Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 10-11

Chapter 10 Summary:

The Underground Man suggests that his audience believes in the crystal palace because it is indestructible, something that one cannot stick out one's tongue at. He himself is afraid of it specifically for those reasons: it is something at which it will be impossible to stick out one's tongue. The narrator says that if it were raining and he only saw a chicken coop instead of a mansion, he would crawl into the chicken coop to get out of the rain. However, one can only confuse the chicken coop with a mansion if the only purpose of life is not to get wet.

The narrator goes on to say that avoiding getting we is not the only purpose of life and thus he would prefer to live in a mansion; to convince him otherwise would involve destroying his desire. He states that it does not matter whether the palace is only a figment of his imagination, something that exists only as long as his desires exist. He will not accept a compromise, such as a tenement building, as the goal of his desires. He will follow someone only if his desires and ideals are destroyed and something better is placed before him. If the reader replies that this is too much work, the Underground Man says that this is a discussion and if he can't have the reader's attention, he won't beg for it but will simply retreat into the underground.

The Underground Man says he will not contribute to building the crystal palace even though he rejects it only because it is impossible to stick out one's tongue at it. He says this not because he likes to stick out his tongue, but because he has seen no buildings that he does not want to stick his tongue out at. He would agree to have his tongue cut off if things were arranged so that he would not feel the need to stick out his tongue. He refuses to believe that he was made the way he was simply in order to realize that his way of life is a fraud. Lastly, the Underground Man states that underground men should be controlled, because once they start speaking after forty years of silence, they can't be stopped.

Chapter 10 Analysis:

This chapter was censored, and there are problems with the logic as a result. Important sections were cut out, making the text difficult to understand. The question of why Dostoevsky never attempted to re-insert the original text continues to puzzle critics. Some have argued that it would simply have been too difficult to attempt to get the censors to reverse their decision. Another claim is that Dostoevsky was concerned if this chapter were again fleshed out as the climax of Part I, it would overshadow the climax near the end of Part II. While we do not know the truth behind the omission, we do know from Dostoevsky's letters that this chapter was intended to be the most important part of Part I where he derived from the Underground Man's condition the need for Christ and religion.

Since the text has clearly been cut and suffers as a result from wild jumps in the logic, we need first of all to sketch out what the narrator is actually trying to say. He claims that if he needed to get out of the rain, he would be just as happy to crawl into a chicken coop as into a palace. However, the chicken coop and the palace would only be the same to him if the only purpose of life were to avoid getting wet. One difficulty in interpreting this text is that Dostoevsky uses the terms "palace" and "mansion" interchangeably and that he does not clearly distinguish between the crystal palace and another sort of palace that he is talking about here.

The chicken coop is a metaphor for a structure that satisfies material human needs: it keeps one dry in the rain, but it does nothing more. A palace, on the other hand, should satisfy other, deeper needs. The crystal palace that the liberals advance as the ideal satisfies only material needs, and this is what drives the Underground Man to say that it is only a chicken coop. He claims that the liberals have mistaken the chicken coop for a palace by elevating a structure that satisfies only material needs to the level of an ideal. He argues, however, that it is still a chicken coop and not at all the ideal. The ideal is something else altogether, a different sort of palace. One difference between this new palace and the crystal palace is that the former is based on desire while the latter only on reason. Perhaps the crystal palace exists, since it is based on reason, while the other palace, depending only on desire for its existence, does not. This alone, however, is not enough reason to accept the crystal palace‹the chicken coop‹as the ideal. We can assume that the palace that the Underground Man dreams of would satisfy spiritual desires and also we can assume, from Dostoevsky's letters, that this ideal would be related to Christian teachings.

Accepting the crystal palace as the ideal, the narrator claims, is only a compromise, and it is a compromise he refuses to make. He refuses to believe that the entire purpose of life is to build a world that satisfies only our material, rational needs. There are other needs that must be satisfied, and to accept the crystal palace as the ideal means seeing these other needs as a fraud, something the Underground Man refuses to do.

We also see here that the Underground Man is not satisfied with his underground. He would gladly reject it for something better if something better could be found. When the only other alternative is the crystal palace, however, the narrator prefers his underground. There, at least, he can have his consciousness and his desires. In the crystal palace, where only material needs are of any importance, these things would cease to exist.

Chapter 11 Summary:

The Underground Man says that in the end, the underground is better. Conscious inertia is better than the way an ordinary man lives, even though the narrator envies the ordinary man. However, the narrator concedes that what is better is not the underground, but something different that he will never be able to reach. It would, he says, be better if he believed anything he wrote. He does believe it, but he also has the feeling that he has been lying the whole time.

He then lets his imagined reader attack him, listing all of his paradoxes: He is impudent, but makes apologies; he claims to be afraid of nothing, but seeks his reader's favor; he knows his jokes aren't funny, but he appreciates their literary style. He brags about his consciousness, but this consciousness is not full because his heart is depraved. The Underground Man replies that he has himself invented all these words. He has been listening to others speak through a crack for forty years, and since those were the only words that occurred to him, he invented them.

