The Ultimate Cheat Sheet on Notes From The Underground

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We all know that Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of the most influential writers of his time. His insights into the human soul, and his philosophical musings about life and the world still resonate strongly today. One of his more insightful novels was the famous Notes From The Underground, which is what Notes From The New World was based around. As we transplanted 19th Century Russia into 21st Century Los Angeles, we often went back to the original source, Dostoevsky’s novel, to make sure we were getting it right.

But not everybody has taken the time to sit and read Notes From the Underground, and in a world of fast consumption and hectic on-the-go lifestyles, it can be difficult to absorb such a groundbreaking novel, and who has the time to reflect on the musings of a 19th Century Russian philosopher?

Thankfully we’ve put together this super handy list for you. Read over our Ultimate Cheat Sheet on Notes From The Underground, and the next time you’re talking to one of those real smart people, drop some Dostoyevsky and bask in your intellectual superiority.

The Underground Man

The Underground Man is our first-person narrator. He is the “hero” of the story, inasmuch as he can be called that. He is ugly and middle-aged and lives in St Petersburg, Russia, but he’s not average. He is so incredibly smart that he has spent the last 20 years living “underground”, unable to act on anything because he’s so smart that he can debunk any justification for any action! He lives in his dirty cellar, barely venturing outside and surrounded by his own garbage.

Although he lives surrounded by filth, he sometimes catches hints of beauty in the dirty chaos around him. He’s also very argumentative, and throughout the entire novel the Underground Man is literally arguing with you, the reader, and then filling in his arguments with his justifications, so even if you think he’s being ridiculous one moment, the next, you’re being put in your place!

Human Utopia Is Impossible

One of the first philosophical rants of the book is about Utopia. The Underground Man is living in a time when socialists were becoming popular among Russia’s educated classes. Marxism and revolutionary zeal were spreading among the youth, but the Underground Man is opposed to all of this because, as he explains, rational justification can’t stand against man’s need for free will, even if that free will is destructive. He then predicts that in order to bring about Utopia, free-thinking men must be forced into it, violently if necessary, which is antithesis to Utopia and thus Utopia can’t be possible. If men’s minds are tricked to accept Utopia it is still a state of force, and because deceit has been used, it cannot be a true Utopia. He says “2+2=5 is not without its attractions.”

Russian Culture Is Fake

The Underground Man is so detached from society and so above the thinking of society that he can see from his bird’s-eye-view that Russian culture is nothing but a cheap mimic of Western European culture. At this time the elite classes of Russia, particularly in St Petersburg, spoke French and read German philosophy and collected Shakespeare manuscripts. To be European was in vogue in Russia, but to The Underground Man it was fake. He had no problem with Western culture, but it wasn’t Russia’s culture and he tells us that every culture should develop its own unique cultural traditions. Russia, he informs us, is the land of peasants and farmers. It is a wild and vast land made up of hard and unruly people, and while the elite ate French cream puffs and pretended to read Voltaire, they were so distanced from true Russian-ness that they could no longer consider themselves Russian.

The Unconscious Man

The Underground Man is constantly in battle with The Unconscious Man, which he considers most other people in the world. These people go about their daily lives never looking around them or questioning what they have been told. This man is healthy and active and narrow-minded, and is everything The Underground Man is not. The Unconscious Man follows the rules and has a blind faith in what he’s been taught to believe. In Notes From the Underground, Dostoevsky introduces Zverkov, a huge alpha-male jerk who, during a dinner party, insults so many people that they all leave. The Underground Man, however, stays behind, where he meets a prostitute named Liza and sleeps with her.

The Prostitute

The Underground Man attempts to rescue the prostitute Liza in an ironic bout of romanticism which is normally what he stands against. He has spent decades wrapped up in literature and alone that upon sleeping with a hooker he inadvertently finds himself wanting to play the hero. In any European novel this would have been redeeming, but this is Dostoevsky and there is a brutal lesson awaiting for The Underground Man.

The Underground Man’s life is even more miserable than Liza’s, and as he fumbles and attempts to rescue her, he of course comes up against his own limitations in emotion and character. While he may be smarter than everybody else and have a much sharper intellect, when it comes to social behavior and the experience of humanity, he is sorely lacking, and ends up seeing that he is no better than even a lowly prostitute.

There is, of course, much more to Notes From the Underground, and it is a very fascinating read. This cheat sheet should help you start off. As we transplanted The Underground Man to modern-day Los Angeles we were amazed at how well many of Dostoevsky’s 19th Century motifs applied to modern America. As we continued to produce the film, other mysterious forces started to play out, culminating in the disappearance of our screenwriter and the appearance of a REAL Russian prostitute.

To find out more about how filming Notes From The New World played out, and to keep up on the developing story of our missing screenwriter, sign up for our free newsletter and receive access to our exclusive member’s area filled with special content for people just like you.


Nate Drescher

Nate spent nearly a decade travelling the world as an English teacher and travel writer, living in such exotic places as South Korea, Thailand, Russia and Ukraine. He started writing professionally in 2008, and his own travel blog, Mission To Moscow, won an award for Best Canadian Travel Blog 2010! Today Nate continues to write and contribute blogs and magazines around the world. He also owns his own social media consulting business and started his own language-services startup in 2014. You can follow him at his professional blog here:

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