I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. So opens the first part of "Notes from Underground," in which the narrator describes his character and psychological states. He is a low ranking public official, 40 years old, who lives alone in a small room. When he received a small inheritance, he immediately quit his job and now spends his time ruminating about who he is and what his life means.

This narrator does not simply accept the laws of nature. He dislikes "the fact that two and two makes four." He realizes that he cannot break down the wall of nature "by battering my head against it," but nonetheless "I am not going to resign myself to it simply because it is a stone wall and I am not strong enough." (p. 12) He is proud of never having begun or finished anything. (p. 17) In fact, "what man needs is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead." (p. 23)

The narrator is "underground" because he has chosen not to participate, not to accomplish, not to interact, not even to justify his non-participation in "ordinary" life. Yet, he is bored, and so he chooses to occupy himself by writing these notes.

The second part is less rumination and more narrative, as the protagonist describes some seminal events in his life. When he was a young clerk, he was a loner with no friends. One day he decided to visit Simonov, an old school acquaintance, who happened at the time to be planning a dinner with some friends to honor another friend, Zverkov, who had done well in the military. The protagonist awkwardly invited himself to this dinner, despite having no money to pay for it, and later, after being thoroughly obnoxious and insulting his hosts, he followed them to a brothel, where he encountered a whore named Liza and conned her into thinking that he cared for her.

When she appeared at his apartment a few days later, he angrily told her that the "fine sentiments" were all false: "I was laughing at you!" When Liza then ran away, the narrator became agitated and tried to follow, but quickly dropped the idea. "Would I not begin to hate her, perhaps even tomorrow, just because I had kissed her feet today? Would I give her happiness? Had I not recognized that day, for the hundredth time, what I was worth?" (p. 113) At this point he breaks off, saying that he chooses not to write any further notes form underground.


After many years in prison and Siberian exile, Dostoevsky began to publish again in the early 1860s. This short novel was first published in 1864 in The Epoch, a magazine edited by Dostoevsky, which lasted only a couple of years. The author intended it as a critique or parody of "What Is to Be Done?" (1863), a utopian novel by Nikolay Chernyshevsky that had achieved great popularity among Russian intellectuals. (The edition of "Notes from Underground" cited in this annotation contains a representative selection from "What Is to Be Done?")

Dostoevsky's narrator attacks the optimistic view that a utopian society will be possible once the scientific laws of psychology, human behavior, and (consequently) history are understood. The narrator rejects determinism, asserting his freedom to act spitefully, even if he knows that such action is not to his advantage, and to enjoy a toothache, simply because he chooses to do so.

In the second part, the narrator demonstrates the results of irrational, yet willful, behavior; he winds up a despised and lonely "underground" man. Thus, Dostoevsky presents one of the first anti-heroes in literature, a 20th century existential man born before his time.

Dostoevsky's Golyadkin in The Double: Two Versions [see annotation in this database] is psychotic; his self-destructive behavior is a result of illness. However, the "underground" man is perfectly sane; he consciously chooses to act the way he acts, thereby alienating others. But, then again, if the man is sane, why does he begin these "Notes" by claiming, "I am a sick man"?


Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett, with revisions by Ralph E. Matlaw. This edition also contains "The Grand Inquisitor" story from The Brothers Karamazov (1881) and various selections from Dostoevsky and other Russian writers that provide background material for Notes from Underground.

Primary Source

Notes from Underground and the Grand Inquisitor


E. P. Dutton

Place Published

New York




Ralph E. Matlaw

Page Count