Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Part 2, Chapter 1

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part 2, Chapter 1

  • (There's an epigraph to Part II. Go check out Shmoop's "What's Up With the Epigraph?" if you want to read it. In a nutshell, it's about a man rescuing a woman from depravity.)
  • The Underground Man launches into this story of his. He was twenty-four when it took place, and even then he was as gloomy and friendless as he is now.
  • (Remember, he told us at the beginning he has been underground for twenty years, which means since the age of twenty. As we discuss in "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory," the underground hovel is metaphorical, so the Underground Man could have been out in the world, working his job, and still have been "underground.")
  • Everyone at the office hated him, he says, but those men were contemptible themselves.
  • He goes on to describe why they were contemptible (namely because they were ugly and dirty). What's more, they weren't even conscious of the fact that they were disgusting.
  • He realizes now, he says, that his own self-loathing made him think that other people must hate their appearances, too.
  • He wouldn't have even minded being ugly, he explains, as long as his face looked lofty and intelligent. But, no – he didn't even look intelligent. He just looked stupid.
  • And while he hated all the other clerks in his office, he was also afraid of them, so much so that he had trouble looking anyone in the eye.
  • This particularly concerned him, because he worried that it made him look ridiculous. He has a chronic fear of looking ridiculous.
  • He also dreads being eccentric.
  • Basically, he says, he fancied himself "a coward and a slave." And now, looking back, he can safely say that, not only did he think he was a coward and a slave, he really was.
  • Why? Because every decent man must be both a coward and slave. Not just now, in this day and age, but always. Even if the decent man is brave at one point, he will end up being a coward at another.
  • He recalls another thought of his twenty-four year-old self: that there was no one like him and that he was utterly alone.
  • Speaking now, he takes that sentiment as evidence that he was definitely a youngster. (In other words, he no longer agrees with that statement).
  • He recalls how his behavior passed through phases when he was younger. For a period of time he would be skeptical and indifferent to everything, and then he would be angry at himself for having been overly-romantic. (Romantic in the sense of 19th Century Romanticism, not in the sense of hearts and turtle-doves. Romanticism is complicated and encompasses a LOT, so this is by no means a full definition, but for now, when the Underground Man reproaches himself for being "romantic," think of him as hating himself for being a drama queen. When he is "overly romantic," he is overly emotional, full of grand and lofty sentiments bordering on irrationality.)
  • But like we said, he went through phases. So sometimes he would be cynical, and other times he would go so far as to actually try making friends with people.
  • And now he would like to make a digression, which is not so surprising. This time, he wants to talk more about Romanticism.
  • "We Russians," the Underground Man says, have never had these foolish romantic notions. According to him, that's more the territory of the German, or worse, the French. French romantics, he says, are so involved in their grand emotions and lofty sentiments that they wouldn't even notice if an earthquake hit them.
  • (Historical Context Note: The Underground Man probably has in mind the French Revolution, which took place in the last ten years or so of the 18th century. The revolution was rooted in romantic ideals – in "lofty sentiments" of freedom and equality. He scoffs at this. He also talks about romantics as having "transcendental" natures, which means they're concerned with the spiritual, not the physical.)
  • According to the Underground Man, the French are fools. Russia, on the other hand, has no fools in his opinion.
  • Russians, he says, don't have the same breed of head-in-the-clouds, "transcendental" natures as the Germans or the French – Russians are much more practical.
  • Then it gets a little messy, so just bear with us. There is a common misconception, says the Underground Man, that Russian romantics are the same as these French folks. How did that come about?
  • Well, people looked at Russian literature and saw certain characters that were efficient, calculating, business-minded men of practicality. Critics viewed these characters as The Russian Ideal.
  • Then, they slandered the Russian romantics as being the opposite of these ideals – impractical, ungrounded, idealistic, and sentimental, just like the French romantics.
  • According to the Underground Man, this was wrong. Russian romantics shouldn't have been slandered this way, since they are actually very different from the French romantics.
  • OK, but how are they different?
  • Good question. Here's the Underground Man's answer: Russian romantics are able to see and understand everything, and to see it more clearly than practical people do. Also, they refuse to accept anyone, but they don't hate anything. They understand the use of a practical object, but they can also appreciate "the sublime and beautiful." And they are always intelligent.
  • But enough about that, he says, let's talk about my youth. The Underground Man despised his work (as a civil servant, remember?), but he never "abused" his job. A romantic, he says, would never abuse his job, unless he had plans to pursue another career.
  • He then makes a joke about how a romantic would never go insane as "the King of Spain" – this is just a reference to Nikolai Gogol's short story "Diary of a Madman," in which the hero – also a civil servant – goes insane and imagines himself the King of Spain.
  • What's remarkable about romantics, he says, is that they have many different sides to them, you know, like schizophrenics. That's why, he says, a romantic can be lofty at heart, hold true to his ideals, and still be a rogue.
  • And now he's done with his digression on romanticism. Back to his memory that had something to do with snow.
  • As you recall, the Underground Man was talking a lot about the phases he used to go through: either trying to be friends with people or cynically aloof. Either way, he was always alone.
