot Summary

Notes from the Underground is a self-portrait of a man who calls himself an “antihero.” He is never named but writes in first person his views on several issues ranging from free will to man’s ability to make intelligent decisions. He then turns to some events in his own life. Fyodor Dostoevsky makes a note at the beginning of the book that the notes and the writer are fictional. He does, however, note that such a person must exist because the current social climate is such that there’s no way he couldn’t exist. This fictitious author often makes a particular point, then argues as if the reader were submitting objections, then answers. All the while, he insists that he never intends for anyone to read the notes, but writes as if he’s writing to an audience. He does say that it’s simply a literary device and that it is simply easier for him to write in this fashion.

The writer tells of two incidents in his personal life—encounters with an officer and a prostitute—that were important to him. He meets the officer by chance in a social situation and feels the officer, by pushing past him, had humiliated him. He spends years working on a way to retaliate. He imagines all sorts of encounters and finally borrows enough money to replace the fur collar on his coat. He feels his appearance in the situation he’s planning is important. He meets the man on a walkway frequented by many of the day. The author doesn’t step out of the officer’s way and they bump shoulders. The author feels that he’s vindicated and the officer seems never to have known that anything of importance occurred.

The writer spends an evening with friends at a restaurant, though they clearly don’t like him and don’t want him there. He remains and admits that he does such things out of spite. He then follows them to a brothel, though he has to borrow the money to go there. He is so angry that he says he plans to challenge one of the men to a duel, but they have already disappeared into the various rooms with women. The author has an encounter and then is angry for having allowed it to happen. He rants at her, telling her that she’ll grow old and despised quickly and that she should get out of the business. On a whim, he gives her his address and spends the following days worrying that she’ll show up. When she does, they have another sexual encounter, though on his part it’s revenge because she’s seen him in his poverty. She leaves and he considers going after her, but feels he couldn’t make her happy because he himself is not happy. He then ends his notes.



The “nameless narrator” of Notes from the Underground. Some readers and critics refer to him as “the Underground Man”. The book is written by Fyodor Dostoevsky and it could be argued that the “I” is Dostoevsky, though he makes it clear from an early footnote that the “I” is fictional. He does note that “I” must exist. “I” is concerned with an array of questions, many of them on the free will and psychological interests of mankind in general. The “I” freely refers to the audience—the reader—and tends to realize questions and arguments that would be forthcoming from a real audience. “I” answers those questions, seeming to give an honest accounting of himself and his life, though he’ll point out that it’s impossible for a person to be completely honest about all things.

“I” is interested in some of the important questions of life. He wonders whether man has free will to decide his own fate or whether he is bound by the laws of nature or some other set of regulations. One of the points made by this writer is that people hide some things from others and some things even from themselves. He claims that he’s going to attempt to be totally honest in an effort to see if that’s really true. He adheres to the notion that no one is going to read his writings. He then says that he realizes that he seems to be writing to an audience but says it’s merely a literary device—that it’s an easier style of writing than any other.

The writer is a selfish man and claims himself incapable of love. He swears that he is more intelligent than others, often to the point of embarrassment. He is anxious always to put on a good front in front of others but finds that he’s unable to stand up to their scrutiny or their confrontations. He spends years planning an altercation with an officer and it ends with a mere brushing of the shoulders. He would like to fire his servant, Apollon, but says that Apollon would never leave. He claims to be well-read but is a pauper, barely able to make ends meet and constantly borrowing from those few who will lend him money.


The woman the writer meets in the house of prostitution. Liza confides in him that she’s from Riga, where she lived with her parents. She says that she hasn’t fully committed to becoming a prostitute but that she already owes money to the madam of the house. She doesn’t say how it is that she came to be in that position, but the writer berates her for her decision. He rants for some time on the benefits of living at home and the negative points of living as a prostitute. He goes on so long that Liza begins to cry uncontrollably. Not knowing what to say, he hurriedly prepares to leave but gives Liza his address in a moment of some weakness that he isn’t able to describe. Liza shows a letter, written to her from a medical student. The love letter, according to Dostoevsky, is genuine as no one can feign those emotions. She seems to hold this letter as a precious treasure and the writer notes that she’s trying to redeem herself in his eyes.

It’s three days before Liza shows up at his home, though he’s been expecting her for all that time. When she arrives, the writer is having a ferocious fight with Apollon. He lives poorly and he’s seen himself and his apartment through her eyes. Without giving her time to say or do anything, he begins to rant at her again, telling her that yes, he’s a pauper and a liar. He treats her cruelly and then tells her to get out. After she’s out of the apartment, he admits what he’d known—that she loves him for trying to help her out of her previous situation. He rushes after her but doesn’t catch up. He admits that he would never have made her happy simply because he’s not the kind of man who can be happy with another woman and he says that Liza—as a woman in love—saw his unhappiness for what it truly was. Liza is never heard of again.