The narrator notes that he will not let anyone read what he has written. He questions why he keeps calling his readers "gentlemen" when he has no intention of having any readers. He has a different reason for writing. Everyone, he says, has secrets that he will not reveal to anyone, and decent men have more of these secrets than others. Recently, he himself had decided to write down some of his experiences. He notes that a faithful autobiography is impossible and that Rousseau lied in his Confessions out of vanity; vanity can make one invent the worst crimes for oneself.

Contrary to Rousseau, the Underground Man states that he will not have any readers; he does not want to be burdened with editing chores, and he writes only with the intention of putting down whatever comes to his mind without worrying about what others will think. This raises the question of why he goes to so much trouble to apologize, to justify himself, to keep explaining his points. The Underground Man cannot answer this question with certainty. There are many possible reasons. Maybe he is just a coward, or maybe he is better behaved when he is imagining an audience reading him. But then the Underground Man asks himself why he needs to write at all instead of recalling it in his head. He proposes, first off, that his style will be better if his confessions are written on paper, and that they look more dignified that way. Also, he has memories that won't leave him alone, and writing them down may be the only way to purge them. The last reason is that he is bored and idle. Writing feels like work, and perhaps he can become good and honest through work.

Finally, the Underground Man leads the way into Part II as he notes that it has been snowing for a while, and this snow is what reminded him of the incident he is to recall. The snow is yellow and wet, so his recollection will be with regard to wet snow: "Apropos of Wet Snow."

Chapter 11 Analysis:

The narrator says that though he envies the normal man, he would never trade places with him. Again he reaffirms his commitment to the underground. There is something better, but until it is found, the underground is still better than any other existence. In the underground at least one can keep one's consciousness, and while consciousness may be a disease, it is still better than nothing. This claim is similar to John Stuart Mill's argument that it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool. Despite being unsatisfied, no one would choose to give up his consciousness in exchange for a higher level of satisfaction.

We constantly see the narrator attempting to justify himself in this chapter. At the same time, however, he pretends not to be doing this. In this we find an expression of the conflict we have already seen. The Underground Man wants to be completely egoistical and not to care about anyone but himself. He wants to live in his own personal fantasy world, regardless of what others think of him. At the same time, however, he cannot get away from the desire to make himself understood and admired by others. In attempting to explain why he decided to write down his thoughts, for example, he suggests that these thoughts look more dignified on paper. The Underground Man is, then, concerned with dignity and with how his thoughts will appear. The tension between the Underground Man's individualism and his reliance on the approval of others has so far been expressed only in his attempt to write the monologue as a dialogue, to address himself directly to a reader and engage this imaginary reader in conversation. In Part II, this tension between the self and the others will take a much more central place.

There is a little more to this tension, however. Some of the objections that the Underground Man poses to his own philosophizing are attributed to an imaginary reader. Others, however, are objections that he poses himself. Moreover, even those objections that he attributes to others are still objections that he himself has invented. The Underground Man's personality is conflicted. Earlier, he has claimed that an individual with consciousness can never have an identity. Here we see this claim played out. The narrator is incapable of expressing an idea with conviction. He must always question it, either from his own point of view or from someone else's. Consciousness always questions itself and can never reach a stable position.

This chapter also contains a direct reference to Rousseau. Rousseau is often credited with inventing a language to describe the individual self in his Confessions. In that book, Rousseau attempted to set down his own self as accurately as possible so that others might judge him. The Underground Man, on the other hand, insists that his own "confessions" will never be read and that things such as these are not written for other people. Rousseau's Confessions clearly serve as a model for this novel. Dostoevsky had originally conceived of the novel as a "confessions," but later gave up the project, as it would have been too long.

The Underground Man insists that when writing for others, one inadvertently lies out of vanity. He thus attacks Rousseau in agreeing with Heine's claim that Rousseau certainly must have lied in his own Confessions. The narrator's view of vanity here is interesting. Common sense would suggest that in writing an autobiography one would tend towards suppressing information about one's crimes. The Underground Man, on the other hand, insists that vanity has the opposite effect. He believes that Rousseau actually invented extra crimes for himself and that autobiographers, in general, tend to lie more to degrade themselves than to make themselves seem perfect moral human beings. These crimes become idealized, and the personality that emerges through them is greater than the one that actually lived.

Near the end the Underground Man says that writing these Notes feels like work and that work makes one good and honest, so that at least there is a chance for him. At first this appears entirely sarcastic, as if the Underground Man is ridiculing the whole idea that one can become honest through work. In conjunction with the rest of Part I, however, we can see that this is not what he means. We have already seen, for example, that the Underground Man believes idleness to be the mother of all vices. Avoiding idleness by working, then, seems to be a way out of vice. Furthermore, idleness leads to boredom, which the narrator has repeatedly presented as a negative force leading human beings to destruction. Work, a constructive activity, seems preferable to the destructiveness brought on by boredom.

Finally, the narrator leads us into Part II by a recollection brought on by wet snow. Unlike the usual conception of snow‹white and cleansing‹the Underground Man sees a dull, yellow, and wet snow outside. This snow, so unlike pure white snow, is a symbol of corruption, representing both the Underground Man's own depravity and the cultural corruption of the city of St. Petersburg. Wet snow was an image often used by the realist writers of the Naturalist School in St. Petersburg. The reference to this wet snow thus helps to recall the mood of the 1840s, the time period when Part II is set.