Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 1-3

Part I:

Chapter 1 Summary:

The Underground Man, as the protagonist is generally referred to, introduces himself in the opening of the first chapter. A footnote by the author informs us from the start that this protagonist is a fictional character but that people like him must exist in the present cultural setting. The footnote lays out the goal of the first part of the novel, which is to explain how such individuals come into being.

The Underground Man begins by stating that he is sick, spiteful, and unpleasant. He explains that his liver is diseased but he refuses to see a doctor out of spite even though he respects the medical profession. He is forty years old and used to work for the civil service, but was a very rude official and tortured the petitioners who came to see him. He then explains that, in fact, he is not at all spiteful and would certainly have been more pleasant if someone had only shown him some sign of friendship. Once again he reverses his position, saying that if he accepted some such token of friendship he would be tortured by shame.

The protagonist says that in fact he was never a rude official, but had just lied to the reader out of spite; he instantly goes on to say that though he had tried to be spiteful he could not be because his nature contradicted it. His nature would not allow him to become anything or to have any character at all, since intelligent men cannot have character. Men of character and action, on the other hand, are never intelligent. This is what he believes at the age of forty and must therefore belong to the wisdom of old age; forty is extreme old age since no one should ever live past forty. But he himself will live past forty even though it is indecent. He lives in a poor room in St. Petersburg, which is bad both for his finances and for his health, but he will not move. The chapter concludes with the Underground Man's affirmation that he plans to talk about himself because this is the subject that gives a decent man pleasure.

Chapter 1 Analysis:

The footnote that opens this chapter serves to focus the entire work and also to give us a way of approaching it. Dostoevsky stresses the point that although the Underground Man is not a real person but a literary invention, people like him must exist given the nature of society and culture at the time. The purpose of the novel, then, is twofold. First, it must trace the emergence of a character such as the Underground Man within contemporary society and show the inevitability of such individuals existing given the cultural conditions. Second, since the Underground Man is clearly a disaffected and unpleasant character, the novel serves both implicitly and explicitly to criticize a culture that inevitably produces such individuals. Responding to the contemporary escapist trend of writing novels dealing with the past, Dostoevsky ironically points out that his protagonist is a character "of the recent past," thus forcing the reader to encounter in the novel not the remoteness of past centuries, but the reality of the mid-nineteenth century.

The text is full of contradictions from the very beginning. We are told at the outset that the Underground Man is sick, spiteful, unpleasant, superstitious, and educated. He presents us also with very concrete ways of seeing him. We know that his liver is diseased, that he is forty years old, and that he worked as a civil servant. These are all descriptions that attempt to help us understand exactly who the Underground Man is. Yet before we have had time to settle into an understanding of his personality, the narrator obscures our view.

First, the Underground Man tells us that though he will not see doctors out of spite, he does not know who this spite is directed against; that is, he is aware of certain predispositions in himself, but not of their purposes or origins. In fact, as he later tells us, he is not even spiteful but merely wants to be. Nor was he ever a rude official as he had previously told us. The Underground Man specifically insists that he could not become anything and that an intelligent man in the nineteenth century cannot become anything and necessarily lacks character. First of all, this is a clear attack on the culture of the nineteenth century in which intelligent men cannot make anything of themselves but only fools prosper. Second, the Underground Man attempts to point out in himself a fundamental lack of self. He cannot define himself as a scoundrel or as an insect because intelligence precludes the possibility of defining yourself as any one thing. He cannot be spiteful or rude because this would give him character, which intelligent people cannot have.

The view that the protagonist seems to be advancing here is that he cannot give any stable definition of himself. He can do no more than point out certain features of his personality and of his life, thereby attempting to describe rather than define himself. Each of these features, furthermore, may be called into question. In fact, even the simple division between description and definition may itself be called into question. To explain "just who I really am," the Underground Man states: "I'm a collegiate assessor." With this line he attempts to reduce his entire personality to something simple and concrete, but in the very next line explains that the case is not that he actually is a collegiate assessor, but rather that this is something he did so he would be able to eat. The statement "I'm a collegiate assessor," then, is only an attempt to describe himself in terms of something that is peripheral to the core of his being.

The idea that the Underground Man cannot find any features that are central to his personality and thus has no character is also brought into question. He insists, for example, that he could not become spiteful because his personality contradicted spitefulness. He must then have some embedded personality that determines who he is or isn't. Furthermore, while recognizing that staying in Petersburg is rationally inadvisable, the Underground Man insists on staying there but cannot give a reason. Something deeper than reason compels him to remain in the city. He is driven by something that is not rational and cannot be characterized.