The Underground

The underground is never described but is referred to on several occasions. It seems likely that this is a state of mind rather than a physical place, but it’s ultimately left to the reader to decide where—or what—the underground is.


A unit of currency in Russia. At one point, the writer declares that he would sell “the entire world for one kopek” so that he could have peace.


A unit of currency used for most transactions in Russia. The writer paid Apollon seven rubles per month as his servant.

The Most Advantageous of Advantages

Dostoevsky defines this as man’s “own whim”, his “untrammeled desire”. While outlining the advantages a man has, this one is typically omitted but is, in Dostoevsky’s mind, the most important advantage anyone can have and is the one that overrides reason.


The place the writer imagines that the Pope would agree to move his headquarters, if a certain array of happenings were to come to pass, such as a lake being moved to Rome and a ball given for all the people of Italy.

Lake Como

The lake the writer imagines might be moved to Rome for the incredible ball that might be thrown for all of Rome.

Five Corners

The place where Anton Antonych Setochkin lives.

The Brothel

Where the writer meets Liza.


Where Liza says she is from.

Sennaya Street

Where the writer says he saw some people carrying a coffin from a brothel, and that the bearers almost dropped it. It’s apparently a poor part of town.


The cemetery the writer describes to Liza, saying that he’d seen burials there despite several inches of water at the bottom of the grave.


The Russian city where the author lived.


The Need for Companionship

The author is continually seeking out companionship though he’s never happy with the time he spends with another. He talks about his periods of dreaming, saying that he could never hold up to them for more than about three months at a time. It seems that he knows he’s happier spending his time in solitude with only his dreaming, but somehow can’t resist the need to seek out human companions. He says that he would find time to play card games and spend time with others but would inevitably find it unsuitable to continue spending time with them. Though he doesn’t describe the partings, it seems likely that he would have parted with them as he did his former classmates, Simonov Zverkov, Trudolyubov, and Ferfichkin.

In this case, he happened upon a meeting of Simonov, Ferfichkin, and Trudolyubov, and invites himself along to a dinner they’re throwing for Zverkov. He says that he sometimes visits Simonov but has seldom seen the others since they were in school. He says that whenever he shows up at Simonov’s home, which is apparently fairly sporadically and based on the author’s own need for companionship as it comes and goes, Simonov always seems somewhat surprised. After the author does invite himself along to this dinner, he is angry at himself and almost decides not to go. It’s interesting to note that he does go but it seems as if he’s trying to save face rather than that any interest in spending time with any of the four men.

The interesting thing about the author is that he wants companionship but wants it only on his own terms and in his own timeframe. When he begins to worry that Liza will show up at his apartment, he’s angry. He was also angry when he sought her out at the brothel. But he admits that he had almost followed her to ask her to come back. That seems to be an admission that he does need the companionship and that he knows that he’ll wish for it later.

The Need for Free Will

The author argues at length about the possibility that human life will someday be taken to a level of mathematical equation. In that case, free will will no longer exist because every action of every person could be determined—and predetermined—by graphs or equations. The problem, according to the author, is that people want the ability to make their own decisions and to do things simply because they want to—not because it’s required. As an example, he points out that some people might say that a sane man would never wish for anything that wasn’t in his best interests—an “advantage”, as the author calls it. But he says that’s not true. He says that sometimes people simply wish for something that’s not what is in their best interest just because it’s what they want to do. This seems to be a topic the author knows a lot about as he spends time wishing for companionship and dreaming of impossible situations. He imagines himself winning over a group of former classmates by his intellect. But when he’s with them, he behaves badly and parts with bitter words. He even plans to challenge one of them to a duel but that never comes about. The author wishes for this companionship in his dreams but says that he would sell the entire world for a kopek if it would only earn him a bit of peace.

The writer talks of free will and man’s ability to choose for himself and contrasts that with the mathematical equation, “two times two makes four”. This equation becomes the opposite of free will, according to the author. He does say that if people had no free will, there’d be nothing for an intelligent man to do except to submerge himself in thought. He notes that the lack of anything interesting to occupy one’s time leads to things like whipping oneself.


The fact that the writer of the book calls himself an “antihero” indicates that he’s conducted extensive self-analysis. The “Notes” are filled with those sections of analysis. For example, when Liza is in his arms in his apartment, he is suddenly filled with an emotion that he correctly identifies as passion but with revenge as the ultimate motive. He says that she is afraid only for a moment. Afterward, he says that he’s done her an incredible wrong. When she leaves, he almost follows her but says that he knows he couldn’t make her happy because he isn’t the sort of person who could make anyone happy in the long term.

