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Free Study Guide for Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
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Author Information

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky is one of the greatest Russian authors of all time. The second of seven children, he was born on October 30, 1821, in Moscow. Although his father belonged to the nobility, he worked as a military doctor in a public hospital. His background caused him to be a strict disciplinarian, but his wife was kind and forgiving. Dostoevsky attended an army school in St. Petersburg. Although he enjoyed reading, he found the regimen of school to be dull and boring.

While Dostoevsky was a student, his father was killed by the men who worked for him on his estate. The murder of a parent at a young age caused Dostoevsky to become preoccupied with death, and when he began to write, murder and death were often the topics of his stories and books.

After completing his studies, Dostoevsky served for two years in the army. When he left the military in 1844, he devoted himself to reading and writing. His first novel, Poor Folk, was published in 1846 and became popular with both the public and the critics. Although Dostoevsky continued to write fiction, he also devoted himself to writing and publishing political articles that called for reform of the Russian government. His publications, which were illegal, were considered revolutionary; as a result, he was arrested and imprisoned for libel in 1848. At his trial, he was condemned to death by a firing squad. After he was blindfolded and seconds before the shots were to be fired to end his life, Dostoevsky's sentence was reduced by the Czar. In turn, he was sent to prison in Siberia, where he spent four years. During his time in prison, he grew sickly and suffered from epileptic seizures. As a result, he developed a new philosophy of life: suffering is necessary and can help heal a person's soul. Dostoevsky also adopted the belief that the Russian people were the ones who were going to save the world from its pain and misery.

After being released from prison, Dostoevsky was forced to join the army again and served for four years. He also married a young widow, Marie Isaeva, and continued to write. In 1859, he published The Friend of the Family, and two years later, he published Memoirs from the House of the Dead, which told of his life in prison. The Insulted and the Injured was published in 1862. In 1864, he published Notes from Underground, his first book that was devoted to his philosophy of gaining salvation through suffering. In 1866, he published Crime and Punishment, which contains his theory of suffering, as well as intense psychological characterizations; the book became his first masterpiece. In spite of his literary success, the 1860s were a hard time for Dostoevsky. He suffered from many physical ailments and financial problems. In addition, his first wife died.

Dostoevsky fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, who helped him to write Gambler. After he married her, he decided to travel in Europe, hoping to avoid his creditors and to find enough peace of mind to continue writing fiction. Although he wrote The Idiot while in Europe in 1868 and 1869, he also took up gambling and became deeper in debt. Hoping to write his way out of his problems, Dostoevsky published several books over the next ten years. The Eternal Husband appeared in 1870. Two years later, The Possessed was released.

After returning to Russia, Dostoevsky continued to write. A Raw Youth appeared in 1875, and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man was released in 1877. The Brother Karamazov, has last novel and greatest masterpiece, was published in 1880. Dostoevsky died shortly after its publication, on January 28, 1881.


Notes from Underground, which is somewhat autobiographical, is Dostoevsky's first attempt to capture his theory of suffering in a piece of fiction. The narrator, known as the underground man, suffers a life of complete isolation and alienation in St. Petersburg, Russia. Dostoevsky admits that his protagonist is a "deliberate collection of all the traits for an antihero." Since he cannot feel any attachment to the outside world, the underground man becomes self-destructive and learns to take pleasure in his misery, which is the only thing that helps him to feel alive.

As a literary tool, the narrator of the book addresses himself to an imaginary audience. He involves them from the first pages of the book by speaking to them directly, anticipating their reactions, preempting their judgements, and denying them the comfortable role of mere spectators. He asks them important questions about life, telling them they must help him to find the answers. The questions are about self-knowledge and self-definition, the loneliness of urban man, and the nature of happiness, all of which the narrator addresses and tries to answer in the course of the book. As a result, the novel becomes meaningful to students of philosophy, psychology, and political history.

The book is set in Dostoevsky's time and country; it takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia in the nineteenth century. Familiar with impersonal life in a big city in Russia, Dostoevsky writes about its darker side, with its rampant poverty, empty routines, lack of relationships, and absence of natural things. It is not surprising that the only salvation here comes from deep suffering, which the narrator endures throughout the book.

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