The UM starts out talking about the office he worked in when he was twenty-four: apparently he hated everyone there and likewise, they hated him. The narrative then derails while the UM describes the Russian national character, which he believes eliminates fools and elevates Romantics who appreciate the “sublime and beautiful.”
Returning to his description of his life, he notes that he had no friends and was always alone, spending most of his time reading. He admits to satisfying his private desires in various “dens of vice.”
The UM then describes an incident in a bar one night in which an army officer moved him away from a billiard table as though he were a piece of furniture. He said nothing to the man, but fostered deep seething resentment for this insult. He would run in to this same officer in the street, and try to stare him down, but would always end up stepping out of the way for him (the officer never recognized him). He writes the officer a long letter listing his grievances, but does not send it. Instead he decid es to meet the officer in the street and bump against him instead of stepping aside. The event, when it happens, is anticlimactic: he and the officer bump shoulders, and the officer continues on his way, seeming not to have noticed. The officer is late r transferred, and the UM never sees him again.
The UM then describes how he would spend most of his time either depressed or dreaming of grand lives for himself, all of which involve becoming an important charitable man, beloved by all. He remains caught between two extremes–a hero or a hermit–with no middle ground between the two.
Sometimes, the UM immersed himself so deeply in the “sublime and beautiful” that he would be filled with a great love for mankind, and a deep desire to see others. On these days, he would generally go to visit his supervisor, with whom he was friendly, a lthough the visits were always disastrous–he would feel nervous and uncomfortable, unsure of what to say. These visits would temper his love of mankind for awhile.
One day, in the midst of one of his better moods, the UM decides to visit Simonov, his only friend from his school days. He did not have any other friends from school, having deliberately disassociated himself from what that painful period in his lif e. He expected Simonov to despise him, but this expectation only made him more intent on the visit. The chapter ends with him stepping into Simonov’s apartment.
For the first time, with the officer, we see the UM’s self-described masochism in action. He feels insulted by the officer in the bar, and ashamed of his own cowardice. The UM is rarely capable of dealing with things actively. He goes back to his hole and broods for a matter of years. There is a very long stretch of time during which the UM was obsessed with the officer, from the moving in the bar to the push on the street. And all of this is just as the UM described–he becomes angry and insulted, a nd begins to find pleasure in his painful brooding.
The UM’s description of his workplace is very revealing. We have been wondering what experiences led the UM to his antisocial views, and here we begin to get some answers. His vacillation between arrogance and fear is very evident–he either feels above his coworkers (more intelligent, more thoughtful), or beneath, like a coward or a slave. His arrogance makes them despise him more.
Lastly, the UM’s delusions of grandeur further evidence his insecurity and obsession with being accepted by society. The officer comes to him and begs for acceptance. He has a flash of the “sublime” and wants to befriend his coworkers. He becomes a mil lionaire and donates all his money to various charities. Although these fantasies disgust him, he finds them to be “romantic” dreams which, despite his defense of the Russian Romantic in Chapter 1 of Part II, are pathetic to him. Here we find another de ep contradiction in the UM’s character: he is disgusted by romanticism, and yet succumbs to romantic fantasies. He also scorns these visionary fantasies, but distrusts societal rules as well. The UM is never able to integrate these two dichotomies.
Part II: Chapters 3-5
The UM finds Simonov already hosting two other of their school acquaintances, Trudolyubov and Ferfichkin. They are discussing a farewell dinner for another ex-schoolmate, Zverkov. They take little notice of the UM as he enters. The UM then give s us an extensive description of Zverkov–popular, very wealthy, now a successful officer in the army. The UM and Zverkov had never been friends, mostly on account of Zverkov’s tendency to mock the UM.
Stricken with the memory of Zverkov and his ex-schoolmates ignoring him, the UM invites himself to their dinner. They react poorly, noting that he and Zverkov were never friends, and wondering whether he will have to pay for his meal. The UM stands his g round, and the three reluctantly agree to let him come.
That night, the UM dreams of his terrible school days, which seem much like his description of work. From the outset, the UM felt different and scorned, and so he hid himself in “intelligence” and study, distancing himself more and more from his classmat es as he grew older. The UM also mentions that he was an orphan in this section.
