The first part presents us with the psychology and the ideas of the novel's protagonist. The narrator of the novel - the Underground Man - introduces himself to us. He says that he is a sick man and a spiteful man. He was a civil servant and tortured petitioners who came to see him. Almost instantly, however, he reverses his position, claiming instead that he is not at all spiteful but merely wanted to be. He could never become spiteful or anything else because his nature did not allow him to have any character. Only men of action who are not intelligent can have any kind of character. The Underground Man tells us that he could never have character because his consciousness has become overdeveloped as a result of being too cultured. The Underground Man accepts the doctrine of determinism, which claims that all our actions are determined by the laws of nature and are thus not up to us. Consciousness causes humiliation by allowing us to recognize our own powerlessness against these laws of nature. Eventually, the Underground Man came to find pleasure in humiliation.
The Underground Man then insists that he is very proud, but if someone slapped him in the face, he would not be able to avenge himself. People who can take revenge usually act without thinking. Though such people are very stupid, the Underground Man envies them. He himself has an overdeveloped conscience, and as a result is incapable of carrying out any action such as revenge. The moment he decides to act, he is plagued by so many doubts that in the end he is forced to retreat. This retreat always brings him shame, but he cannot avoid it. Men of action will gladly stop when faced with impossibility caused by the laws of nature; this impossibility consoles them. The Underground Man, on the other hand, claims that he hates the laws of nature. Since these laws determine every action, there is never anyone to blame for anything.
The narrator uses the example of a toothache to explain why he hates the laws of nature. Like the laws of nature, a toothache is something that causes us pain but that we have no control over. The only response to this powerlessness is spite. If we listen to the moans of a cultured man with a toothache, we will realize that he is moaning only out of spite, to annoy himself and others. The consciousness of one's powerlessness against the laws of nature is humiliating, so no one with consciousness can ever respect himself. Human being with consciousness can only act by deceiving themselves. Men of action can act because they think they have reasons for acting. Anyone with consciousness, however, can see that there are never good reasons for acting. For example, one may try to seek revenge out of a sense of justice, but when one thinks about justice, one sees that there is really no such thing. The laws of nature are responsible for everything. People with consciousness can act only by deceiving themselves into thinking they have reason to act, but later they will hate themselves for this deception. People with consciousness, then, can never do anything, so they are overtaken by inertia and get very bored. The Underground Man wishes that he did nothing not because of consciousness but simply out of laziness. He would love to be a sluggard, or a glutton who sat around drinking to everything "beautiful and sublime." He would be very glad to hear others calling him a sluggard.
The Underground Man criticizes the idealists who claim that human beings only do bad things because they don't realize that it is always in their best interests to do the Good. If human beings were enlightened as to their best interests and they used their reason, they would always do good. The Underground Man claims that throughout history, human beings have consistently done things that were obviously not in their best interests. There must be some other interest that is even more advantageous than peace and prosperity. He goes on to say that utopian theories are just logical exercises with no grounding in reality. The utopians argue that science will show that human beings are nothing more than piano keys under the control of the laws of nature and will teach them to act according to those laws. Once everyone is enlightened and utopia is attained, the crystal palace can be built. The Underground Man responds that such a world would be very rational and boring and someone would certainly destroy it despite all its advantages. What human beings need is not rational desire, but their own desire. Utopian theories ignore the human need to make independent decisions, based on nothing more than one's own whims and free will.
The utopians might reply that science will show that free will does not exist. Eventually science will help explain the reasons for every action one makes, so that people will only act according to mathematical tables of actions. The Underground Man argues that human beings will never agree to act according to tables and that they will destroy this utopia. Even if every action could be accounted for by reason, human beings would go insane just to escape their reason. The Underground Man agrees that human beings are looking for the utopia, but this is only because they love to create. He says, however, that human beings are equally fond of destruction because they do not want to inhabit the structures that they build. Life consists of creating, striving, and searching. Once one reaches the end of this process and there is nothing left to do, this is no longer life but death. Thus, while human beings always search for something greater, they are afraid to actually find it. The Underground Man then questions the utopian claim that well-being is always to one's best advantage, suggesting instead that suffering is the cause of consciousness and that human beings will never renounce it.
The narrator explains that he opposes the utopian crystal palace because it satisfies only material needs. That in itself, however, does not make it desirable. For now, he prefers to keep the underground, since there at least he can have consciousness and make his own decisions. He is, however, not satisfied with the underground and is looking for a greater ideal. The crystal palace fails because it does not satisfy spiritual needs. It addresses only reason, which is a small part of human existence. Other needs must be satisfied, and the Underground Man will not accept any ideal that does not succeed in satisfying them.