It’s interesting that some of his self-analysis seems self-serving while other times he seems brutally honest. For example, he says that he is more intelligent than most people around him and that it’s sometimes so obvious that he’s embarrassed about it. That’s a statement he repeats several times. He says that as a child other boys figured out that he was well-read and that it intimidated them. On the other hand, he tells Liza that he is ashamed of his lifestyle—living as he is in poverty. He says that it’s a condition to be ashamed of.

His self-analysis is often focused on his appearance. He is absorbed in his own facial features, saying that he tries to look intellectual. He notes upon heading out to meet his friends that he has a yellowish stain on his pants and that the presence of that stain is likely to ruin most of his pleasure of the evening. That scrutiny passes to his surroundings and he dreads the thought of Liza visiting because she’ll see him living with his shabby couch and his tattered robe—all reasons for which he despises himself and believes that others will judge him for.


Point of View

The book is written in first person though the “I” is never fully identified. It is a person who has lived beneath the floorboards, listening in on conversations but never participating. This person could be Dostoevsky, though he adds a footnote at the end of his first page advising that the person is actually fictional. Dostoevsky says that the person must exist but as a collection of personalities making up one person—the fictional character of this work. For the sake of continuity, “I” is identified throughout this guide as Dostoevsky.

There are likely to be various places throughout the book that offer up points or themes with which any reader can identify. At one point, Dostoevsky writes that everyone has something from their past that they won’t admit to others and some things they won’t even admit to themselves. Most people can probably think of some shameful deed in their own past. That means the “I” could actually become the reader in those cases.

It’s noteworthy that Dostoevsky writes to an audience and that he’s fully aware that he’s writing to an audience, though he continues to insist otherwise. He throws out objections that the reader is likely to voice at a particular point on many occasions. Dostoevsky also says that he’s going to test the theory that it’s impossible for a man to be totally honest about certain facts in his life. He plans to include some piece of personal information that he’s never shared before as a test of that theory—a sure sign that he’s aware of the reader. Then he says that he writes in this form only because it’s the easiest way to write and that he would be doing things differently if he were indeed writing for an audience.


The book is set in Russian, apparently in the later part of the mid-1800s, about the time Dostoevsky wrote the book. The setting is fairly limited, consisting of his own apartment, a restaurant where he and three former classmates have dinner, a brothel where he meets Liza, and the streets in and around those places. There is limited description of any of the places except for details that seem important to the writer’s mind—the shabbiness of his couch, for example. There are more details given about other things, such as the worn collar of the writer’s coat which he borrows enough money to replace. The facts that his fur collar is worn and his pants have a stain on the knee seem much more important to the writer than descriptions of his surroundings, and that’s where his focus seems to lie.

Language and Meaning

There are many significant references and nuances that will likely slip past the average reader simply because the reference point is Dostoevsky’s time—the mid 1800s in Russia. When he writes of man’s need to tear down what he’s built, he refers to “that eternal union” which is actually the Civil War. He also writes of the “Wagenheims”, which turna out to be a reference to dentists that advertised in the Petersburg newspapers. There are also references to writers and artists who were either highly regarded or greatly criticized at the time of Dostoevsky’s writing. He makes sport of those or uses them to create points in several places. The writings of H.T. Buckle, “The History of Civilization in England” and the painting of “The Lord’s Supper” by N.N. Ge are among those. There are others, and some translations of “Notes from the Underground” will include footnotes to help the reader catch those references.

In some cases, the writer rants for extended periods and some readers may find it difficult to keep track of the topic at hand among the ranting. Usually, the writer comes back to the original verse and even sometimes explains what happened. For example, he tells of Liza’s reaction to his cruel words in his apartment by explaining that she saw what any woman in love would see—that he was unhappy in his own life, prompting his cruelty to her.

It’s important that some things are left to the reader to discern. For example, the writer enters the brothel and meets the girl named Liza. There is no description of the sexual encounter other than his thoughts afterward—that they didn’t talk at all, that he is repulsed by the entire affair, and that he didn’t know her name until afterward.


The book is divided into two sections, titled simply Part I and Part II. The first is further divided into eleven chapters of varying lengths. The second is divided into ten chapters. Part I is a somewhat rambling account of the writer’s thoughts on an array of topics that tend to overlap and recur. He talks of man’s free will—or lack thereof—and the reason that people tend to tear things down. In this writer’s opinion, it’s because man is afraid of accomplishing a final task, thus leaving himself with nothing else to do. Therefore, he starts wars that will tear down what’s been built so that there’s a need for rebuilding.

The author also talks at length about himself. He says that he’s bitter and spiteful and goes on to tell of all the things he does for spite. For example, he says that he’s sick but he won’t see a doctor-out of spite. He also talks of his intelligence, saying that he’s so much more cultivated and learned than others that he’s quite embarrassed by the entire issue.

