A timely re-issue of the Notes with an Introduction that is a lively and informative invitation to engage with Dostoevsky's text.--Raymond Boisvert, Department of Philosophy, Siena College
Notes from the Undergroundby Fyodor Dostoevsky
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By the time Dostoevsky was 40, he had spent four years in prison and a further four years in the army as punishment for his part in a political conspiracy. His health was broken. He was gaunt, fervid, anxiety-ridden and close to bankruptcy. It was in this state he wrote NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, a masterpiece of the psychology of the outsider. The book relates the experiences of a singular young man who spurns the rule of God and man. The problem he faces is that of all nihilists, which is to deny authority while simultaneously explaining order.
Read an ExcerptNotes from the Underground
By Fyodor Dostoevsky Wildside Press
Copyright © 2003 Fyodor Dostoevsky
All right reserved.
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. I am not
in treatment and never have been, although I respect both medicine
and doctors. Besides, I am superstitious in the extreme; well, at
least to the extent of respecting medicine. (I am sufficiently
educated not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, sir, I refuse to see
a doctor simply out of spite. Now, that is something that you
probably will fail to understand. Well, I understand it. Naturally, I
will not be able to explain to you precisely whom I will injure in
this instance by my spite. I know perfectly well that I am certainly
not giving the doctors a "dirty deal" by not seeking treatment. I
know better than anyone that I will only harm myself by this, and no
one else. And yet, if I don't seek a cure, it is out of spite. My
liver hurts? Good, let it hurt still more!
I have been living like this for a long time-about twenty years. Now
I am forty. I used to be in the civil service; today I am not. I was
a mean official. I was rude, and found pleasure in it. After all, I
took no bribes,and so I had to recompense myself at least by this.
(A poor joke, but I will not cross it out. I wrote it, thinking it
would be extremely witty; but now I see that it was only a vile
little attempt at showing off, and just for that I'll let it stand!)
When petitioners came to my desk seeking information, I gnashed my
teeth at them, and gloated insatiably whenever I succeeded in
distressing them. I almost always succeeded. Most of them were timid
folk: naturally-petitioners. But there were also some fops, and among
these I particularly detested a certain officer. He absolutely
refused to submit and clattered revoltingly with his sword. I battled
him over that sword for a year and a half. And finally I got the best
of him. He stopped clattering. This, however, happened long ago, when
I was still a young man. But do you know, gentlemen, what was the
main thing about my spite? Why, the whole point, the vilest part of
it, was that I was constantly and shamefully aware, even at moments
of the most violent spleen, that I was not at all a spiteful, no, not
even an embittered, man. That I was merely frightening sparrows to no
purpose, diverting myself. I might be foaming at the mouth, but bring
me a doll, give me some tea, with a bit of sugar, and I'd most likely
calm down. Indeed, I would be deeply touched, my very heart would
melt, though later I'd surely gnash my teeth at myself and suffer
from insomnia for months. That's how it is with me.
I lied just now when I said that I had been a mean official. I lied
out of sheer spite. I was merely fooling around, both with the
petitioners and with the officer, but in reality I could never have
become malicious. I was aware at every moment of many, many
altogether contrary elements. I felt them swarming inside me, those
contrary elements. I knew that they had swarmed inside me all my
life, begging to be let out, but I never, never allowed them to come
out, just for spite. They tormented me to the point of shame, they
drove me to convulsions-I was so sick and tired of them in the end.
Sick and tired! But perhaps you think, dear sirs, that I am now
repenting of something before you, asking your forgiveness for
something? . . . Indeed, I am quite certain that you think so. But
then, I assure you it doesn't make the slightest difference to me if
you do. . . .
I could not become malicious. In fact, I could not become anything:
neither bad nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither
a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner,
taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that
an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything; that only a fool
can become something. Yes, sir, an intelligent nineteenth-century man
must be, is morally bound to be, an essentially characterless
creature; and a man of character, a man of action-an essentially
limited creature. This is my conviction at the age of forty. I am
forty now, and forty years-why, it is all of a lifetime, it is the
deepest old age. 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. .
You might be imagining, gentlemen, that I am trying to amuse you, to
make you laugh? Wrong again. I am not at all the jolly character you
think I am, or may perhaps think I am. But then, if, irritated by all
this prattle (and I feel it already, I feel you are irritated),
you'll take it into your heads to ask me what I am, I'll answer you:
I am a certain collegiate assessor. I worked in order to eat (but
solely for that reason), and when a distant relation left me six
thousand rubles in his will last year, I immediately retired and
settled down in my corner. I had lived here previously as well, but
now I've settled down in this corner. My room is dismal, squalid, at
the very edge of town. My servant is a peasant woman, old, stupid,
vicious out of stupidity, and she always has a foul smell about her
I am told that the Petersburg climate is becoming bad for me, that
with my niggling means it's too expensive to live in Petersburg. I
know all that, I know it better than all those wise, experienced
counselors and head-shakers. But I stay on in Petersburg; I shall not
leave Petersburg! I shall not leave because. . . . Ah, but what
difference does it make whether I leave or don't leave.
To go on, however-what can a decent man talk about with the greatest pleasure?
Answer: about himself.
Well, then, I too shall talk about myself.
Excerpted from Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky Copyright © 2003 by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Excerpted by permission.
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Charles Guignon is Professor of Philosophy, University of South Florida.
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As a freshman in high school and having a deep, deep admiration of literature, I fear I do not have much good to say about this novella. I was expecting some form of plot from FyodorDostoevsky, and was a bit pleased towards the end to see it begin to take form, but for the most part was displeased. I am glad, that I did finish all 95 pages and am able to say that I did read a book by Dostoevsky.