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Notes from the Underground

Notes from the Underground


by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Underground Man Timeline and Summary

  • The Underground Man introduced himself as a sick, spiteful, and unattractive man.
  • He goes on to establish that he can't ever become anything – not even spiteful (a personal quality he was lying to us about before), and neither can any intelligent man in the world.
  • He claims that an intelligent man can only talk with pleasure about himself, which is exactly what he plans on doing for the next hundred pages or so.
  • The Underground Man informs us that he lives in St. Petersburg, which is a "theoretical and intentional" town.
  • He proves to us through a variety of arguments that over-consciousness prevents him from acting in any way, and from ever becoming anything.
  • The Underground Man then describes his phases of the "sublime and beautiful" which he often experiences. But the more he is conscious of goodness, he explains, the more he "sinks into mire."
  • He takes pleasure, however, in his own degradation. The pleasure lies in the extreme consciousness of one's own state, the awareness that, in a nutshell, things are absolutely rock-bottom horrible and aren't ever really going to get better.
  • He then delves into his inertia argument: acute-consciousness causes inertia.
  • He says he is to blame for this though it's not his fault; it is the fault of the laws of nature.
  • The Underground Man concludes that the intelligent man of consciousness can never act.
  • Now we delve into the mouse vs. man revenge scenario. If a man is slapped, he will exact his revenge on the assailant because he believes in the justice of it.
  • However, if a man of acute consciousness is slapped, he acts more like a mouse than a man. This overly-conscious mouse cannot exact his revenge, because he knows that the whole justice thing is bunk.
  • So instead of acting, the mouse raises a lot of doubts, creeps into his hole, and exacts revenge in trivial ways that don't really constitute revenge so much as self-inflicted humiliation.
  • The Underground Man goes on to discuss the laws of nature, which he imagines as "the stone wall."
  • The wall will stop the man of action dead in his tracks, but the Underground Man, being a man of intelligence and acute-consciousness, will beat his head against it even though he knows he can't change the laws of nature.
  • He goes on to argue that there is enjoyment in all suffering, even in a toothache.
  • A man afflicted with a toothache, he says, will moan to express the aimlessness of his pain; he will moan so that those around him have to suffer through hearing his pain.
  • The Underground Man then takes a look back at his childhood; when he was little, he used to pretend to have normal feelings like everyone else (pretend to feel guilty, pretend to be in love, pretend to suffer, and so on).
  • He gets a little bit contradictory here; he says he was only pretending and used to feel "a faint stir of mockery," but then he says that he genuinely did suffer even while pretending.
  • On to men of action, who he says are stupid. Make that very stupid. If they were smart, he claims, they would understand that there were no primary causes and therefore no justification for acting, ever.
  • In contrast, the Underground Man understands this. Every time he tries to find a primary cause, he finds one behind it that is more primary, and so on and so on, the result being that he can never act.
  • If he ever does act, he knows he is just lying to himself about having found a primary cause, and he will surely hate himself later.
  • This, he explains, is why his entire life he has never been able to start or finish anything.
  • The Underground Man imagines what he could be if he could manage to be something; in this particular fantasy, he imagines himself a professional aesthete, one whose job it was to 1) be lazy and 2) appreciate all that is sublime and beautiful.
  • Next, the Underground Man attacks the notion of rational egoism. His evidence is the world, the universe, and the history of time. Is that all? Seriously, he says, take a look around: everything sucks, everything has always been chaotic and bloody and horrible. How could you possibly say that the world is rational and that man acts according to his best interests?
  • If man did always act according to the laws of nature, he says, then you have to figure that, if we could map out all the laws of nature, we could map out every action man could commit for the rest of time. We would know every desire, impulse, motion, and thought before they happened.
  • If this were ever to happen, he says, we would be thankful for suffering and probably agree to all go crazy – collectively – to avoid the horrible boredom.
