Fyodor Dostoevsky Writing Styles in Notes from the Underground

This Study Guide consists of approximately 34 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Notes from the Underground.
This section contains 1,070 words
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Point of View

The book is written in first person though the "I" is never fully identified. It is a person who has lived beneath the floorboards, listening in on conversations but never participating. This person could be Dostoevsky, though he adds a footnote at the end of his first page advising that the person is actually fictional. Dostoevsky says that the person must exist but as a collection of personalities making up one person—the fictional character of this work. For the sake of continuity, "I" is identified throughout this guide as Dostoevsky.

There are likely to be various places throughout the book that offer up points or themes with which any reader can identify. At one point, Dostoevsky writes that everyone has something from their past that they won't admit to others and some things they won't even admit to themselves. Most people can probably think of some shameful deed in their own past. That means the "I" could actually become the reader in those cases.

It's noteworthy that Dostoevsky writes to an audience and that he's fully aware that he's writing to an audience, though he continues to insist otherwise. He throws out objections that the reader is likely to voice at a particular point on many occasions. Dostoevsky also says that he's going to test the theory that it's impossible for a man to be totally honest about certain facts in his life. He plans to include some piece of personal information that he's never shared before as a test of that theory—a sure sign that he's aware of the reader. Then he says that he writes in this form only because it's the easiest way to write and that he would be doing things differently if he were indeed writing for an audience.


The book is set in Russian, apparently in the later part of the mid-1800s, about the time Dostoevsky wrote the book. The setting is fairly limited, consisting of his own apartment, a restaurant where he and three former classmates have dinner, a brothel where he meets Liza, and the streets in and around those places. There is limited description of any of the places except for details that seem important to the writer's mind—the shabbiness of his couch, for example. There are more details given about other things, such as the worn collar of the writer's coat which he borrows enough money to replace. The facts that his fur collar is worn and his pants have a stain on the knee seem much more important to the writer than descriptions of his surroundings, and that's where his focus seems to lie.

Language and Meaning

There are many significant references and nuances that will likely slip past the average reader simply because the reference point is Dostoevsky's time—the mid 1800s in Russia. When he writes of man's need to tear down what he's built, he refers to "that eternal union" which is actually the Civil War. He also writes of the "Wagenheims", which turna out to be a reference to dentists that advertised in the Petersburg newspapers. There are also references to writers and artists who were either highly regarded or greatly criticized at the time of Dostoevsky's writing. He makes sport of those or uses them to create points in several places. The writings of H.T. Buckle, "The History of Civilization in England" and the painting of "The Lord's Supper" by N.N. Ge are among those. There are others, and some translations of "Notes from the Underground" will include footnotes to help the reader catch those references.

In some cases, the writer rants for extended periods and some readers may find it difficult to keep track of the topic at hand among the ranting. Usually, the writer comes back to the original verse and even sometimes explains what happened. For example, he tells of Liza's reaction to his cruel words in his apartment by explaining that she saw what any woman in love would see—that he was unhappy in his own life, prompting his cruelty to her.

It's important that some things are left to the reader to discern. For example, the writer enters the brothel and meets the girl named Liza. There is no description of the sexual encounter other than his thoughts afterward—that they didn't talk at all, that he is repulsed by the entire affair, and that he didn't know her name until afterward.


The book is divided into two sections, titled simply Part I and Part II. The first is further divided into eleven chapters of varying lengths. The second is divided into ten chapters. Part I is a somewhat rambling account of the writer's thoughts on an array of topics that tend to overlap and recur. He talks of man's free will—or lack thereof—and the reason that people tend to tear things down. In this writer's opinion, it's because man is afraid of accomplishing a final task, thus leaving himself with nothing else to do. Therefore, he starts wars that will tear down what's been built so that there's a need for rebuilding.

The author also talks at length about himself. He says that he's bitter and spiteful and goes on to tell of all the things he does for spite. For example, he says that he's sick but he won't see a doctor-out of spite. He also talks of his intelligence, saying that he's so much more cultivated and learned than others that he's quite embarrassed by the entire issue.

In the second part, the writer relates a story of a farewell dinner for a former classmate. He doesn't like this person overly much but invites himself along to the dinner despite the fact that he knows he's also not particularly welcome. After the dinner, he follows the others to a brothel where he meets a woman who falls in love with him because he seems to take an interest in her, telling her that she should take herself out of her current situation.

The writer insists that he's never intending for anyone else to read the words he writes, but he does write to an audience. He says that's simply a literary device that works well for him. For example, he makes statements and then poses a question that a reader would likely ask.

This section contains 1,070 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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