When he wrote the novel, the author was himself imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress of St. Petersburg, and he was to spend years in Siberia. Chernyshevsky asked for and received permission to write the novel in prison, and the authorities passed the manuscript along to his former employer, the newspaper Sovremennik, which also approved it for publication in installments in its pages. Lenin, Plekhanov, Peter Kropotkin, Alexandra Kollontay, Rosa Luxemburg, and also the Swedish writer August Strindberg were all highly impressed with the book, and it came to be officially regarded as a Russian classic in the Soviet period.
Within the framework of a story of a privileged couple who decide to work for the revolution, and ruthlessly subordinate everything in their lives to the cause, the work furnished a blueprint for the asceticism and dedication unto death which became an ideal of the early socialist underground of the Russian Empire.
The book is perhaps better known in the English-speaking world for the responses it created than as a novel in its own right. Fyodor Dostoevsky mocked the utilitarianism and utopianism of the novel in his 1864 novella Notes from Underground, as well as in his 1872 novel Devils. Leo Tolstoy wrote a different What Is to Be Done?, published in 1886, based on his own ideas of moral responsibility. Vladimir Lenin, however, found it inspiring and named a 1902 pamphlet "What Is to Be Done?". Lenin is said to have read the book five times in one summer, and according to Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford, Joseph Frank, 'Chernyshevsky's novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.'
The novel mentions (in the 4th dream of Vera Pavlovna) aluminium as the "metal of the future" . In fact aluminium became widely used only starting with World War I (1914).
The "Dame in mourning" appearing at the end of the novel is Olga S. Chernyshevskaya, the author's wife.