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Before we begin we are faced with an "Author's Note," which tells us that the narrator and the diary we're reading are fictional. Although this particular Underground Man is made-up, the author says, surely there must be people like him in the world, mostly because of society. The first segment of the work functions as an introduction to the Underground Man and his views, the note explains, while the second consists of notes from the man's life.
With that explanation out of the way, meet the Underground Man: your narrator and neighborhood Oscar the Grouch.
He introduces himself as a sick, spiteful, and unattractive man. This is either the worst personal ad ever, or the forerunner to all great existential literature (a type of philosophical literature which suggests that humans, and not a deity or god, define the meaning of their own lives). (Hint: it is not a personal ad.)
Despite being sick, the man explains, he refuses to see a doctor out of spite, though he knows he's only hurting himself.
It's been like this for about, oh, twenty years. He's forty now.
He used to be a government official, he says.
Make that a spiteful government official.
The Underground Man starts to make a joke, but then it fails, and then he makes a point of telling us that his joke was just a stupid attempt on his part to be witty, but that he's not going to cross it out now. (Awkward!)
He adds that he takes great pleasure in making others miserable. Clearly, this is going to be a fun read.
Actually, he admits that he's not really spiteful after all. He's not even bitter. In fact, if you were to give him a cup of tea with sugar in it right this very moment, he would be pleased, though afterwards he would beat himself up over the fact that he was pleased.
So why did he lie to us about being spiteful? Namely, he says, out of spite. (This is quality logic.)
Not only is he not spiteful, he explains, but he could never become spiteful, because there are all these happy feelings swarming inside him.
Although he admits to lying, the Underground Man makes it clear that he is not now asking forgiveness. Anyway, he doesn't care what we think at all.
While he can't become spiteful, it turns out that he can't become anything else, either.
Why is this? "An intelligent man," he says, "cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything." Morally, he believes, a man must be a man without character, otherwise he will limit himself.
The Underground Man goes back to talking about how he's forty. Living any longer than this, he says, would be vulgar, would be bad manners; but even so, he plans on living until he's eighty.
He interrupts his own narrative to catch his breath, and he kindly asks the reader to stay a moment while he does. (The text is littered with these sorts of disruptions.)
The Underground Man would like us to know that he's not doing all this to amuse us.
Even so, he will tell us some more about himself: he is a "collegiate assessor" (a civil rank, meaning his job was in civil service; he worked for the government), or at least he was until a relative died, left him an inheritance, and he (the Underground Man) retired to his current situation underground.
The hole in which he lives is in St. Petersburg, Russia, which is not a good place for him to be, but where he will stay nevertheless.
He then asks what a decent man could possibly talk about with the most pleasure.
"Answer: himself." (Right, because up until now you've been Mr. Social Awareness.)