Notes from the Undergroundis a
quite complicated piece of writing that requires a bit of untangling to find all of Dostoevsky's possible
themes. It's much easier and probably more valuable to the reader if we simply consider the broad
meanings Dostoevsky conveys through his Underground Man.
During Dostoevsky's lifetime, the rational philosophies of naturalism and scientism swept through Europe
and Russia. These ideas appeared most specifically in Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?
, which advances a kind of socialist utopianism that Dostoevsky, though at one time he embraced, absolutely
despised. Basically Chernyshevsky advances the notion that man is good, and when governed by reason
and science, he can form an ideal society. The Underground Man, however, disagrees with the idea
that he is simply a piece of material confined to act only according to the laws of rationalism.
Dostoevsky held that man is irrational and even evil by nature, that he isn't predetermined to act in
In many ways, Dostoevsky
advances a kind of existentialism throughout Notes from the Underground. The Underground
Man strongly attacks any notions of central planning as he throws rocks at the Crystal Palace of Chernyshevsky
and others. Because our choices mean something, we have meaning too, Dostoevsky argues.
Though the decisions we make may be irrational, and even wrong, they are still decisions of our conscious
free will. This free will, Dostoevsky maintains, is the most advantageous advantage, for this
separates man from the beasts, making him truly human, not just a piano key or an organ stop.
The necessary drawback to this free
will, however, is the suffering that must indelibly accompany it. Yet to Dostoevsky, certain things
are gained through such suffering that cannot be gained without it. Truth, for one, Dostoevsky
suggests can only be a result of a kind of extensive physical and mental torture. The ultimate
example of such beneficial suffering, such selfless love, however, is the crucifixion of Christ, who
of course heaped a limitless benefit on mankind by sacrificing himself. Christianity, to Dostoevsky,
defied reason: it wasn't reasonable for Christ to die on the cross, yet His death was the most "beautiful
and sublime" thing imaginable. Though the Underground Man, as confused, alienated and alone as
he is, certainly doesn't know what is to be done, Dostoevsky explains (in a later chapter of the book
that the editors deleted) that his only answer is in Christian mysticism, not rationalism or scientism.