Ben's Reviews > Notes From Underground

Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Mar 04, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2009, good-fiction, philosophy, darkness, funny-shit, memorable-characters
Read in March, 2009

More than anything, this book should make you think. And not about trivial shit either, but about big, important conditions of life and how best to view and react to them. I have "should" italicized in that first sentence for a reason: If you don't give yourself time to think -- if just skim through the book quickly -- then you won't get anything out of it.

It's narrated by a guy living underground, in poverty. You are reading his notes. The first half, his ramblings, thoughts and philosophies of life, via monologue. The second half, humiliating stories from when he was 24 (he is now 40). He is a fascinating character. A paranoid, ridiculous, introspective, analytical, abrasive, laughable, vengeful, antisocial, extreme, hypersensitive, pathological, delicate, hilarious, bottom-dwelling, pathetic, indecisive, crazy, loner of a man. He is an educated and intelligent man.

Both his thoughts and actions are paradoxical. He is emotionally tough, then emotionally sensitive and fragile. He stands for great unequivocal moral virtue, then cowers further in his morally rotten state. At one moment he has what seems to be great conviction and inner strength. At the next moment, wavering doubt and uncertainty. He is an individual, unaffected by people, choosing to live by himself -- He is hypersensitive to what others think, to the point of being paranoid. He lives in great poverty; he has manic spurts, dreams, and visions of megalomania. You want to feel sorry for him, because he's pitiful and full of pain. You want to hate him, because he is hateful and a burden on humanity. He is a contrarian against everything, even himself.

As previously mentioned, the beauty of this novel comes from the many various thoughts it can give birth to. It doesn't offer any easy answers or an obvious paradigm. There are no gifts in this book. New thoughts must be earned, but the opportunities are plenty. Below I’ve listed out some of the random-ass thoughts I had while reading, just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Those of you who read the book will probably disagree with some of them, and trust me, I don’t claim to be good with literary analysis, so you could probably convince me against some… after all they’re just thoughts. And don’t feel like you need to read them; maybe one or two to get the main thinkin’ point:


- The narrator is an angry man with strongly violent speech, reveries, and threats. Yet we never see him act in violence. Is he, or is he not, physically dangerous?

- What a shame it is that someone who has the capability of making great impact -- such as this man -- ends up being so insignificant. If anything, the world would be a better place without this guy. He uses his intelligence and intuition in all the wrong ways, bringing others down, including himself (or often, just himself) through his actions.

- Our underground man wavered too much. He had trouble making up his mind and once having made a decision, he'd change it. In regards to making difficult decisions, Yogi Berra once said, "When you come to the fork in the road, take it!" Sometimes, most -- or even all -- of the options available are better than not taking any, or changing your mind midway through. Our narrator even wavered or made stupid decisions when faced with simple situations – common sense scenarios that 99% of the population would respond to in a better fashion than the ridiculous, silly ways that he did. How can such a smart man be such a poor decision maker?

- I wonder how successful would he would be if his chemical imbalance where fixed (I guess it would have to be through pills) and he saw a good shrink. I wonder how much of his inner turmoil and unhappiness is caused by not being chemically stable. I wonder how much of his pathological condition is “fixable".

- He seems to be incapable of love, and even says so. Yet, he shows dashes of deep understanding of it, and so you think he can't be right about that (himself not being able to love)… but, wouldn't he know? Is he bullshitting? Maybe he’s serious, but just wrong about himself: perhaps he's capable of love but hasn’t yet, perhaps because nobody has ever loved him. He seems to want to love at times, but then he'll completely shun it: glorifying it at one moment and then spitting upon it the next. Could he have opened his heart to the innocent whore that he meets? Given their compliments in character, could they have provided one another with support, understanding, and love, had he just given it a chance? Or, perhaps he doesn't need those things -- ultimately he retreats from such opportunities and returns to his spite. Are things like support, human understanding, and love things that we all need? Maybe if he would just open up once, he would get the love he needs and change into a much better person in all aspects of his life.

- At one point in the book, our narrator states, "she is the cause of it all." Perhaps this one quote sums up a large portion of his problem: Instead of taking life by the horns and making the most of it, he's bitter and blames other people for his problems. He needs to take charge of the things he can control, instead of freezing himself with contempt.

- In the second half of the book the narrator seems to be completely honest about his ridiculous past actions, and his various shortcomings. There's something to be said for that kind of honesty. It goes hand-in-hand with his anti-social, anti-establishment persona. He doesn't feel a need to present himself as more acceptable to society than he really is (which is to say, not at all). I like this about him.

- If the narrator didn’t live in such poverty, could he gave gotten himself out of his figurative hole? If he had the basic necessities, would he have then had the level of conformability needed to start improving himself? If so, would he he then chose to improve himself?

- He states, “the most intense pleasures occur in despair” Is he actually enjoying his situation? Oh man, there are just so many ways to look at that…. That sentence alone describes the paradox of this book in so many ways. Go ahead, think about it some..
- This guy is a great example of how common sense and emotional stability are often more important than IQ. But he would probably make a semi-strong argument to the contrary.

- The stories of his foolishness (part 2 of the novel) took place 16 years before his writing about them. Was he wiser at the time of writing than he was when the actions took place? He articulates some recognition of shame and regret. Does he still behave ridiculously? We don’t have a strong idea of what his philosophies were 16 years ago (during part 2), and we don't know what his behavior was like at the time part 1 was written (at his "current" age of 40).