  • So he read books.
  • Unfortunately, he found reading boring. He found that nothing external – not his books or anything else in the world – commanded his respect or could hold his interest. So instead, he took to "vice."
  • Hmm, we think, what is this vice of which you speak?
  • He doesn't say exactly. He just says it's shameful and he does it alone, timidly, at night.
  • He also used to visit filthy, shameful places, constantly hoping he wouldn't be seen by anyone he knew.
  • One time, he narrates, he saw two men playing billiards in a tavern until one threw the other out the window. This made him jealous – he sure wishes he could have been the one getting thrown out a window! He went inside said tavern in the hopes that he, too, would be defenestrated. (Greatest word ever. It simply means "thrown out of a window.")
  • Sadly, this great dream was never realized. Instead, the Underground Man just stood awkwardly in the way of the billiard table until a man took him by the shoulders and moved him out of the way.
  • This really got the Underground Man's goat. He would have been fine if, say, the guy had punched him in the face, or perhaps throttled him Homer-and-Bart-Simpson-style, but this was simply unacceptable, mainly because the guy moved him without noticing him.
  • He would have preferred a real fight, he says, even though physically this guy was Sylvester Stallone to the Underground Man's Napoleon Dynamite.
  • But the Underground Man would like to make it clear that, although this guy could've pulverized him, he didn't slink away out of cowardice. He had physical courage, he says, but not moral courage.
  • Fortunately, he explains what he's talking about. He wasn't afraid of getting pulverized, but he was afraid that, when he spoke to the uneducated masses in his majestic, literary terms, they wouldn't understand him, would laugh at him, and then he'd be alienated.
  • OK, but why would he have to use some high-falutin' language to begin with?
  • Because, he explains, that's the only way to talk about a point of honor.
  • So that's why he didn't start a fight with the man.
  • And that was the end of that.
  • No, wait, that wasn't the end of that. As it turns out, the Underground Man knows how to hold a grudge. For days? Weeks? Years. He used to see the very same man from the billiards room (an officer, incidentally) around town, walking in the streets, etc. And he simply harbored his resentment and let it build and build. (At this point, you should go back to that man vs. mouse, slap in the face discussion from Part I and review it.)
  • So the Underground Man tried everything to vent his anger. He even wrote a short story about the whole fiasco and sent it to a literary journal, which promptly rejected it. Also, this "greatly vexed" the Underground Man.
  • Finally he decided the best thing to do was just duel with this guy already. (Historical Context Lesson: If you read enough Russian literature, you'll find that arguments between men were frequently resolved by walking a few paces, turning around, and shooting at each other. In Dostoevsky's Russia, duels weren't super-common anymore, but they also weren't unheard of.) So The Underground Man wrote the officer a letter that basically said, "Hey! Let's duel!" except in really fancy, academic terms. Actually, he says, the letter was so sublime and beautiful that, were the officer to read it, he probably would have begged for friendship with its author.
  • But then the Underground Man realized that two years had passed since the billiards room incident, so it was really too late to send such a letter. So much for that.
  • And then, the solution came upon him in a flash of insight: bump into the man. Brilliant!
  • Er…maybe we should explore this a bit more. The Underground Man explains that he used to go for walks along the Nevsky Prospect ("prospect" = "avenue"; it's the big main city street in St. Petersburg).
  • Of course, by "walk" he means "wriggle." He used to "wriggle" in between the other pedestrians, perpetually humiliated that he had such a low status in life that he had to move aside for others, especially those better dressed than he.
  • So…why did he keep walking on the Nevsky?
  • He doesn't know. It was definitely torture, though.
  • So while he's been doing all this strolling, the Underground Man has been observing the officer from the billiards incident, whom he frequently sees on the Nevsky. The officer moves aside for men higher than he – like generals – but he plows right over lesser figures like the Underground Man.
  • The Underground Man hates how he is always the first to move aside. So his big plan for getting revenge is to hold his ground and bump into the officer.
  • But first, he decides he needs to look wealthy so that everyone watching this event will think he is on an equal footing with the officer.
  • So he puts on a really nice shirt and gets all ready to go. Unfortunately, he decides there's a problem with his overcoat. It has a raccoon collar, which looks inexpensive. He decides to sell the raccoon collar and use the money towards buying a more expensive beaver collar. To make up the difference in cash, he borrows from his "immediate superior" at work, a guy named Anton Antonitch Svetotchkin.
  • The only problem is that the Underground Man finds the act of borrowing to be quite shameful, so he works himself into a tizzy over it. Still, he does end up asking for the money, and Anton lends it.
  • Then the Underground Man decides that his big moment on the Nevsky has to be very carefully planned; he can't do it at random. Which presents another problem: he gets so lost in scheming and planning every time he walks the street that he keeps passing the officer and forgetting to actually bump into him. Oops.
  • And then, one night, on the Nevsky…he does it. He bumps his shoulder right into the officer.
  • The officer, who walks right by without reacting, is obviously pretending not to notice the offence. (At least that's what the Underground Man is certain of.)
  • Also, the Underground Man gets the worst of the bump (probably because, once again, he's Napoleon Dynamite to the officer's Sylvester Stallone).
  • He then informs us that the officer has been relocated; the Underground Man hasn't seen him in fourteen years. He ends the chapter wondering, "What is the dear fellow doing now? Whom is he walking over?"

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