At the very beginning of the chapter the Underground Man states that he respects medicine and then continues to say that he is superstitious, or at least superstitious enough to respect medicine. This ironic statement mocks the pretensions of a society that places overly high values on science, reason, and professionalism, all of which are here symbolized by medicine. The implication is that superstition, the opposite of education and reason, is necessary to respect reason. The rational foundation upon which society is built, then, is simply another superstition rather than the absolute truth it is made out to be.

Finally, in the last line, the Underground Man states that he will talk about himself. This statement is already ironic in itself since he has already been talking about himself for quite a while. The statement also explicitly brings Dostoevsky into the tradition started by René Descartes, which attempts to understand the world by focusing on an analysis of the individual self. It is only by thinking about oneself that one can gain any perspective on the rest of the world.

Chapter 2 Summary:

The Underground Man tells us that he could not make anything of himself precisely because he was too conscious. He insists that modern culture provides too much consciousness to human beings and that this overabundance is a disease, while having less consciousness or even none at all is far superior and is also sufficient for everyday needs. He noticed in the past that whenever he was experiencing the most refined cultural feelings, those of the beautiful and the sublime, he would commit the most atrocious acts. His consciousness, recognizing the incompatibility between the feeling and the act, would torture him with shame, from which he derived a secret pleasure.

Here we are told the reason why the Notes are being written: the Underground Man wishes to discover whether his feelings are unique to him or shared by others. Consciousness allows one to recognize that despite extreme shame, one still cannot change. Unchangeable laws from which it is impossible to deviate determine one's nature. If one is a scoundrel, for example, one is a scoundrel because natural law determines that one must be a scoundrel.

The Underground Man tells us that although he is very proud, if he were slapped in the face he would still probably feel pleasure from despair and humiliation. Though he is not guilty of any crimes he has committed because they were determined not by him but by the laws of nature, he is still guilty for them because he is smarter than others around him and can see himself for what he is. He realizes that even if he had a positive trait like magnanimity, he would be unable to make use of it because he would never really be able to forgive. Yet if he had no magnanimity at all and wanted to get revenge for an offense, he would be equally unable to do so. Finally, he promises to explain this inability to act later.

Chapter 2 Analysis:

The main themes of this chapter are those of consciousness and natural law and the complex interplay between these two aspects of human existence. The Underground Man begins saying that even though he wanted to become an insect, he could not achieve this. The insect here is a metaphor for lowness and insignificance. The problem is not simply one of being unable to become anything important, but it is impossible even to become completely insignificant; consciousness prevents one from becoming anything at all.

If consciousness is clearly marked as undesirable, then culture is to blame for the over development of consciousness. This is emphasized by the statement that consciousness is especially developed in "one who has the particular misfortune of living in St. Petersburg, the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world." St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great and every step of its development was planned from the very beginning. Peter founded the city in order to make it his capital. Architects were brought in from other European countries, including France and Holland, to give the city a particular look. Streets were planned to be straight, and there was even a failed attempt to dig canals in order to imitate Venice. Most importantly, Petersburg, which was closer to the Russian border than Moscow, could serve as a "window on Europe," a place for cultural exchange. As a result, St. Petersburg was both fully premeditated and highly cultured, both of which traits the Underground Man rails against.

The Underground Man explains that he discovered early in life that he would commit base acts while he was closest to experiencing the "beautiful and sublime," a phrase often used by Russian philosophers of the time and based on the aesthetic philosophies of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. The conceptual incompatibility of this high emotion with the low acts he committed brought the Underground Man shame, which he came to find pleasure in. This is an explicit attack on the philosophical ideas of Kant and the German Romantic movement, which insisted that an appreciation of the "beautiful and sublime" is related to a greater appreciation for morality. The Underground Man, in contrast, finds that appreciation of beauty has no correspondence with moral action and that, quite to the contrary, he would almost by necessity commit the most immoral acts just as he was appreciating the greatest extent of the sublime. The idea that the shame resulting from immorality could bring pleasure is also an assault on the moral ideas of Enlightenment philosophers like Denis Diderot, who argued that we find pleasure in moral action. Finally, when the Underground Man states that he has set out to write his Notes in order to see if anyone else shares his pleasures of shame and baseness, he is attempting to discover whether the resistance to the dominant moral philosophy of the time is widespread; the implication is that moral theory has little relation to the reality of everyday existence.

