Book Review: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This was my first Dostoevsky ever! I adore his writing and laughed out loud several times (“haha I do that!”). Darkly funny, strangely introspective and painfully relatable. As bitter and pathetic as the underground man undeniably is, it’s startling how many similarities we share (which honestly is now making me question whether that means I’m bitter and pathetic… hm)

It is fascinating that despite being a clear caricatural figure, something about the underground man still feels undeniably ‘real’ to me. Perhaps it is from the recognition that his flaws, though comically magnified, are mine; the underground man gives a physical form to the unconscious weak spots in my morality, highlighting and exacerbating them to an almost pathological level. All his existential angst, spite, and bitterness with the state of the world are only amplified echoes of every human’s weaknesses. Caricatures are effective at striking chords because they are reflections of humanity – distorted reflections, much like those in a funhouse mirror, but reflections just the same. His depravity and narcissism are exaggerated just enough to be satirical, but also seem uncomfortably probable, bringing up insecurities and doubts about your own character that you may not want to be too conscious of. He exists in everyone, at least to a certain extent.

His writings are the result of consciousness reflecting in on itself – this is seen most clearly in the fact that although the underground man is the one telling his story in first person, he is not the only narrator. The writing is fragmented into multiple perspectives with the effect of creating a disorienting, chaotic narrative that scrambles the architecture of plot and temporality in the novel. Many times, the underground man addresses the reader directly, making them an involuntary narrator in the work by crafting imaginary responses for them.

He demonstrates himself to be an unreliable narrator within the first few pages of the book, overtly admitting to lying to his reader: “I lied about myself just now when I said I was a wicked official. I lied out of wickedness”. His account of events is structured around the imaginary voices of his audience, which can range from being cynical and pragmatic to sarcastic and cruel. In turn, his responses are both defensive and strangely venerable in tone: he is asking to be understood, to be vindicated. The fact that he is unstable and antithetical to an extreme is a form of caricature, yet it makes his character seem more realistic. It reminds you that reality itself is the product of subjective interpretation, and the fragmentary, multifaceted rhetoric in the book accurately mirrors the inconsistent manner in which people remember and relate events in real life.

He is known as the underground man, though he does not actually live underground – rather, the underground is symbolic of his reclusion from society. He writes of a wretched and vengeful mouse, covered in “stinking filth consisting of its dubieties, anxieties, and, finally, the spit raining on it from the ingenuous figures who stand solemnly around it like judges and dictators”. The mouse, insulted and ashamed, retreats to its “loathsome, stinking underground” where it “immerses itself in cold, venomous, and above all, everlasting spite”. This is an allegorical depiction of the underground man’s own experience; like the scorned mouse, he too withdraws from the world into his private little corner, where he festers in his own misery for decades on end. The image of the underground and the reference to the figures spitting on him from above are also symbolic of his imagined sense of inferiority. So debilitating are his insecurity and resentment that his entire identity has been constructed around this idea that he is living underground. Yet his failings make him more of a victim than a villain, more real than comic:

“It is clear to me now that, owing to my unbounded vanity and to the high standard I set for myself, I often looked at myself with furious discontent, which verged on loathing, and so I inwardly attributed the same feeling to everyone.”

Lessons of Existentialism in Literature

Albert Camus coined the term “absurdity” to describe the conflict between man’s search for meaning and the indifference of a universe which has none. This was illustrated in the collection of essays published in The Myth of Sisyphus1, in which he relates the story of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder up a hill. Each day the boulder Sisyphus toils to push the boulder uphill, and each night it rolls back down for him to begin his arduous task again the next morning. Camus compared Sisyphus’ torture with man’s struggle to find meaning in a chaotic, senseless world. To escape the existential despair that accompanies man’s confrontation with the absurd, he suggests that people commit two forms of suicide. They commit physical suicide, because:

“In its way, suicide settles the absurd. It engulfs the absurd in the same death.”

Or they can commit philosophical suicide, suspending reason and performing a “sacrifice of the intellect” by ascribing to religious or spiritual notions of some higher purpose in the world. Camus rejects both types of suicide, noting that they are merely attempts at eluding the problem of the absurd, rather than facing it.