After a day of nervous preparation, in which he concludes that all his clothes are far too shoddy, the UM heads off to the restaurant. The dinner goes badly from the start. The time had been changed without the UM’s knowledge, so he has to wait for an h our before the other four men arrive; the wait humiliates him greatly. Zverkov treats him with condescension, leveling him with insults. Throughout the meal, the UM antagonizes his old schoolmates with jokes about Zverkov’s slight speech defect and the overall lacking intelligence of the group. All of this stems from his own insecurity about his shabby appearance and meager salary– these men have enjoyed much more success than him. Finally, the UM gives an inappropriate offensive toast to Zverkov, wh ich nearly leads to a brawl. He spends the rest of the night brooding, and none of the other men talk to him. When they leave to go to a brothel, however, the UM begs to go with them, and asks Simonov for money. Simonov, disgusted with the UM’s behavio r already, gives him the money in disbelief.
In the carriage ride, the UM fantasizes about striking Zverkov in the nose to avenge himself for the insults of the evening, and about reconciling with Zverkov and becoming lifelong friends. He arrives at the brothel to find that his compatriots have alr eady gone. He spots a young prostitute, and, on a whim, hires her with Simonov’s money, noting how disgusting she must find him.
In Part I, the UM tells us about his masochistic ideas of getting pleasure from pain: in this section, he deliberately decides to go the dinner because he knows it will bring him pain. Somehow, in bringing pain on himself, he is acting out his resentmen t of his old schoolmates. Thus, we can see how many of the themes introduced in Part I influence the UM’s actions in Part II.
Before the dinner, the UM fantasizes about winning over Simonov, Ferfichkin, and Trudolyubov with his wit and charm, and forsaking Zverkov. He then invites Zverkov over, and they toast to their eternal friendship. But there is arrogance in this vision a s well–his insecurity prevents the UM from being comfortable among friends in a social setting. Zverkov’s early jokes are not mean-spirited, but the UM takes immediate offense at them and must retaliate to “save his honor.”
Romanticism has emerged as something of an undercurrent here. In the previous section, the UM defended the Russian Romantic as someone who sees things very clearly. His defense of romanticism clearly mirrors his own caution about logic and law in Part I . During the carriage ride, he chides himself for his “romantic” fantasies about Zverkov, displaying the inner contradiction that makes Zverkov despise himself and his own values.
The UM’s description of his schooldays is predictable. The only new important piece of information that is the UM’s family history–he was an orphan. The UM represents a character whose basic problems (before whatever insanity he has now) are insecurity and a need for acceptance, coupled with a constant feeling of alienation. The UM has never, throughout his entire life, had the benefit of a central group of people by whom he was accepted and loved. And, lacking that center, one can see how he entered his early school days feeling slighted and abandoned by the world, and carried these feelings throughout his adulthood.
Lastly, we should mention the UM’s notion of “life.” His attendance at the dinner was based, in part, on his feeling that not going would be cowardly, avoiding “life.” When he is in the carriage, intent on slapping Zverkov in face, he prepares himself f or a “confrontation” with real-life. The UM seems to equate “life” with conflict. Or rather, he seems to equate life with emotionally satisfying contact with other people, and the only avenues of emotion open to him are resentment, anger, and conflict. The UM knows that his dark cellar forbids him to experience real “life”; he remains aware of his own predicament, his own interminable alienation. He seems to think that by immersing himself in “life,” he might somehow put himself back into society, and in some way regain his dignity.
Part II: Chapters 6-10
The UM wakes up next to the prostitute and makes conversation with her. She is cold and removed, until they start talking about another prostitute who died that morning of consumption. The conversation sparks something in the UM, and he gives the pr ostitute, Lisa, an impassioned speech about how she is doomed to the same sordid fate if she stays in this life; he then starts babbling about homes and families and love in a somewhat nonsensical way. Lisa tells him that he is talking as if reading from a book. The UM continues, painting a vivid picture of the sordid horrors awaiting Lisa if she remains a prostitute. He criticizes the baseness of her profession, and notes how it is destroying her both physically and emotionally.
Lisa is finally moved to tears, and shows the UM a letter she has from a young man she met at a party, in which he professes his love for her. Before leaving, the UM gives her his address, and tells her to visit him.