  • So the one thing man values above all other "advantages", the one thing for which he will destroy himself and his world, is his free will. Man will do anything, even self-destruct, to prove that he is free.
  • Reason, the Underground Man explains, is only half of man's nature. The other half is made of impulse and desire. So we may be able to prove that 2+2=4, but we can only prove it with reason, not with the other half of human nature. Therefore, only half of man resigns himself to the fact that 2+2=4.
  • The advantage of free will (which rises from the impulse/desire half of man) is that it preserves his individuality.
  • The Underground Man then goes through an exercise; he demonstrates that you can say anything you want about the universe and justify your claim with an example, except for one thing: you cannot say that the universe is rational.
  • Man, he goes on to argue, is monstrously ungrateful. Even if you gave him perfect happiness and everything he's ever wanted, he would give it all up for chaos and misery just to prove he can, to prove that he has free will.
  • Since 2+2=4 whether we want it to or not, we can't ever have free will if we live according to the rules of nature.
  • The Underground Man suggests that he has been joking. The whole time.
  • And then he continues on. Man only builds things because he likes the building process. He doesn't actually want the finished product.
  • Why? Because if man were ever finished, he'd have nothing to do! Life is in the striving, in the struggle. Being finished means being certain, means 2+2=4, and certainty "is the beginning of death" for man.
  • This is also why it is pleasant to smash things, he says. In his view, we like smashing things, and we like suffering.
  • Next comes the famous line, "Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness." Man will never give up suffering as long as he lives, because suffering gives him consciousness. And consciousness allows us to flog ourselves, which is an extreme reaction but better than nothing.
  • And now for an extended metaphor: if the Underground Man had his heart set on a mansion, he would never be satisfied in a hen-house, no matter how useful the little shack proved.
  • It's the same thing, he explains, with the Crystal Palace. If man has his heart set on this ridiculous ideal, he will never be satisfied with anything less.
  • He himself hates the idea of the crystal palace because he can't stick his tongue out at it.
  • Still, he wishes he didn't want to stick his tongue out at it.
  • The Underground Man then flip-flops back and forth over which is better: living underground, or being a normal man of action.
  • Several 180-degree-switches later, he declares that he will never have readers, that he has invented an audience and its replies for his own benefit.
  • He explains that his notes are an exercise to see whether or not man can be completely honest with himself about his thoughts and desires.
  • Then, noticing the snow that is falling outside, he is reminded of a story.
  • The Underground Man embarks on memory lane back to his early twenties, when he as a young man working as a government employee.
  • The first thing he talks about is his face; he hates his face because it looks stupid.
  • He declares that, in his youth, he was both a coward and a slave, as is every decent man in the world.
  • He then embarks on a digression as to the nature of Russian romantics and the ways in which they differ from French and German romantics. (In his mind, Russians aren't as silly, and they never lose sight of practicality despite their ideals.)
  • He then tells a specific wet-snow related story. One night he was walking along the street and watched a man playing billiards get thrown out of the window from a tavern.
  • The Underground Man promptly entered the tavern in the hopes of being thrown out himself.
  • He was only moved aside by an officer, which he found offensive. He decided to get revenge.
  • Years of plotting later, the Underground Man gets himself all spiffed-up and decides to bump into the officer while walking along the Nevsky.
  • When the bump finally occurs, the Underground Man gets the worst of it and the officer doesn't even notice.
  • The Underground Man then explains to us his phases: he used to experience "attacks" of the sublime and beautiful. He alternated between thinking himself a hero or a complete loser sitting inside his underground hole.
  • He indulgently describes some of his sublime and beautiful fantasies, which are all quite literary.
  • He explains about Anton and how he used to visit him when he felt the need to embrace humanity. After the visit, he was always ready to go back underground again for a few months.
  • We are then introduced to Simonov, with whom our narrator is sort-of friends. (It's complicated.)