Another theme of the chapter is the impossibility of change. We are trapped in the personalities we have been dealt, and to become something else is impossible. If one commits base acts, one commits them as a result of immutable natural laws, and neither morality nor appreciation of the beautiful can change this. Most fascinating is the treatment of consciousness in this chapter. At first, the Underground Man insists simply that an overdeveloped consciousness is a disease and only a quarter of this amount is needed for everyday existence. A little later he goes so far as to say that consciousness itself, no matter in what amount, is a disease; this disease itself is bestowed upon human beings by culture. Dostoevsky makes a fascinating move here, for he rejects philosophical optimism altogether. On the one hand he rejects the Enlightenment belief in the value of culture as a vehicle of reason, progress, and prosperity. Instead, culture spreads a disease; it corrupts us by opening our eyes to our own baseness. On the other hand, Dostoevsky attacks the theories presented by social contract philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argue that in the absence of culture and society human beings are pure and naturally tend toward moral action. Dostoevsky's notion here is rather one of a naturally immoral human existence, the exact baseness of which we do not recognize until culture endows us with a consciousness that allows us to see our own moral degradation.

The Underground Man does imply that immorality is not a natural way of being for him. He says that "it was as if this were my most normal condition . . . I almost came to believe (perhaps I really did believe) that this might really have been my normal condition." It is as if baseness is not really his normal condition, but is rather something imposed on him, a disease he has contracted. But at the same time he insists on the impossibility of deviating from his immoral actions and apparent necessity of his baseness. The disease appears to be not the actual immorality, but rather the consciousness of this immorality. This view of consciousness is very similar to the one Friedrich Nietzsche was proposing in Germany around the same time. Nietzsche argued in Beyond Good and Evil that we act based on pre-determined and necessary laws and that some classes oppress others according to the laws of nature. The oppressed fight back by imposing on their oppressors a consciousness that makes them ashamed of their "immoral" acts. The claim that the Underground Man advances in this chapter is very similar. He argues, in effect, that consciousness is a disease because those who have it recognize the baseness of their own actions and experience moral shame. The most important thing to note about this conception is that consciousness is seen as the cause of the problem of immorality. Reading between the lines, however, we see that immorality is grounded in natural law and consciousness merely allows us to recognize the wrongness of our actions.

Finally, the Underground Man illustrates the role of consciousness in his interactions with others. If, for example, someone slapped him, he would take pleasure in the despair of being slapped. He would not, however, be able either to forgive the slap, or to revenge it. Forgiveness is impossible for a man with consciousness because this consciousness allows him to see that his offender acted in accordance with laws of nature, which, the Underground Man adds sarcastically, cannot be forgiven. It makes sense only to forgive human beings; when applied to nature, the notion of forgiveness is nonsensical. Finally, he would be unable to revenge himself because he could never decide to do anything. Consciousness prevents one from acting at the same time as it prevents one from forgiving.

Chapter 3 Summary:

The Underground Man sets out to examine people who are capable of taking revenge. They act spontaneously and are defined, essentially, by their desire for revenge. They rush forward like bulls and can only be stopped by a wall; however, when confronted with this wall, they always give up. For spontaneous "men of action," a wall in their way is soothing because it means that there really is nothing more that can be done. This is contrasted with the thinking person, who would see the wall as an excuse and be extremely grateful for that excuse not to act, even though he does not believe in excuses. The Underground Man insists that he respects spontaneous people and, though they are stupid, feels that this is what normal people are supposed to be like.

Imagining a person with a very acute consciousness, the Underground Man suggests that such an individual, surrounded by unthinking spontaneous men of action, would see himself as a mouse. If he felt himself offended and wanted to take revenge, he would surround himself with so many doubts, hesitations, questions, and anxieties, that he would never be able to carry out the revenge. Instead, he would have to feign contempt and crawl underground. This mouse would then stay in hiding, gathering malice and spite. It would, for forty years, remember every detail of the offence it was given, imagine various scenarios that never happened, and feel shame not only for the actual events but for the imagined ones also. Even if it tries to take revenge, it will do so only in very small ways that will be far more painful to the mouse than to the intended victim. The Underground Man insists that there is a certain pleasure to be had from all this shame, indecision, and impotence, though it is a pleasure that people with strong nerves will not understand. We might, he suggests, expect him to say that no one will understand if they haven't received a slap in the face, but he states that he also has never received a slap in the face.

People with strong nerves‹the bulls‹will always submit to impossibility‹walls. These walls are the laws of nature, under which he includes evolution, proof that one is more interested in oneself than in the rest of humanity, and that two times two is four. People with strong nerves will stop at these laws, since they make up a wall that cannot be broken. The Underground Man, on the other hand, says that though he, too, cannot break the wall, he also will not reconcile himself to it simply because he cannot break it because he hates the laws of nature. While others may be consoled by the impossibilities of the laws of nature, he himself finds greater pleasure in understanding them, in convincing himself that he is to blame for them while realizing that there is no one to blame. In the end, while he knows that there is no one to be angry with for the existence of these laws, it still hurts.

