Notes from Underground is perhaps Dostoevsky's most difficult work to read, but it also functions as an introduction to his greater novels later in his career. The ideas expressed in Notes from Underground become central to all of Dostoevsky's later novels, and therefore this work can be studied as an introduction to all of Dostoevsky's writings. One reason that the work is so difficult is that Dostoevsky included so many ideas in such a short space, and thus the ideas are expressed with extreme intensity and are not elaborated upon. The student who has read other of Dostoevsky's works will immediately recognize many of Dostoevsky's ideas in this work.
Notes from Underground is composed of two parts: a confession to an imaginary audience in Part 1, and then, in Part 2, an illustration of a certain episode in his life entitled "A Propos of the Wet Snow." First of all the confession itself is a dominant technique in Dostoevsky's writings. As a monologue or a confession, the man from underground can use it to reveal directly his innermost thoughts. These thoughts are made more dramatic by the fact that he is addressing them to an imaginary audience which is opposed or hostile toward his views and toward him. Therefore when he ridicules, or laughs at, or becomes spiteful about, some idea, he is doing so in terms of an imaginary audience reacting against him.
The novel can act as a rebuttal to a novel published the year before, 1863, by Chernyshevsky, entitled sometimes What Shall We Do?, or sometimes translated as What Is To Be Done?. This particular novel advocated the establishment of a utopia based upon the principles of nineteenth-century rationalism, utilitarianism, and socialism. Such a rationalistic, socialistic society, Dostoevsky thought, would remove from man his greatest possession: human freedom. Dostoevsky therefore becomes the champion of the freedoms of man: the freedom to choose, the freedom to refuse, the freedom to do anything he wants to do. For Dostoevsky, then, man's freedom was the greatest thing that he possessed and Dostoevsky thought that in a scientific, rationalistic, utilitarian society man's freedom would be replaced by security and happiness. This is what Chernyshevsky and other socialists were advocating: that if man is given all the security he needs, then man will automatically be happy.
Dostoevsky attacked these ideas because he believed that if man were simply given security and happiness, he would lose his freedom. To him science, rationalism, utilitarian or socialism were equated with the doctrines of fatalism and determinism, which contradict man's freedom to control or determine his own fate.
When the Underground Man says that twice two makes four, this is a scientific fact. But man does not always function merely by scientific fact. For Dostoevsky the rational part of a man's being is only one part of his makeup. That is, man is composed both of the rational (two times two makes four) and the irrational. It would be nice to think sometimes that twice two makes five. This would be, in Dostoevsky's words, "a very charming idea also." The point is that if man functions solely as a rational being, then man's actions are always predictable. Dostoevsky's point is that man's actions are not predictable. There are even some men who enjoy suffering and are only happy when they suffer. Consequently in a socialistic society where man's security and happiness is being assured, this would deny the fact that men — some men — want to suffer and are improved by their suffering.
Thus one of the great ideas throughout all of Dostoevsky's fiction is the idea that through suffering man achieves a higher state in the world. That is, through suffering man can expiate all his sins and become more closely attuned with the basic elements of humanity. Consequently if a utopia removes suffering, then it is removing one of the essential ingredients by which man improves himself and becomes a greater person.
In another image in the novel Dostoevsky is afraid that if man lives in this utopian society then he will end up like a mechanical being — the "organ stop," as Dostoevsky puts it. Man is meant to be more than an organ stop or a piano key; he is meant to be more than a mechanism in a well-regulated clock. The freedom to choose was, for Dostoevsky, the greatest thing that man had. The freedom to choose, if he wished to, suffering. The freedom to choose religion. The freedom to choose, sometimes, those things which are destructive to man. Take away this freedom and man ceases then to be a man. He becomes, as in another image, an ant. Man deserves something better than to die upon an ant heap.
In a later novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky makes perfectly clear his ideas in a passage called "The Grand Inquisitor." In this later novel the grand inquisitor offers man security and happiness; Jesus reappears upon the earth offering man total freedom. Dostoevsky believed that the voluntary choosing of Christ, the freedom to choose Him at whatever expense, is the greatest gift given to man. And man's freedom then becomes central to all of Dostoevsky's novels.