ENGL 2210 World Literature II
Notes from the Underground: Reading Guide
Read the work very slowly and carefully. Try to follow the logic of
the narrator attentively. Make a list of the arguments with which you agree,
and those with which you disagree. You will be asked to comment on them
- Read pp. 542-547 on Dostoevsky
- What is Dostoevsky's philosophy of religion?
- What is Dostoevsky's opinion of the West?
- What is wrong with socialism, according to Dostoevsky?
- List some of the underground man's (UM's) self-contradictions. What general opinion do you have of people who contradict themselves?
- List several examples of the UM's character, as he defines himself. What
kind of a person does he say he is?
- How does he find pleasure at work? What does that say about his character? Do you think that this is a typical human characteristic?
- Why do you think he refuses medical help?
- Find a good definition of 'spite'. What are some necessary ingredients for being spiteful?
- How believable do you think he is? Why do you think so?
- Find a good definition of 'freedom', other than political freedom. What are some necessary ingredients for being free?
- The UM says that intelligent people cannot become anything, only fools can become something. This is certainly opposite of what we think. What do you think he means by this statement?
- What do you think is the basic essence of 'free choice' and 'free will'.
- His room is nasty, his servant is a foul smelling old lady, he dislikes Petersburg. Why do you think he won't leave?
- Are you, as a reader, irritated at him, as he suggests? Why would you be irritated?
- What does it mean to be "overly conscious"? How can being overly conscious be a disease, or a bad thing?
- The UM contrasts the overly conscious man with the man of action. List some of the characteristics of each type.
- What is his attitude toward humiliation, helplessness and despair?
- The UM says that sometimes he feels pleasure when thinking that he has done something revolting. The he asks whether other people feel this same pleasure. Do you believe this is also perhaps part of human nature, or is it unique to him?
- Why could he not be revenged on anyone for anything?
- This chapter begins as a satire of the ideals of the Enlightenment. What's wrong with these ideals, according to the UM?
- Is it possible to determine what is to man's advantage? Why, or why not?
- How can desiring something harmful to yourself be sometimes advantageous to you?
- What are some of the more important human advantages that society has derived for us, according to the UM?
- How does a society define a madman?
- What is the thing that is dearest to man, according to the UM, than his own best advantage?
- How is this advantage remarkable and unique?
- The UM claims that civilization has not made man any kinder. In fact, the most bloodthirsty men in history have also been most civilized. What examples does he give?
- Science teaches man that he is a "piano key" or an "organ stop". What does he mean by that?
- Science also teaches man that the laws of nature also apply to his own behavior. What does that say about free will, then?
- If man's behavior can be calculated by some table, than how might a man react? What do you think is wrong with being able to calculate one's behavior?
- What is the biggest cause of boredom, according to the UM?
- What, according to the UM, is the only thing that a man needs at any cost?
- In the first two paragraphs of this Chapter the UM, and his oponent, ask, "... what if someday they really do discover the formula for all our desires and whims..." An article in US News and World Report suggests that scientists have made great stride stride in that direction. How would your own life and the decisions that you make change if, or when, that becomes a reality? What if the choices you make in buying a car, or finding a husband or wife can be easily predicted.
- What might man do, and why, if someone could discover the formula for all man's desires?
- The UM and his opponent have two different opinions regarding the question of why people sometimes do stupid things, or desire things that are not to their own advantage. What are their opinions?
- If someone is selling you a very cheap machine that can predict when you will sin, or do some stupid thing, would you buy it?
- The UM presents the view of his "opponent" regarding reason and free will. According to his opponent, how would man lead his life if his desires can be determined according to some formula? Do you agree with him? Is this what you would do?
- The UM says that desire preserves our personality and our individuality. What do you think he means by that? Describe the opposition between reason and desire? What does "desire" mean to you?
- Does desire have to oppose reason, according to the UM? Explain.
- The UM says that one's rational faculty is about 20% of one's faculty. The US News and World Report suggests that it's even smaller than that: "According to cognitive neuroscientists, we are conscious of only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behavior depends on the 95 percent of brain activity that goes beyond our conscious awareness." If this is true (and we have to believe that it is true because it comes from the mouth of science), then does my being reside in the 95%, or in the 5%? How then should I lead my life? Should I give myself up to the irrational 95%, or should I obey the 5% rational faculty? What is the UM's answer?
- What would man do, according to the UM, to make sure that reason does not prevail?
