My Thoughts on ‘Notes from the Underground’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky [Book Review]

As I’ve mentioned previously in my post about the books I’ve read so far at uni, ‘Notes from the Underground’ has been my favourite book this academic year and so I thought I would write a post explaining why. I want to draw attention to all the small sections and lines that really stood out to me because I feel like there are some parts that may be overlooked, but also because these parts are what makes the novel important to me, and actually not just my favourite novel I’ve read at uni but in general too.

As a whole, Dostoevsky’s novel doesn’t really have a plot. Particularly in the first section it shows more of a rambling mind rather than talking characters and the mind’s thoughts on life and philosophy and everything in between. It’s written from the point of view of a forty year old man, and yet somehow I felt a lot of it pretty relatable. For me, it just encapsulated a mind that knows the way the world fools you and a mind that has suffered enough to understand how things work in real life. It just made me think a lot. And I love a book that makes me stop and read a sentence again and reread it again and just want to underline it because it means something. I’m sure a lot of you have had that feeling when you feel like a book has explained something you’ve felt in words you could never have strung together yourself.

I can’t remember who said it, or where I found it, but a month or so ago I heard a phrase along the lines of ‘we seem to like books that we see ourselves in’ and I just find it so completely true. If you ask someone what their favourite book is, it probably tells you a lot about them as a person. We read as a form of escapism and yet we also have this inner desire to read in order to find someone who understand us, and when you find that it’s honestly the best feeling. This book gave me this feeling multiple times and I think that’s why I loved it so much. There’s a lot I could say about it and hence why I’m here sharing it with you all!

[ I was ever aware of the great number of completely conflicting elements within me. I felt that they were literally swarming around inside me, these conflicting elements. I knew they had been swarming inside me all my life and that they were begging to be released, but I would not let them out, I wouldn’t, I deliberately wouldn’t let them out. ]

This part really stood out to me because the idea of ‘conflicting elements’ is so common when it comes to emotions; we feel one way and then another and sometimes it’s hard to know what we really want. It’s this sense of anxiousness that is perhaps rooted within some of us and it builds up and up and it swarms you and yet there is a part of you that can’t let it go – it becomes you, in a way, and you’re scared of what you’d be without it.

[ I’ve never really been able to be anything; neither spiteful nor good, neither a villain nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. ]

The idea of not feeling enough but also not feeling the worst is something that I’m sure a lot of people have felt. It’s as if there’s a stage of being neutral where you don’t really fit anywhere and you’re unsure if your own mind is capable of reaching any of these limits. But then, is it even possible to reach these limits? I guess that’s a whole other thing to debate!

[ … that you’ve no way out, that you’ll never change yourself into another person; that even if you still had enough time and the faith to change yourself into someone else, you probably wouldn’t want to change yourself; and that if you did want to you would still do nothing because in the end there’s maybe nothing to change yourself into. ]

I just love this sentence because it really sums up the act of changing as a person without glamourising it. When we think about changing, it’s ultimately a positive thing. People set goals and aim to achieve them. It’s all portrayed very simply. And yet here Dostoevsky abandons all that and just says the truth, because honestly changing yourself is so much harder than just setting goals and following them. No matter how much you try and change, you’ll ultimately be the same person, and in a way there’s no escaping the deep roots of your personality. Small changes can be made in your life but not to you, the real you. I guess he also portrays the fear of never being able to overcome the most difficult parts of yourself – the parts you hate and suffer from. There’s nothing to change into and sometimes that’s scary – that you as you are right now could be, in some way, finalised.

[ … grit your teeth silently and impotently and sink, voluptously, into inertia, dreaming about how you haven’t even got anyone to be angry against … no one knows who, no one knows what, but despite all these uncertainties and illusions you are still in pain, and the more it is unknown to you the more you ache! ]

This one is probably my favourite passage because I guess it is the most relatable to me. It tackles the notion of being hurt and angry but not knowing why, having no one or no something to blame it on because it’s not really anyone’s fault (or at least not directly). This is a feeling that I get quite often where I just seem to ache or feel angry over nothing. It sums up what mental pain really is – something that makes no sense rationally and yet it feels so real to you. And you want an answer to it so you think up all the ways that could have lead you here and it only makes it worse – ‘the more it is unknown to you the more you ache’ because you feel like maybe it’s not worthy enough of a feeling to be considered, because how would you explain its cause?

[ … he is instinctively afraid of achieving his aim and completing the building he is erecting? How do you know? – maybe he only likes the building from a distance and not in the least nearby; perhaps he only likes building it and not living in it ]

Ahh I love the last part of this quote so much – the way it is written and what it expresses. Dostoevsky portrays the idea of motivation and working towards a goal and yet how once the end is achieved, it’s no longer really desirable. I suppose this is because we’re always striving towards a purpose. We set our whole life out to do something and then when it’s completed we ask ourselves: what’s next? I find this relatable at this moment in time because I feel like this with university. I’ve worked my whole life to get into university and now that I’m here it just feels strange. After university there are no grades to strive towards; it’s somewhat just a steady working timeline. It scares me a bit because sometimes I wonder how I will motivate myself without a set goal. What if purpose dies and I don’t like living in the outcome? So many buildings look pretty on the outside but no one really lives inside.

[ In every man’s memory there are things which he does not divulge to everyone, but really only to friends. And there are those things which he doesn’t even divulge to friends, but really only to himself, and then as a secret. And , finally, there are those which a man is afraid to divulge even to himself … ]

I’m sure this one is wholly relatable – we all have thoughts we share with others and keep to ourselves. But I love the line about how there are some things that we won’t even share with ourselves out of fear; the idea that maybe there are some things we refuse to accept or allow ourselves to feel because we’re afraid of the outcome. If all of us completely opened up to the world, how different would we all be?

[ is it really possible to be absolutely open with oneself and not be frightened of the whole truth? ]

This is a quote I used in my coursework because it’s something that I find really interesting – the idea that there are parts of our brain that are unreachable – and it ties in well with theories by Freud. It’s also scary, in a way, to think that we can’t access parts of ourselves, considering we think we know ourselves the best. If we knew ourselves completely, would we even like it? Would we even be able to cope?

[ I very often looked on myself with a violent dissatisfaction … and therefore I mentally attributed my own outlook to others. ]

I think this quote is quite important. By no means can this be used as an excuse, but it’s important to remember that sometimes when people are hard on you, it’s only because they’re hard on themselves. If you’re the most positive person I’m sure you wouldn’t affect someone in this way. Sometimes people are unkind because of their suffering and whilst it’s not okay, it’s a way to remind yourself that you’re not worthy of those words and to remind them that they’re not worthy of them either.

[ no one else was like me, nor was I like anyone else, ‘I am alone, and they are everybody‘, I thought ]

This is something that at our lowest points is an easy thing to arise to. We try to make connections and sometimes it’s hard when you feel like no else understands you. Whilst not being like anyone else can be a good thing because we are all unique individuals, Dostoevsky portrays these feelings in a more realistic and raw state and I love how honest these feelings are.

So this post turned out to be a lot longer than I intended, but I really did mean it when I said I had a lot to say about this book! I’m sure most of you won’t have read the entirety of this, but I just wanted to document my thoughts on it somewhere. And if it does spark anyone’s interest to read the book then that’s a great bonus. Thanks for reading 🙂

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