One of the earliest polished examples of existential literature, Notes from the Underground follows the life of a recluse and depicts his antagonistic attitude toward society. Written in two parts with a first person narration, the novella explores various themes expressing the misleading notion of rationalism and utopianism, existentialism, alienation and human inaction.
The psychological novel begins with a monologue in which the protagonist introduces and characterizes himself. Referred to as the Underground Man and remaining unidentified throughout, the protagonist portrays himself as a bitter and misanthropic individual living in isolation and distancing himself from fallacious society. He further reveals that he is a Russian civil veteran in his forties whose spite has intoxicated him and led him to his current position of solitude and self-loathing. The monologue allows the protagonist to convey his thoughts, ideas and philosophies on life. Consequently, he sets many philosophical ideas on the table including free will, reason and logic, suffering, and conscious inaction. After explaining and justifying his beliefs, the narrator begins to tell his audience of his experiences as a young man in his twenties, and accordingly signals the beginning of the second part of the book. This section is dedicated to the events that have driven the protagonist into seclusion and illustrates his destructive interaction with various people in the 1840’s, including an officer, old schoolmates, and a prostitute. All interactions seem to be spurred by revenge, humiliation, bitterness and pessimism, which essentially send him to his personal underground. A paradoxical character, simultaneously unique and universal, illogical and philosophical, pitied and honored, the Underground Man is both a reflection of suppressive society and self-punishment.
An influential piece of literature sure to provoke psychological reaction, Notes from the Underground leaves many significant topics open for debate and analysis. The ideologies that the narrator views with much contempt are what make the novel such an enthralling read. Increasing its intensity with every turn of the page, the powerful novella remains an essential for anyone with a critical eye to the requisites of society.