- The UM suggests that man someitmes clings to his stupidity just to assure himself that he is a man, and not a piano key. Do you think there is any truth to this in your own personal behavior?
- List what may prevent you from having free choice in the way you act, other than the laws of nature and perhaps other people.
- At the beginning of this Chapter the UM asks his oponent, you the reader, and perhaps our oun society:
"You, for instance, want to cure men of their old
habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense.
But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is
DESIRABLE to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion
that man's inclinations NEED reforming? In short, how do you know
that such a reformation will be a benefit to man? And to go to the root of
the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his
real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic
is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law
Do you agree that this is what our modern society tries to do to man? If he is addressing you, than how would you reply to him?
- What are some of the reasons why man is fond of destruction and chaos, according to the UM? How is man like a chess player, according to the UM? Do you think he has a point?
- Why is man afraid of discovering his two times two makes four, according to the UM? Do you think he has a point?
- What point do you think is the UM trying to make with this statement: "I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing,
but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes
a very charming thing too."
- How would you reply to these questions posed by the UM:
"Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately,
in love with suffering, and that is a fact."
Enlightened society considers such people as mentally ill. Whose side would you take? Why?
- How does the UM relate suffering to consciousness? How is suffering better than two times two makes four?
- What does the crystal palace symbolize for the UM? What does the UM not like about it?
- The UM says that there is no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. In what way is that so?
- How do you think the crystal palace could conflict with man's desires?
- Why do you think being able to "stick one's tongue out" is important for the UM? What do you think is the meaning of that gesture? What does it mean to stuck one's tongue at someone or something.
- How does the UM contradict himself at the beginning of this chapter? What do you think is the point of his contradiction? Is he lying, or is he not? How do you, as a reader, respond to him, or anyone else who tells you that they've been lying to you?
- For whom does the UM say that he is writing these notes? Do you believe him? Why?
Notes from the Underground: Thematic Guide
Comment on the following questions, and statements by the underground
- What is the nature of man?
- Is man good?
- Does man seek his own advantage or are there cases "when man's
advantage consists in his desiring what is harmful and not what is advantageous"
- Is a man who opposes prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace a madman?
- Is man rational by nature, or stupid? Which makes man happier, rationality
- Are there ideas that are eternally true?
- Will science, education and civilization make man better?
- Is science to man's advantage?
- Will an enlightened man seek everyone's advantage?
- Does man want to behave according to rational, scientific principles?
- Science leads to the reduction of individuality and free will. How?
- Science and civilization lead to a society that is like an anthill
- perfect and permanent community, where each member's instinctive duties
and rewards are clearly defined.
- "Crystal Palace" - an oversized anthill. Built for an exhibition
in London, symbol of perfection and attainment. It satisfies man's physical
needs, but not his spiritual ones.
- Is being civilized desirable, necessary, or to man's advantage? Isn't
it true that the most bloodthirsty individuals in history are products
of the most civilized societies?
- Two times two is no longer life, but the beginning of death. What does
- Why does man do nasty things sometimes?
- Would man be happy living in a place (Heaven, Paradise), where all
his wishes and desires are fulfilled? Where they are already known and
- What if a formula was discovered to determine all our wishes?
- Most important question: why is it necessary to reform man according
to science and common sense? Why is it necessary to change his habits?
- Suffering and Pleasure
- Suffering and the necessity of suffering
- Suffering is just as great advantage for man as prosperity.
- In despair occur the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is
acutely conscious of one's hopeless position.
- There are cases "when man's advantage consists in his desiring
what is harmful and not what is advantageous". Is this true?
- Free Will and Free Choice
- Free choice is man's most advantageous advantage.
- Free will and free choice cannot be calculated.
- Does free will have laws? Can they be discovered?
Free Will = Reason + all impulses
- If man's free will can be calculated, then man would purposely go mad
in order to be rid of reason and have his own way.
- Can free will coincide with my own normal interests, with the laws
of nature and arithmetic?
- 2x2=4 -- the end of free will. Free will infinitely superior to arithmetic.
- Man is so fond of systems and abstract deductions that he is ready
to distort the truth intentionally, he is ready to deny what he can see
and hear just to justify his logic.
- "Man may desire something that is disadvantageous simply in order
to have the right to desire for himself what is very stupid and not to
be bound by an obligation to desire only what is rational". This is
what preserves our personality and individuality.
- How do the following contribute toward destroying man's desires, his
free will, and his natural inclination to be stupid.
- Educational institutions