Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Hate

By Fyodor Dostoevsky


I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. (1.1.1)

Spite is the single most defining characteristic of the Underground Man.

I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with the petitioners and with the officer, and in reality I never could become spiteful. I was conscious every moment in myself of many, very many elements absolutely opposite to that. I felt them positively swarming in me, these opposite elements. (1.1.5)

The Underground Man suffers from being an extremist. The presence of happy or kind elements in him by no means precludes his being spiteful. And yet he is convinced that, because of these opposite elements, he can never truly be labeled a spiteful man.

Let us suppose, for instance, that it feels insulted, too (and it almost always does feel insulted), and wants to revenge itself, too. There may even be a greater accumulation of spite in it than in l'homme de la nature et de la vérité. The base and nasty desire to vent that spite on its assailant rankles perhaps even more nastily in it than in l'homme de la nature et de la vérité. For through his innate stupidity the latter looks upon his revenge as justice pure and simple; while in consequence of his acute consciousness the mouse does not believe in the justice of it. (1.3.2)

Why doesn't the Underground Man apply the same problems of primary causes to his spite as he does to the notion of revenge? He can't exact revenge because he can't justify the action, yet he feels spite without any justification at all…

Spite, of course, might overcome everything, all my doubts, and so might serve quite successfully in place of a primary cause, precisely because it is not a cause. But what is to be done if I have not even spite (I began with that just now, you know). (1.5.1)

Ah. Spite, apparently, would count as a primary cause, not as an emotion or action that requires a primary cause. Is it just us, or does this whole system seem irrational and arbitrary?

I would rather my hand were withered off than bring one brick to such a building! […] Perhaps the thing I resented was, that of all your edifices there has not been one at which one could not put out one's tongue. On the contrary, I would let my tongue be cut off out of gratitude if things could be so arranged that I should lose all desire to put it out. (1.10.4)

The Underground Man perhaps seems most human to us at this moment, when he wishes that he didn't want to just mock everything.

It is clear to me now that, owing to my unbounded vanity and to the high standard I set for myself, I often looked at myself with furious discontent, which verged on loathing, and so I inwardly attributed the same feeling to everyone. I hated my face, for instance. (2.1.1)

The Underground Man attributes his spite to "surface" matters – in this case, his face – but its causes actually run much deeper.

Of course, this trivial incident could not with me end in that. I often met that officer afterwards in the street and noticed him very carefully. I am not quite sure whether he recognised me, I imagine not; I judge from certain signs. But I – I stared at him with spite and hatred and so it went on ... for several years! (2.1.20)

The officer on the Nevsky is another example; surely the Underground Man developed such a lasting hatred simply because the officer pushed him aside one day…

I had begun to hate him particularly in the upper forms. In the lower forms he had simply been a pretty, playful boy whom everybody liked. I had hated him, however, even in the lower forms, just because he was a pretty and playful boy. […] Moreover, it was, as it were, an accepted idea among us that Zverkov was a specialist in regard to tact and the social graces. This last fact particularly infuriated me. I hated the abrupt self-confident tone of his voice, his admiration of his own witticisms […]; I hated his handsome, but stupid face (for which I would, however, have gladly exchanged my intelligent one), and the free-and-easy military manners in fashion in the "'forties." I hated the way in which he used to talk of his future conquests of women […] and boasted of the duels he would constantly be fighting. (2.3.2)

Here we hear a distinctly jealous undercurrent in the Underground Man's spite.

"Mr. Lieutenant Zverkov," I began, "let me tell you that I hate phrases, phrasemongers and men in corsets ... that's the first point, and there is a second one to follow it. […] The second point is: I hate ribaldry and ribald talkers. Especially ribald talkers! The third point: I love justice, truth and honesty." I went on almost mechanically, for I was beginning to shiver with horror myself and had no idea how I came to be talking like this. "I love thought, Monsieur Zverkov; I love true comradeship, on an equal footing…" (2.4.57-9)

Hmm…the Underground Man seems to hate a lot of his own characteristics…

[Apollon] drove me beyond all patience! He was the bane of my life, the curse laid upon me by Providence. We had been squabbling continually for years, and I hated him. My God, how I hated him! I believe I had never hated anyone in my life as I hated him, especially at some moments. […] He was a pedant, to the most extreme point, the greatest pedant I had met on earth, and with that had a vanity only befitting Alexander of Macedon. He was in love with every button on his coat, every nail on his fingers – absolutely in love with them, and he looked it! In his behaviour to me he was a perfect tyrant. […] My hatred reached such a point that sometimes his very step almost threw me into convulsions. What I loathed particularly was his lisp. […] He maddened me particularly when he read aloud the psalms to himself behind his partition. […] Apollon seemed to me, for some reason, an integral part of that flat, and for seven years I could not turn him away. (2.8.19)

Notice that the Underground Man comments on and mocks stuttering and lisps – first with Zverkov and then with Apollon. Consider this: to his reader, the Underground Man is little more than a voice, talking in the darkness. Identity, then, has much to do with words and voices – which is why he focuses so much on speech.

"Will it not be better that she should keep the resentment of the insult forever? Resentment – why, it is purification; it is a most stinging and painful consciousness! Tomorrow I should have defiled her soul and have exhausted her heart, while now the feeling of insult will never die in her heart, and however loathsome the filth awaiting her – the feeling of insult will elevate and purify her ... by hatred ... h'm! (2.10.20)

The Underground Man seeks to purify Liza by hatred; does he do the same for himself? Does his self-loathing serve any greater purpose?

I dreamed as I sat at home that evening, almost dead with the pain in my soul. Never had I endured such suffering and remorse, yet could there have been the faintest doubt when I ran out from my lodging that I should turn back half-way? I never met Liza again and I have heard nothing of her. I will add, too, that I remained for a long time afterwards pleased with the phrase about the benefit from resentment and hatred in spite of the fact that I almost fell ill from misery. (2.10.22)

Why should the Underground Man name this moment as the greatest suffering and remorse he's ever suffered? What is it about Liza's exit that so disturbs him? Or is he merely exaggerating, which, quite honestly, wouldn't be a first…