In the second part, the writer relates a story of a farewell dinner for a former classmate. He doesn’t like this person overly much but invites himself along to the dinner despite the fact that he knows he’s also not particularly welcome. After the dinner, he follows the others to a brothel where he meets a woman who falls in love with him because he seems to take an interest in her, telling her that she should take herself out of her current situation.

The writer insists that he’s never intending for anyone else to read the words he writes, but he does write to an audience. He says that’s simply a literary device that works well for him. For example, he makes statements and then poses a question that a reader would likely ask.


“I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man. I think that my liver hurts. But actually, I don’t know a damn thing about my illness. I am not even sure what it is that hurts.”

Part I, Chap. I, p. 1

“Living past forty is indecent, vulgar, immoral! Now answer me, sincerely, honestly, who lives past forty? I’ll tell you who does: fools and scoundrels. I will say this right to the face of all those venerable old men, all those silver-haired, sweet-smelling old men! I have a right to say it, because I will live to sixty myself. To seventy! To eighty! . . . Wait, let me catch my breath.”

Part I, Chap. I, p. 3

“Because, first of all, I am at fault for being more intelligent than anyone around me. (I’ve always considered myself more intelligent than anyone around me, and, would you believe me, I’ve sometimes even felt embarrassed by it. At any rate, I’ve always somehow looked sideways and could never look people straight in the eye.)”

Part I, Chap. II, p. 7

“Ah, if I were doing nothing merely out of laziness! Lord, how I would respect myself then. Precisely because I would be capable at least of laziness, at least of one definite quality that I myself could be certain of. Question: Who are you? Answer: A lazy man.” Part I, Chap. VI, p. 18

“Ah, gentlemen, what kind of independent will can there be when it comes down to graphs and to arithmetic, when nothing counts but ‘two times two makes four’? Two times two will be four even without my will. Is that what you call man’s free will?” Part I, Chap. VIII, p. 31

“I give myself up to dissipation alone, at night – secretly, furtively, sordidly, with shame that would not leave me at the most loathsome moments, that even brought me at these moments to the point of cursing. Already at that time I carried the underground in my soul. I was terrified of being seen, of meeting someone I knew, of being recognized. And I frequented all sorts of dismal haunts.” Part II, Chap. I, p. 47

“It was sheer torture, a continuous intolerable sense of humiliation at the idea, which turned out to be a constant and direct feeling, that I was nothing but a fly before all that fine society, a revolting, obscene fly – more intelligent, more cultivated, nobler than anyone else, that went without saying, but a fly nonetheless, forever yielding the way to everyone, humiliated and insulted by everyone.” Part II, Chap. I, p. 51

“My office uniform was more or less in order, but I couldn’t, after all, go to dinner in my uniform. And worst of all, on my trousers, right on the knee, there was a huge yellowish spot. I knew in advance that this spot alone would robe me of nine-tenths of my self- respect.” Part II, Chap. III, p. 68

“The fact is that at those very moments I was more clearly and vividly aware of the revolting absurdity of my imaginings and the entire reverse side of the medal than anyone else in the world could have been. And yet . . . ‘Hurry, driver, hurry you rascal, hurry.'” Part II, Chap. V, p. 83

“And yet, let me tell you something about it, about your present way of life: you may be young and good-looking and sweet, with a soul, with feelings, but do you know that when I woke just now, it immediately made me sick to be here with you! A man can come here only when he’s drunk.” Part II, Chap. VII, p. 98

“Why I would sell the whole world for a single kopek, just so that nobody would bother me. Should the world go to hell, or should I go without my tea now? I’ll say let the world go to hell so long as I can have my tea whenever I want it.”

Part II, Chap. IX, p. 122

“And what happened was this: Liza, insulted and humiliated by me, understood much more than I had imagined. She understood out of all this what a woman, if she loves sincerely, will always understand before all else. She understood that I myself was unhappy.” Part II, Chap. IX, p. 123

“I know, I will be told that this is incredible – that it’s impossible to be as vicious and stupid as I was; people may even add that it would be impossible not to return, or at least to appreciate her love. But why impossible? To begin with, I was by then incapable of loving because, I repeat, to me loving meant tyrannizing and flaunting my moral superiority.” Part II, Chap. X, p. 125

“Many memories distress me now, but . . . shouldn’t I perhaps conclude my Notes at this point? It seems to me that it was a mistake to start them. At any rate, I have felt ashamed throughout the writing of this narrative: hence, this is no longer literature, but corrective punishment.”

Part II, Chap. X, p. 129

“This, in truth, is not yet the end of the ‘Notes’ of this paradoxalist. He could not keep his resolve and went on writing. But it seems to us, too, that we may well stop here.” Part II, Chap. X, p. 130