Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 4-6

Chapter 4 Summary:

In response to the possible claim that if he finds pleasure in humiliation he could even find it in a toothache, the Underground Man responds that of course even this is possible. A toothache is a reminder that one cannot beat the laws of nature: your teeth will hurt until nature decides to let them stop hurting. There is no reason for this pain, and there isn't anyone to blame for it, but it is still painful. The consciousness of being powerless to stop this pain and its absolute pointlessness is humiliating. The Underground Man sees this pain as an offence with no offender, and he finds pleasure in it.

If we listen to the moans of a cultured man with a toothache, he suggests, we would find that these moans are not natural ones. Unlike a peasant, an educated man would moan out of spite. He knows that these moans will neither help cure the toothache, nor bring him sympathy since everyone can see that his moans are fake. They do nothing but irritate himself and everyone around him, and they are sustained entirely by spite and malice. The pleasure of humiliation is somewhere there, in the moans, in the feeling of being powerless and despised and humiliated. The Underground Man adds at the end that he does not respect himself because no man of consciousness can respect himself.

Chapter 4 Analysis:

This is a very short chapter that mainly rehashes the previous one using a new metaphor. The toothache is now the metaphor for an offence, and it achieves a slightly different effect than the metaphor of the slap in the face. The slap in the face, while it is always done by another person, is also something inevitable, since as the Underground Man previously pointed out, if someone slaps you it is probably due to the laws of nature. The toothache is a simpler metaphor because in it the pain is not caused by another person, but is directly inflicted by the laws of nature.

The way the Underground Man responds to the toothache is much simpler than his response to the slap in the face. The situation is no longer complicated by the inability to carry out revenge. Using the case of a toothache, the narrator explains that the experience of humiliation does not require the involvement of another person. The spite and malice that bring pleasure from experiencing a toothache are not directed at anyone. They are emotions that spring up simply from an offence and the inability to revenge it; it does not matter whether one does not revenge as a result of doubts and anxieties or simply because there is no one to seek revenge against. The pleasure of spite and malice is something that can be felt in complete isolation; the presence of other people is completely unimportant.

Sarcastically, the narrator ties the moans to progress and European civilization. The moans of an educated person are different from those of a peasant specifically because his education and culture have given him a greater consciousness. This is Dostoevsky's mocking condemnation of progress: the only difference it makes is in adding spite to moans.

Finally, consciousness is once again attacked as something that deprives a person of self- respect. To have consciousness mean to lose self-respect, for consciousness allows one to see oneself as powerless, a slave to the laws of nature, trapped behind the wall of the impossible. Nature forces one to suffer, but nature cannot be beaten. One is powerless to end one's own suffering, and consciousness allows one to see this powerlessness. As a result, self-respect is lost.

Chapter 5 Summary:

The narrator continues his thought from the last chapter by saying that self-respect is impossible for someone who finds pleasure in his own humiliation. He notes, however, that he is not saying this out of repentance, which he hates. As a child, he would often apologize and repent sincerely, even when he was not at fault. He would get into trouble simply because he was bored. In order to live life he had to invent some adventures for himself. He would take offense for no reason and even tried to fall in love once, actually feeling all the accompanying emotions, although he always knew that he was deceiving himself.

As a result of boredom, the Underground Man was finally taken over by inertia, which involves doing nothing. He insists that inertia is the natural consequence of consciousness. Spontaneous men can act only because they mistake secondary causes for primary ones. One cannot act until one is convinced that one's action is right. In the case of revenge, for instance, spontaneous men are convinced that their revenge follows naturally from the cause of justice, and they are then satisfied that they can act. The Underground Man, however, insists that consciousness can see that justice is only a secondary cause.

If one tries to understand the cause of justice, one will see that it is brought about only by other causes and those, in turn, result from other causes, and in the end every cause can be boiled down to the laws of nature, for which there is no one to blame and thus no one to seek revenge against. The Underground Man suggests that spite could replace the primary cause for action because it is not a cause at all, but he can't even believe in spite. Everything consciousness examines can be broken down and disintegrated until one is left only with the laws of nature. There is no primary cause for anything, and so there is never any reason to act; there is nothing to do but to beat the wall. If, to escape boredom, you try to act blindly, carried away by emotion alone, you will soon begin to despise yourself for having deceived yourself in this way.

Finally, the Underground Man says that he has never managed to begin or finish anything in his life, and this is the reason he considers himself intelligent. Even if we suppose he is just a babbler, then we see that babbling endlessly and going around in circles is the only option open to an intelligent person.

Chapter 5 Analysis:

Here the Underground Man further develops the idea of self-invention. Whenever he acted out of strong emotion, this was never an emotion he felt. Instead, it was always simply a way out of boredom. Action is taken not for the sake of reaching a goal, but only for the sake of doing something. We are also told, however, that action can only go on for a short time; eventually it must end to be replaced by inertia. An intelligent person, the Underground Man insists, can never act sincerely, and insincere action can only be sustained for a short period of time.