Chapter 3 Analysis:

In this chapter Dostoevsky relies heavily on six important metaphors, which stand for the central concepts in his thinking. These are the bull, the mouse, the underground, the slap in the face, the wall, and two times two. The bull is the man of action, someone who charges without thinking, and the sort of person that the Underground Man consistently claims to respect and believes to be a normal human being. The contrast to this is a mouse, a person who thinks and has an acute consciousness, which robs him of the ability to act. The bull charges while the mouse hides underground. The underground is, of course, one of the novel's central metaphors: it is both a literal place to hide and a figurative place remote from other human beings, their actions, their morality, and their culture, where one may freely indulge in dreams and fantasies unfettered by reality. The slap in the face is a metaphor for an offense of any sort. The mouse, the Underground Man claims, is almost always offended, partially because it can never bring itself to take any action in response to an offence. This is contrary to the bull, which will only stop charging if it encounters a wall. The wall is a metaphor for the impossible: the man of action will stop once he realizes that his revenge cannot be carried out because it is impossible. When something is impossible, this is always due to the laws of nature, such as two times two equals four.

The Underground Man couldn't care less about the fact that two times two is always four; he objects primarily to the laws of nature. The laws of nature, in his mind, are responsible for interfering with every action. The reason that men of action find consolation in the laws of nature is that, when something is impossible, they can stop. The laws of nature are not an excuse for them, but simply fact: you have done all you can, there is nothing more you can do. For the Underground Man, however, the laws of nature are an excuse: you don't have to carry out your action because it is impossible. The problem with excuses is that they only work with regard to other people. No one can possibly expect you to do something that is impossible, or to hold it against you if you fail. The Underground Man, however, sees laws of nature as just an obstacle, simply one that's so hard that it can't be overcome. For him, impossibility doesn't work as an excuse because he can't excuse failing to act to himself regardless of whether or not he would have had to do the impossible to succeed. The reason that the impossible doesn't work as an excuse is that the Underground Man never manages to do anything; he cannot carry out his revenge regardless of whether or not it is possible to do so. If he fails in something that is possible, he blames himself and feels shame and anger at himself. If he fails in something that is impossible, he has no one to be angry with but still feels shame. Since the Underground Man finds pleasure in shame, he is simply trying to make himself feel ashamed of as many things as possible. By refusing to accept the laws of nature as an excuse not to act, he gives himself the choice to feel shame even when he is not responsible for his own failure.

In calling himself a mouse, the Underground Man admits to a character of some sort. Though previously he claimed he could not even become an insect, he now sees himself as at least a mouse. The difference is that the insect is something that he sees as having a defined identity; the mouse, on the other hand, always questions its own identity. He contrasts the mouse specifically with the view of human beings presented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, using one of his ideas: l'homme de la nature et de la vérité (the man of nature and of truth). For Rousseau, this was the state of the human being before entering into civilization. Civilization, in his view, corrupts the innocence of the true and natural. The Underground Man, of course, flips this idea around entirely by insisting that an honest person that does not take advantage of others must be accumulating a great deal of malice. Dostoevsky sets up a framework for responding to an offence from three different viewpoints. A normal person would simply respond to the offence with revenge. Rousseau's natural man may not take revenge, but would at least feel that punishment for the offender is just. Thus, while he accumulates malice due to not paying back the offence, he at least feels himself justified in wanting revenge. The Underground Man, unlike either of these, believes neither in direct action nor in justice. He is then offended more than anyone else because not only is he never revenged, but he also neither feels the revenge justified nor has a good reason for not carrying it out.

The Underground Man's isolation is important in this chapter. First off, he writes from the underground, a place where he is necessarily removed from contact with others. The underground is a place to escape and hide from the world. The Underground Man understands himself, then, not in relation to others but purely from his own, entirely isolated perspective. Speaking of the conscious individual, he says that "the main thing is that he, he himself, considers himself to be a mouse; nobody asks him to do so, and that's the important point." The point is important because this mouse is a self-invention. The Underground Man has nothing imposed on him except for his consciousness; using that and that alone, he manages to build up a great deal of shame due to inaction and hiding. His isolation is both the cause and the result of his situation. He defines himself as an individual and then‹by virtue of being isolated from normal human responses and actions‹as a disaffected individual.