The next morning, the UM wakes up amazed at his “sentimentality” the night before. He clearly has grave doubts about Lisa visiting. He writes what he considers to be a very well-phrased letter to Simonov, paying him back and apologizing for his behavior (by blaming it on the wine); he gives the letter to Apollon, his manservant. Over the next few days, he throws himself into worrying about whether or not Lisa will visit. This leads into an aside about Apollon, who appears to have the ability to dri ve the UM mad with shame and anger.
One evening, in the midst of the UM’s concerns about Lisa’s arrival–he vacillates between fantasies about a future for the two of them together and total apathy)–and torment over Apollon’s judgmental stares, Lisa arrives. They sit down to tea, and the UM has a fit of anger at Apollon, explaining to Lisa how he torments him. Then, feeling ashamed of his house and himself, he tries to make Lisa feel awkward and unwelcome by not speaking to her. When she finally speaks, he explodes at her, disavowing hi s “pathetic speeches” the night before as sentimental rubbish, and telling her that he only humiliated her because he had been humiliated that evening. He then continues on a rant about his own pathetic state, describing how much he hates her for finding him like this, and how ashamed he is of himself in every way. Lisa’s response to all of this is, surprisingly, tender understanding.
The narrative then skips ahead. The two have had sex, and the UM has once again exploded in anger at Lisa. She is alienated from him entirely now, crying in the bedroom. When she leaves, he presses some money into her hand, in an attempt to be as insul ting and demeaning as possible; Lisa leaves the money behind when she goes. The UM changes his mind and goes after her, but she is gone.
The notes end with the UM, back in his later state, offering his thoughts on the pathos of “real life” as compared to life in literature, but noting that he is proud of his decision to live in the emotional extremes of the real world rather be “average.” A brief parenthetical note informs us that the Notes do not end here, that this “paradoxical fellow” wrote more, but that we may stop reading here.
Throughout the Notes, we have seen the UM take out his aggression on himself to somehow satisfy his desire for revenge. In this section we see what is perhaps a more sinister example of his emotional dysfunction–since he is powerless with Zverkov and his friends, he seeks a position of power with Lisa. He humiliates her by pointing out the baseness of her profession, and elevates himself by trying to “save” her from her terrible fate.
At the beginning of Chapter 9, the UM notes that he would make Lisa “pay dearly” for “this.” We might ask ourselves what “this” is: his shameful house, his clothes, his nervous demeanor, his ugly face, his miserable future. Lisa becomes the reposit ory for all the aggression he has built up against those he perceives as having slighted him throughout life. In this way, the UM moves from victim to victimizer.
The UM’s emotional shortcomings bring us to some sobering ideas about the character. The UM himself notes, at one point, that he could never have really loved Lisa or anyone else, since to him love meant tyranny and moral superiority. The UM has remaine d alone and unloved his entire life, and has spent nearly all his emotional energy trying to protect himself from what he perceives as the shaming insults and jibes of others. How can someone like that possibly build the emotional tools to love, or be lo ved, or interact with others in society with any success?
In Part I of Notes from Underground, we are presented with a man estranged from society. He is acutely sensitive and totally unable to handle himself with other people. He is too timid, it seems, to address any of the many “wrongs” visited on him directly, so he develops a masochistic system in which he finds a way to take out his aggression on other people by hurting himself (like going to visit Simonov, or going to the dinner, or not going to the doctor). This evokes his nihilistic side– the UM refuses to accept what he calls the “twice-two-makes-four” rules of rationality that govern society. He becomes a little confused on this point: at times he appears to be saying that he refuses to accept these laws because they hamper his free ch oice as an individual, and at other times he appears to be bemoaning people’s fixation with proving their free will. The confusion is as important as the clarity–it is most important to recognize the attack that the UM makes in his mind on the structure s of society.
Part I can be seen as a guide to Part II, which can be viewed as a model series of events that illustrate the UM’s inability to interact with other people. By the end of the Notes, the UM is an indisputably ambiguous character. He refers to himse lf as an “anti-hero,” but the UM is neither hero nor anti-hero. Remember that Dostoevsky strove to depict real people. By the time we meet him, the UM has suffered a lifetime of fearing real life, a lifetime apart from the “real” world, confined instead to isolation, solitude, and masochism.
Internet- Spark notes