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Free Study Guide for Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CHAPTER 7

Summary

The underground man rejects the notion that an enlightened, educated man will automatically be drawn towards what is good because it is advantageous to him and society. He believes that intelligent people usually move toward difficult, sometimes harmful, situations because they hold self-will dearer than they do virtue and reason and believe that there can be pleasure in pain. The narrator believes, however, that the present age argues against self-will, believing that man's actions are governed by the laws of nature, making them scientifically calculable and predictable. The narrator does not ascribe to the scientific theories of the day and does not believe that man acts according to science and reason. He feels man should be free to act in whatever way he desires, whether it is advantageous or not.

Notes

Throughout the book, the underground man shifts between personal issues to those that are very general. In this chapter, he shifts to the general and presents incisive psychological insight into the often-contradictory nature of man. He lists several strongly held beliefs about human motivation; then one by one he shows how incorrect they really are. He depicts man as an irrational and self-willed creature who wants to be in charge of his own condition at any price. In choosing what to do, man often acts against his own best interests, following the irrational and difficult path that will cause him pain. The narrator also mocks the deterministic theory that claims that men are reactive creatures, guided only by the laws of nature. He feels that man does not react to the rational and scientific, but follows his own will. In a strange way, the narrator is really celebrating the independent spirit of man. He praises the fact that humans are free to choose their own courses of action, even if their choices are not good or advantageous.


Many critics believe that this chapter was written in direct response to What To Do?, a novel published by Chernyshevsky in 1863. In it the author argues that man is basically good and always rationally searches for the truth, ignoring his own will. He further argues that if man would be guided entirely by scientific notions, a utopian society would exist. In this chapter, Dostoevsky attempts to disprove these idealistic theories and states that mankind is just as prone to evil in modern times as in barbaric times.

CHAPTER 8

Summary

The narrator acknowledges that some people believe that freedom of choice can be reduced to a scientific formula. He, however, argues that a scientific interpretation to everything erases man's desire to do anything. If all of man's actions are dictated by the laws of nature, then man can have no self-will or freedom of choice, and life is reduced to a dull, mechanized existence, a state that would be deplorable. The narrator further argues that the history of mankind proves that he is not simply a rational, predictable creature. Instead, history has shown that men exert their own individualities even if it brings destruction to them.

Notes

This chapter is linked with the preceding one with the thoughts expressed in the latter being discussed further. The narrator, ever conscious of his "imaginary" audience, here addresses them conversationally, anticipating their possible doubts, questions, and responses. Assuming that many in the audience will refute his propositions, he uses rationality and history to prove his points and reinforce what he has been saying. He points out that a scientific society would strip mankind of choice and humanity, destroying individuality and desire. Since man insists upon self-will, he refuses to answer only to the laws of nature; he will even choose to act irrationally, enduring the difficult and chaotic, simply to prove that he is free. By the end of the chapter, the narrator has clearly pictured man as a whimsical, unpredictable creature who ignores scientific law and rationality to exercise his freedom of choice to do what he wants rather than what is good or advantageous to himself or society. As a result, mankind is just as barbaric today as centuries before, rendering a scientific, utopian society an impossibility.

CHAPTER 9

Summary

The underground man does not want his imaginary audience to be passive and listen with detachment. He wants them to be involved in his dilemmas and confusions so they will come up with their own answers to the complex issues of life. He tells them, "I am tormented by questions; answer them for me." He points out, however, that no man can have all the correct answers, for man is not omniscient and his presumptions are often incorrect. He admits that he is writing this book "for my own whim," not to reveal any undeniable truths or present an airtight case for any theory. He does state, however, that he has a need to give vent to his desire to express himself.

The narrator continues with his arguments about the duality of mankind. He believes that man must act on emotion as much as on rationality and common sense. Man needs to set his own goals and be creative, for there is as much good in the creative process as in the end product. Unfortunately, man is often afraid of realizing his goals; as a result, he turns the creative process into chaos and destruction. The narrator contends, however, that the suffering that man endures is advantageous, for it makes a person feel more conscious and alive. In the end, the narrator suggests that the only viable goal in life is really life itself, with all its uncertainties and lack of predictability. Life lived as a scientific formula, however, would have no mystery and be nothing more than death.

Notes

In pointing out the dualities that exist in man, the narrator calls each human being a "comically constructed" creature who is "naturally, terribly funny." He sets goals for himself and is then afraid to realize them, preferring chaos and destruction instead. He enjoys suffering, for it heightens his consciousness and makes him feel more alive. Such paradoxes exist in all humans, making them puzzling and unpredictable. The paradoxes also prove that man cannot live only by scientific formula and rationality.

To further prove his ideas, the narrator points out the differences between men and ants. Ants are hard-working and predictable creatures that live life by a scientific pattern within a socialistic community. In contrast, men are frivolous and unpredictable by nature and seldom follow the same routine. As a result, they are not fit to live in a mechanized, socialist society, which the narrator calls "insufferable." If forced to do so, man's existence will become nothing more than that found in an anthill.

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