- "Real life oppressed me with its novel so much that I could hardly breathe.” Is his problem that he’s too introspective? Is his heavily introspective nature a reason he's such a mess? Perhaps his problem is that he's just too analytical, too much of a thinker, too caught inside his own head. Perhaps he's not in touch with his feelings enough, and that by avoiding them, when they inevitably come out (to live is to feel), they are so foreign to him that he doesn't know how to deal with them.

- He is known as a great anti-hero. Perhaps one can learn how to live by not being like this guy. But he does have some positive qualities: he's introspective, and prone to the kind of independent, critical analysis that leads to innovation. A great hero wouldn’t necessarily be the opposite of this guy… or would he? And what constitutes a "hero" anyway?


And so you see, after reading this, I feel a bit like the narrator: conflicting, contrary and paradoxical thoughts running in different directions, often without conclusions. It's frustrating, but there's an energizing element to taking on such thoughts. These listed contemplations probably differ from yours, but that's part of what makes this novel of paradox so good. Despite it being short, it's the kind of book I could read over and over again and still find it thought provoking and satisfying each time.

Society is persistent about filling our brains with the largely mindless: celebrity gossip, mtv, the newest trends, sitcoms, etc. -- hell just look around, examples are everywhere. Good books can bring us to our thinking place, which puts us in an opposite state. Getting to the thinking place, and staying there for a while, is not easy. It takes effort, but it's rewarding. The thinking place is were we grow as individuals and as a society.

This book can take you to your thinking place.

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Reading Progress

02/04 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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message 1: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Yes, I still have your copy of Crime and Punishment - and you still have my copies of Lucifer Principle, Holographic Universe, and Borat, I presume?


message 2: by Ben (last edited Feb 15, 2009 07:14PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Yes, yes, and yes. Plus another movie and a sorry ass book I'll be happy to return. : )


message 3: by Natalie (new)

Natalie What?! Which ones?


message 4: by Ben (last edited Feb 15, 2009 07:16PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Oh yes, and I only want to return the sorry-ass book; nothing else, because I haven't read any of the other books, and haven't watched either of the movies.


message 5: by Natalie (new)

Natalie What sorry-ass book? I own nothing of the sort.


message 6: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Just the one I read, which you didn't mention. I'm making you guess. If you want to do some research just look in my 2009 folder - it'll jump out at ya with it's one star.


message 7: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Oh, whatever. What was so wrong with it?


message 8: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben It's typical Natalie Conspiracy Theory bunk, that's what. Just read what I wrote about it...


message 9: by Natalie (new)

Natalie You're acting like I wrote the damned book :P


message 10: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben No worries, I like how we have different opinions on a host of topics.. makes hanging with ya more interesting.


message 11: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Well, as I recall, you wanted a "list" type of book - that's not the Disinfo book I would have personally started you out on. Their in-depth articles are much more satisfying and frightening. The "third shooter" Columbine story made my skin crawl.


message 12: by Noran (new)

Noran Miss Pumkin This is a book I keep with me always--I keep reading the first few pages over and over with delight. This book I so adore!!!


message 13: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben It would be a great book for that; good idea. I found part 1 to be fantastic. It's the pages from that, that I would focus on regularly, as well.


message 14: by Pinky (new)

Pinky Ben wrote, "And so you see, after reading this, I feel a bit like the narrator: conflicting, contrary and paradoxical thoughts running in different directions, often without conclusions."

Sharp review--and I particularly liked the above.


message 15: by Lorraine (new)

Lorraine Very interesting review. I also wondered if poverty wasn't responsible for his pathological eccentricities.


message 16: by Xiaohe (new)

Xiaohe I remember reading the first page..back in high school? And finding it hilarious. This book I would re-read over and over again. So much good stuff in such a little book.


Stephen M Beautiful review Ben. I really enjoyed reading about all your thoughts and conflicting questions. Well done.


message 18: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Thanks so much, Stephen!


Dua'a Behbehani This review was as thought provoking as the book! WOW! Thanks!


Ivory Fantastic review!


message 21: by Ben (last edited May 16, 2013 06:10AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Thanks Dua'a!
Thanks Ivory!


message 22: by Amanuel (new)

Amanuel Tesfaye wonderful review, it inspired me to read it again. Thanks a lot:)


message 23: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Adrian wrote: "People in poverty do not have servants."

You sir, are an unbelievable douche.


message 24: by Ben (last edited Jun 10, 2013 12:29PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben I read this years ago and I don't really care, to be honest. I think you need to get a life.


message 25: by Abeer (new)

Abeer A) I love this review, it certainly is so much better than my own very obvious and non thought provoking one, and I loved all the ideas you derived from it. It makes me want to put more time and effort into my reading. B) about the decision making, this man is very intelligent but intelligence often renders you lost due to its opening your eyes to all the possible consequences, plus, he is impulsive and a self proclaimed coward and a simply tortured person who, admits that he finds pleasure in his own suffering, I think he often self inflicts pain, I don't really understand why but I think his intelligence seems to be more of a burden on him than anything and I think that is generally the fate of intelligent people.


message 26: by Hima (new)

Hima ok


message 27: by Hima (new)

Hima good


Aiden Solid review.


message 29: by Carissa (new)

Carissa Duenas Amazing review. I couldn't have expressed the same thoughts and feelings about this book any better.


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