The Underground

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The Underground is a central theme found throughout Dostoyevsky’s works that explore a type of person he thought must exist within the conditions of the society he saw developing in Russia in the 19th century.[1] He would go on refer to this kind of person as his ‘Underground type’. While the underground is alluded to in the way the underground type sees their physical surroundings such as cramped and dark spaces, it is primarily describing a spiritual or conceptual space they inhabit.[2]

Dostoyevsky described the cause of the underground to be “due to the destruction in certain general principles, leaving nothing as sacred”.[3] Dostoyevsky believed that these principles began to erode with the introduction of western philosophical thought in Russia during the 19th century such as Nihilism and Utopian Socialism.

The Underground is generally conceived as representing skepticism, disbelief, irrationality, moral flaccidity, resentment, and alienation.[2] These are particularly exemplified in Notes from Underground but can be seen developed further in other examples of underground types throughout his work such as Svidrigailov’s nihilism in Crime and Punishment, and Ivan Karamazov’s skepticism in Brothers Karamazov.


In 1846 Dostoyevsky published his second work The Double which he referred to as his “major underground type”[4]. The book was received negatively, even by Dostoyevsky himself who referred to it as an artistic failure. Despite the negative reception, Dostoyevsky would write in his Writers diary 31 years later that “(he) never introduced a more serious (idea) into literature”.[4] Dostoyevsky proceeded with an attempt to rewrite the novel but ceased following the publication of his Notes from Underground which expanded upon the idea for the underground originally developed in The Double. Dostoyevsky began furthering the development of the idea throughout his later works, most notably in Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov.



In Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, this freedom plays a role in counteracting the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which the Underground Man disdains. To the underground type, beliefs that flatten individual expression are seen as a cause of their misfortune. Utilitarianism argues that we can come to know what is morally righteous if it derives from happiness or pleasure.[5] In notes from Underground, the underground man exemplifies a character that contradicts this notion by finding joy or pleasure in suffering and pain.

"Next you'll be finding pleasure in a tooth-ache!" you will exclaim, laughing. 'And why not? There is also pleasure in a toothache,' I will answer."[6]

This assertion highlights that what is pleasurable or derives happiness are not collective and stagnant values but are individualistic, and that a society cannot be predicated on them. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov in his prose poem "The Grand Inquisitor" also expressed a disdain against those he sees rob one of their freedom. In his poem, he suggests that Christ exemplified freedom by rejecting the devils three temptations. The church however has seen this freedom as a cause of human suffering, and has sought to put an end to this freedom.

"He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy."[7]

This elucidates Ivan's conceptualization of the role of the church and his disdain for it as an institution. He paints a picture of the church as one that robs one of freedom much in the same way the Underground Man sees that Utilitarianism does.

  1. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (2009). Wilks, Ronald (ed.). Notes from Underground & The Double. Penguin Classics. p. 344. ISBN 0140455124.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ivantsov, Vladimir (July 2018). "Digging into Dostoyevski's Underground: From the Metaphorical to the Literal". Slavic and East European Journal. 62: 382.
  3. Harrison, Lonny (2016). Archtypes from Underground: Notes on the Dostoevskian Self. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. p. 73. ISBN 1-77112-204-8.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Notebooks from 1872-1875, (pp. 252-73) p. 264.
  5. Mill, John (2014). Utilitarianism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 9–10. ISBN 9781139923927. |first2= missing |last2= (help)
  6. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (2004). Notes from Underground. Translated by Peaver, Richard; Larissa, Volokhonsky. Everyman's Library. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-4000-4191-6.
  7. Dostoyevsky, F. (2009, February 12). The Project Gutenberg eBook of the brothers Karamazov Book V, Chapter V., The Grand Inquisitor, Paragraph 12 by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from