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?

            His argument against suicide is one that may be considered relevant to the field of psychiatry, if we are to pose suicide as an existential problem. He suggests that although it is impossible to find any inherent underlying meaning in the universe, this should not drive one to the conclusion that life is not worth living. Rather, it presents an opportunity for the freedom to create meaning in one’s life that feels authentic and personal to the individual:

If I admit that my freedom has no meaning except in relation to its limited fate, then I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living”. Thus, one should “draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. 

            By remaining fully conscious of the absurd, and by admitting that the only certainty is that life ends in death, we are reminded each moment of the necessity of living a life that is valuable and meaningful to us. Camus further demonstrates how this can add purpose to a life, even when such a life has objectively lost all its value. In his novel The Stranger2, the protagonist Mersault represents an absurd existentialist who undergoes a series of tragic and seemingly random mishaps that lead eventually to him being sentenced to death for murder. At the end of the novel he thinks about his life through an existentialist lens:

What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to “choose” not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people?

By admitting that nothing is known for certain except the inevitability of death, and that death is the ultimate fate of every man on earth, he finds peace in his situation. He realizes that when one makes the most of every day that he is alive for, it makes no difference whether he dies tomorrow or in sixty years. This is an existentialist attitude that means we shouldn’t blame external circumstances for failing to live a meaningful life. No matter what hand one is dealt with in life, life itself is inherently meaningless, and it is up to us to take what we have and create our own meaning in it. By doing so, like Mersault, it is possible to find peace even in the most tragic circumstances.

I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

            Existentialism calls for the living of a life with no rules or barriers, yet this must not be misunderstood to mean that one should live with no moral codes or values. Existentialist attitudes should not be used to excuse violent crimes such as murder, for example. This is shown through the story of Raskolnikov is Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment3. The story follows a destitute college student who kills two innocent lives and spends the rest of the novel being haunted by his own choice. He attempts to provide various explanations for his crime, such as hunger and poverty, even claiming to be a “Napoleon” figure similar to Nietzche’s ubermensch4, who is superior to other people and does not need to follow the same laws and morals as everyone else. In the end, however, such justifications ring hollow because as we see in the novel, Raskolnikov is not the Napoleon he imagines himself to be; rather he is quite a kind and generous individual who performs many charitable deeds for those in need. Overcome by his own guilt, fear, and paranoia, he eventually confesses to the murders himself and finds peace in his punishment. This tells us that existentialism is not only about living without any rules; it is about making choices that are meaningful to us and accepting the consequences that follow. By failing to stay true to himself and committing those crimes, Raskolnikov has missed the point of existentialism completely, and is made to suffer for it. This novel clearly illustrates that the freedom to live by creating our own meaning is both a choice and a responsibility. 

            Finally, another existential work by Dostoyevsky is his novella Notes from the Underground5, which follows a man who is tortured by his own inability to make sense of his place in the world. He is bitter at the thought of a society that has failed people like him, while at the same time remaining aware that he has the freedom to fight against such a society to make a better world. Rather than being liberated by his belief, however, he feels overwhelmed and burdened by it. He feels like a slave to the world he lives in, encapsulating Sartre’s idea of the anguish of freedom in his work Being and Nothingness6, which states that with the total freedom to live how we want, comes total responsibility:

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

            With these books described above, we can see how existentialism can create an experience that is both liberating and uncomfortable for an individual. It can lead one to find happiness even in the most difficult situations, such as Sisyphus and Mersault; it can lead one to make the wrong choices by not remaining true to themselves, such as the case for Raskolnikov; or it can also lead one to suffer because the responsibility of taking ownership over one’s life and stop blaming external circumstances might be unbearable, like the Underground Man.


  1. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Vintage International, 2018.
  2. Camus, Albert, and Stuart Gilbert. The Stranger. Knopf, 1973.
  3. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and David McDuff. Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics). Revised, Penguin Classics, 2002.
  4. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  5. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground and the Double (Penguin Classics). Penguin Classics, 2009.
  6. Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Richmond. Being and Nothingness. Amsterdam University Press, 2021.