  • The Underground Man begins his narrative: one day, he shows up to Simonov's place where Trudolyubov and Ferfitchkin are planning a going-away dinner for Zverkov. He describes (to us) how much he hates Zverkov and then invites himself along to dinner.
  • When he is left alone with Simonov, we find out that he already owes the man a chunk of cash.
  • Arriving home, he chooses not to pay his servant Apollon his wages in order to have enough money to pay for dinner the following night.
  • That evening he dreams about his days at school. In short, everyone hated him, he hated everyone, and he drove away the one friend he ever had by acting like a "tyrant."
  • He worries about Zverkov's dinner since his clothes aren't too impressive and since the whole evening will likely be "paltry" and "unliterary."
  • He arrives to dinner at 5pm only to find that it's been moved to six.
  • Dinner goes disastrously; he makes a fool of himself and manages to anger everyone.
  • Even so, once dinner is over, the Underground Man invites himself to the brothel, for which he must borrow even more money from Simonov.
  • As he gets in a horse-pulled sleigh to head to the brothel, the Underground Man goes back and forth about whether or not he should slap Zverkov in the face to challenge him to a duel.
  • Once he arrives at the brothel, he is "relieved" to find that the men aren't there.
  • So relieved, in fact, that he has sex with Liza.
  • When the Underground Man wakes up, Liza is looking at him. He awkwardly talks to her about the weather before delving into a motivational speech about how she needs to change her life.
  • He adds a delightful little segment about how, if he had a daughter, he would treat her really well.
  • Liza tells him he talks like a book, which he resents, though the forty-year-old Underground Man, the one narrating to us, is now convinced she was hurt and "hiding" behind irony. Or something.
  • So he responds by detailing further the horrible ways in which Liza will get sick and die, after which no one will love her or remember her name.
  • She cries and then shows the Underground Man a love letter. He's all, "That's great, I'm outta here" and gives her his address before he goes, imagining that he can reform this poor girl in the grand Russian literary tradition of reforming and saving whores. (We're not kidding. It really was a grand Russian literary tradition. And also a fun weekend activity.)
  • Once home, the Underground Man forgets about Liza for a minute so he can focus on saving his reputation with Simonov. He writes the man a beautiful letter, blaming his behavior on wine (which he admits to us is a lie) and sends his servant, Apollon, to deliver it.
  • Then he can go back to worrying about Liza. He oscillates between dreading her arrival at his place and fantasizing about all the ways he could reform and save her soul.
  • He then tells us all about how much he hates Apollon. He hates him a lot. A LOT.
  • While he's playing a silly game with Apollon over who will be the first to bring up the fact that Apollon hasn't been received his wages, Liza shows up.
  • The Underground Man runs away, embarrassed of his poverty even while insisting that he's not.
  • He suddenly decides that everything that's ever gone wrong is Liza's fault.
  • To take it out on her, he rails angrily, claiming that he never wanted to save her and was in fact only making fun of her.
  • Then he starts crying, which we have to say weakens his "I was only mocking you" case. Liza comforts him and then has sex with him, and the Underground Man berates himself for letting their roles reverse (now Liza is saving/comforting him, and he's the weak and weepy one).
  • After the sex, the Underground Man doesn't know what to do with Liza. He acts like a jerk until she gets the hint and leaves, but not before he stuffs some money in her hand.
  • She runs out; he regrets treating her like a whore and runs after her, but it's too late. The door slams.
  • He then sees that she has left the money behind. He's shocked by this noble act and runs after her in the street.
  • It's too late; she's gone.
  • And that's the end of that story. The Underground Man gets ready to end his notes. We all like to live under the yoke, he says, and if you gave us more freedom we'd hate it. He claims that the only difference between his life and ours is that we have lived half-way, whereas he has taken this philosophy to its logical extreme.
  • He adds that, without books, we would never know how to act or how to live. We're retreating more and more into ideals, he explains, and soon enough we will be born entirely from ideas, not from flesh and blood.
  • That's it, he says. He doesn't want to write anymore from underground.
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