The Underground Man concludes Part I by explaining that he does not write his notes for anyone to read them. Someone writing an autobiography for an audience will always lie in it. He, on the other hand, wants to be completely sincere, so he will never let anyone read what he has written. He is not sure why he has the urge to write it all down, but it may be because what he has to say looks more dignified on paper. To lead in to Part II, the Underground Man says that it has been snowing for a long time and this reminds him of an episode in his life that he now wants to write about.
This part deals with events that took place fifteen years prior to the writing of Part I. Here the Underground Man describes his interactions with other people. The Underground Man recalls his youth when he was working in an office. He hated his coworkers and thought that they were repulsive. Though he felt superior to them, he also felt that he was unlike anyone else and that others hated him. He hated his face, though he wanted it to be intelligent. Sometimes he would think that his anti-social nature was artificial and would attempt to befriend his coworkers, but this always ended quickly. Here the Underground Man digresses to talk about the Russian romantics and attack them for having ideals that they never actually act on. He says that these romantics are the most idealistic people, but they are also the most practical.
The Underground Man, completely alone, found himself bored. He read a lot, but this got boring and he went out to taverns trying to get into trouble. One time went into a tavern hoping to get into a fight. Instantly, however, an officer moved him out of the way and passed by him without noticing him. The Underground Man was humiliated and decided to get revenge. He followed the officer around for two years. Noticing that the man always walked straight toward people expecting them to move aside for him, the Underground Man decided to walk into him instead of moving out of the way. He borrowed money to buy better clothes so that he would appear to be the officer's equal. He then made many attempts to walk into the officer and finally succeeded. He felt himself completely avenged.
The Underground Man spent a lot of time fantasizing and dreamed of embracing all of humanity. When his fantasies got too intense, he needed to go out and visit someone. His one lasting acquaintance only saw visitors on Tuesday, so the Underground Man decided to visit an old schoolmate, Simonov. When he arrived, Simonov and two other old schoolmates were planning a dinner party for another schoolmate, Zverkov. Though he did not like any of his former schoolmates and he did not like them, the Underground Man invited himself to the dinner party. The Underground Man then went home and recalled his years at school. He hated his peers and they hated him, so he earned good grades in order to dominate them. He only had one friend, whom he dominated and then despised.
The next day the Underground Man arrived to dinner ahead of the others because they had changed the time without telling him. Everyone was rude to him, and Zverkov treated him with contempt. Finally, the Underground Man insulted Zverkov and challenged one of the others to a duel. From that point on they all ignored him, but he stayed and, in order to annoy them, paced up and down the room for the next three hours. When the others stood up to go to a brothel, the Underground Man attempted to apologize to them and begged Simonov for some money to come with them. Getting the money, the Underground Man followed them. He fantasized that either they will all fall at his feet and beg for his friendship, or he will slap Zverkov in the face. Since he knew that the former will not happen, he arrives at the brothel ready to slap Zverkov, challenge him to a duel, be arrested and sent away to prison.
None of these fantasies came through, however, because when the Underground Man arrived at the brothel, he found that the others had already dispersed. A girl named Liza was brought out for him, and he slept with her. When the Underground Man woke up, he foud Liza's presence oppressive and decided to dominate her. He gave her a lengthy moralistic lecture on why she should leave the brothel and get married. Though Liza appeared skeptical, the Underground Man told her about the importance of freedom and of family, emphasizing the love between mother and child and between husband and wife. Eventually Liza broke down and began to cry. The Underground Man gave Liza his address and left, after she showed him a letter from a student who was in love with her.
The next day the Underground Man was troubled by the fear that Liza might come to see him. He wrote a letter to Simonov, apologizing for his conduct at dinner, blaming his behavior on alcohol and returning the money. He then began to quarrel with his servant, Apollon, who had excessive dignity and looked down on the Underground Man. As the Underground Man was about to assault Apollon, Liza walked in. The Underground Man was ashamed to have her see his poverty and he was angry with her for having come to embarrass him in this way. To get rid of her, he first tortured her by refusing to speak, and finally insulted her saying that he only wanted to hurt her and not to pity her. He told her that he was an abominable human being and hated her and that he hates her ever more now that he has told her this and that she should leave. Instead, realizing his unhappiness, Liza ran up to him and embraced him. Tempted to respond to Liza's love, the Underground Man instead took advantage of her and then left her. As she was walking out of his apartment, he handed her some money so as to humiliate her even further. When she had gone, he realized that she had thrown the money back. Realizing what he had done, the Underground Man rushed out after her to beg her forgiveness. In the street he stopped short, however, and decided that if she forgave him, he would only hate her for it the next day. Deciding that it would be better for both of them if he did not catch her, the Underground Man returned to his apartment and never saw Liza again.
The Underground Man wraps up his Notes by saying that this work is not a novel because it presents an anti-hero and not a hero. He also insists that what makes this work so distasteful is that his readers, like him, live in a fictional world of literature and fantasy, removed from reality.