The result is that the only way to really live is through self-deception. Action is based on a confusion of primary and secondary causes. What this means is that when we act, we need some reason for acting. Such a reason can be provided by love, for example, or justice. If one is moved purely by justice, then one can bring oneself to act, but in order to be able to act, one needs to believe that justice is the primary cause for action. The Underground Man claims that such primary causes are never possible because they can always be broken down to other causes. Ultimately, every action is caused by the laws of nature. When someone has offended us, this was only in accordance with these laws of nature; there can then be no justice in revenge, since the person that revenge is aimed at is not really responsible. Only the laws of nature are responsible, but it is impossible to seek revenge against these laws of nature. Consciousness, by forcing us to examine our motivations, shows that no motivation for action is sufficient and thus keeps us from acting. To act, we have to lie to ourselves, telling ourselves that we do indeed have good reasons for acting.

Here the narrator uses the metaphor of the soap bubble. In order to act, we have to invent reasons for acting and convince ourselves of these reasons, strengthening the motivation to act and blowing it up into a bubble. Sooner or later, however, consciousness kicks in and forces us to realize that these reasons for acting aren't real reasons, they are not causes for acting, and we have just been deceiving ourselves. This is where the bubble bursts and the individual is thrown into inertia imposed by consciousness.

In the last sentence, Dostoevsky makes an oblique reference to What is to Be Done? This novel, written by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, incited Dostoevsky to respond by writing Notes From Underground. The novel, and Dostoevsky's response, is analyzed below (chapter 7) and in the section providing background to the novel.

Chapter 6 Summary:

The narrator has already said that he can never do anything; he continues this thought by stating that it would be wonderful if he did nothing not because of inertia brought on by consciousness, but as a result of simple laziness. If he were simply lazy, he could respect himself: this would give him both a profession and an identity. He mentions the example of a man who prided himself on being a wine connoisseur and as a result respected himself and died with a clean conscience. The Underground Man wishes that he, too, had chosen such a "career" for himself: laziness, gluttony, or anything else by which he could define himself.

He continues to say that he would not be an ordinary glutton or sluggard, but one with an appreciation for the "beautiful and the sublime," which he would proceed to seek out in everything. He cites several examples of bad art, which he would not only appreciate for their qualities of the beautiful and the sublime, but would also gladly drink to. He would grow a triple chin and people would see him and say positive things about him.

Chapter 6 Analysis:

The narrator is here continuing his thread from before. He imagines that it would be much better to have some identity than to have none at all. He is troubled by the realization that as a result of his consciousness, he is unable to become simply lazy. Laziness is a defining feature, something that one can identify with. The Underground Man, on the other hand, cannot define himself in any way. He feels that he lacks an identity as a result of being very cultured. He wants to establish such an identity for himself, but recognizes that this is impossible.

A man who is simply lazy sees himself as just that. On the other hand if a man with overdeveloped consciousness is lazy, he must rationally seek out the origins of his laziness. He cannot accept the laziness itself as a primary cause, but must look for the causes of that laziness. As we have already seen, he cannot find those primary causes. The same would be true of any identity that an individual with an overdeveloped consciousness might take. Whether he is a drunk, a glutton, or a sluggard, he is forced to search for the causes behind his identity and, failing to find them, cannot accept this identity as such. This is why consciousness keeps one from having an identity.

Another important point is that, as we have already seen, what matters is not what the individual "actually" is, but how he sees himself. Someone with a simple consciousness who is lazy might just see himself as lazy, and this is what allows him to have an identity. Someone with an overdeveloped consciousness, on the other hand, cannot accept laziness as his identity. As a result, he is not simply lazy. The two individuals may both appear lazy to others, however what matters to the Underground Man is not how one looks to others, but how one looks to oneself. Identity is for him a personal, not a social, matter.

But this view is paradoxical. The Underground Man does insist that if he actually were a sluggard, he would hear people saying this about him and it would be very pleasant to hear such things. Thus, while identity is a matter of individual psychology, it is also something that needs others to recognize it. The Underground Man does not have an understanding, however, of how others would be able to distinguish between a lazy man and someone with inertia caused by consciousness. He seems to assume, simply, that one's personal identity and social identity are necessarily related, and that the former automatically becomes the latter. The challenge of making one's own individual view of oneself be recognized by others is, however, extremely difficult, and this is one of the central themes of the novel.

The Underground Man is also very sarcastic in this chapter. His idea of a glutton who drinks to everything "beautiful and sublime" is a parody of romantic liberals in Russia, who he feels believed in ideals that they did not in any way apply to reality. This glutton might sit around finding the "beautiful and sublime" in the ugliest painting, and he will drink rather than do anything about the ugliness.

Finally, we should note that the Underground Man continues to place "beautiful and sublime" in quotation marks. At first, it may have seemed like the use of quotation marks was simply meant to illustrate that the phrase is taken from elsewhere. At this point in the novel, however, it appears that he is using the quotation marks for another reason, especially since many ideals are put in quotation marks consistently throughout the novel. This lends the weighty ideals of the time a certain detachment from life, showing ironically that the ideals are not real, not applicable to reality, but simply something that one can believe in and drink to without ever having to act on those beliefs.