Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Part 1, Chapter 3

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part 1, Chapter 3

  • Now the Underground Man examines how a normal person might react to being slapped in the face. He'd get revenge, maybe by slapping the assailant back.
  • How does he do that? Well, when the normal man wants revenge, his whole being feels nothing but the desire for revenge. It takes him over completely. He becomes like a charging bull, where only a wall will stop him. More on this wall coming up, so stay tuned.
  • The Underground Man envies this sort of normal man, even though the normal man is stupid.
  • He says his own sort of man – the man of acute consciousness – is the opposite of the normal man. This acute-consciousness man wasn't created out of nature; he was created out of a retort. (What he's saying is that men like himself exist almost as a response to the normal man.)
  • He claims it is so jarring to be in the presence of a normal man that he often thinks of himself as a mouse.
  • So what happens when a mouse is harmed by an assailant? (Just remember, "mouse" = crazy weird Underground Man, whereas "man" = normal person.) It wants to get revenge, too – maybe even more so than "l'homme de la nature et de la vérité", which is French for "the man of nature and of truth," which is a fancy way of saying "a normal person" while stealing words from Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In short: "mouse" wants revenge more than "man". And there's more spite in the mouse.
  • How is that possible? Because a man, who is stupid, looks at revenge as justice, mostly because he's stupid. The mouse, on the other hand, in his infinite wisdom and hyper-consciousness, knows that there is no justice in his revenge, which is why he feels even more spiteful.
  • So the mouse sits around and raises doubts and questions as to his revenge, while the healthy men laugh at him for his inaction. All the mouse can do at that point is basically just crawl back into its hole, having been completely humiliated.
  • But it doesn't end there. (It never does.) The mouse will harbor resentment at his assailant – on whom he never got his revenge – for years and years and years. It will try to get revenge, but in small, trivial ways (think whoopee cushions, sand in the PB&J) that don't really count. And of course, the mouse will end up suffering a hundred times more than the assailant.
  • And yet, our little mouse gets his kicks through that suffering – just like the Underground Man explained to us earlier.
  • Normal people, he says, couldn't possibly understand this, because it is so subtle.
  • Now the Underground Man starts supposing what we, the reader, might be thinking. He asks if we're suggesting that he himself has never been slapped in the face. He admits this is true, but adds that he really doesn't care what we think about that.
  • Now let's get back to that wall we talked about earlier, the wall that will stop a charging bull. What is this law, you ask? It turns out this wall is actually a set of laws: "the laws of nature, the deductions of science, mathematics."
  • The normal man, even when he's a raging bull, is immediately stopped by this wall. He doesn't question it, he doesn't try to go around it. If science proves we are descended from apes, the Underground Man explains, then men will accept it.
  • (An interesting note: Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, but the first Russian translation, by Sergei A. Rachinsky, was available in 1864 – the same year Notes from the Underground was published. Russia was remarkably receptive to the theory of evolution, which is probably why Dostoevsky makes the comment here that he does: obviously, man has to listen to science, just as he has to listen to 2+2=4. We just find it amusing that 19th century Russia was more accepting of scientific fact than 21st century America…)
  • So not only are normal men subject to these laws, but they don't even try to struggle against them. And how could you? How could you refute that 2+2=4? A wall is a wall.
  • Ah, but the Underground Man is different. What if he doesn't like the fact that 2+2=4? He knows he can't get rid of the stone wall by bashing his head against it, but knowing that isn't going to stop him from trying. He won't accept the wall just because it's a wall.
  • Besides, it's not as though the wall (remember, wall = laws of nature, science, math) offers any consolation. Reconciling yourself to it isn't the way to go, he explains. It's better to be conscious of it all, especially if the wall disgusts you.
  • Once you achieve that consciousness, he explains, you can conclude that you are to blame even for the presence of the wall, even though it's quite clear that, actually, you aren't to blame at all. (Yes, this is hugely contradictory.)
  • So what is there to do, if you're this overly-conscious? You sink down into the mire, the Underground Man explains, stuck with your inertia, realizing that as spiteful as you are, there's not even an object for you to aim your spite at, and being miserable all the more for your uncertainty.
  • We don't know about you guys, but it looks like it's about time to get out of this chapter.

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