Notes from Underground

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

Part II:

Chapter 1 Summary:

The chapter opens with a poem by N. A. Nekrasov about a man redeeming a fallen woman. In the poem, the man saves the fallen soul and she curses her situation and tells him about her past. Then she covers her face in shame.

The Underground Man then begins his recollections from when he was twenty-four years old. He was extremely solitary and his coworkers loathed him. The narrator wonders why other people, regardless of how repulsive they are, never think that anyone loathes them. Since the Underground Man regarded himself with loathing, he assumed that everyone else did, too. He found his face repulsive, but wanted it to be noble and intelligent.

The Underground Man hated his colleagues in the office, and when he despised them he would sometimes think them to be superior to him. He found that he could never make eye contact with any of them and was afraid of anything unconventional. The others were sheep, and he was the only one in the office who considered himself a coward and a slave. He is not embarrassed by this, since he claims that all decent men always must be cowards and slaves. He would also notice that he was completely alone and unlike everyone else. The narrator notes that from all this it is obvious that he was still young then. Sometimes the Underground Man had to leave work early because he found being there so repulsive. At other times, however, he would laugh at his own romanticism and caprice (which he thought might come entirely out of books) and proceed to befriend his coworkers.

The narrator digresses to speak of Russian romantics. He insists that unlike German or French romantics, who believe in transcendence and are thus unconcerned with real world events, Russian romantics have a stronger sense of reality than anyone else. They are always capable of being diplomatic, would never leave a job unless they had another one lined up, and reach their goals at all costs while always preserving the "beautiful and sublime" and never losing their ideals. These romantics never actually do anything out of their ideals, but they still retain them, so they manage to be scoundrels while being completely honest.

Continuing his narrative, the Underground Man recalls that he did not maintain any of his friendships. He would quarrel with the others and then even refuse to greet them. Usually, he was alone. He wanted to control himself by filling himself with external sensations, but had absolutely nothing to do besides reading books. He still wanted to be active, but had nothing to do and as a result became depraved. The narrator notes that he has said this to justify himself, and he is noting that because he does not want to lie.

The Underground Man went to all sorts of sordid places in an effort to amuse himself. Once he saw a man being thrown out of the window of a tavern and stepped in hoping that someone would throw him out of the window as well. The moment he stepped in, however, an officer moved him out of the way and walked past, failing to notice him. The narrator believes that this refusal to notice him was much worse than a beating. He wanted a real quarrel, a literary quarrel, but he had simply been ignored. He could not protest because he was certain that the officer would refuse a duel with him and everyone in the tavern would laugh at him if he attempted to protest, since he would be forced to use literary, and not common, speech. He can't speak about something like a point of honor without using literary language, especially since a "point of honor" can't even be referred to in normal speech.

The Underground Man continued to run into the officer on the street and observe him for two years. He uncovered everything he could about this officer from his doorman. He wrote a short sketch about the officer, but this was never published. He then composed a letter insisting that the officer apologize or challenge him to a duel, but decided not to send it. Finally, the Underground Man came up with an idea. He strolled down Nevsky Prospect daily, where he was constantly shoved aside by other pedestrians. He was certain that he looked ridiculous because he was scurrying from side to side and was very poorly dressed. He knew that society saw him as a fly, and this is what he was, despite his being smarter and more cultured than the others. The humiliation of these strolls began to cause him pleasure.

The officer often strolled down Nevsky Prospect. He would turn aside before generals and important dignitaries, but with everyone else he would just walk straight toward them and force them to step aside. The Underground Man, too, always stepped aside, and then began questioning this. When two equals meet, they should both move half-way to the side to let each other pass. He thus decided to bump into the officer instead of setting aside. Imagining that such an incident could occasion a public scandal, the Underground Man decided that he should be well dressed so as to look better in the eyes of society, as if he and the officer actually were equals. He took his salary in advance and bought new gloves and hat. Then he borrowed money from his office chief, Anton Antonych, to buy a beaver collar in place of the raccoon collar he had at the time. After this, he tried repeatedly to collide with the officer, but always lost his nerve and stepped aside at the last moment, one time even falling to the ground. Finally he managed to bump into the officer and felt himself fully avenged. The narrator is convinced that, even though the officer acted as if he hadn't noticed the collision, he really had. A few days later the Underground Man would begin to regret his act of revenge and the officer was soon transferred out of Petersburg.

Chapter 1 Analysis:

We have already seen that the title of Part II, "Apropos of Wet Snow," brings up associations with the Naturalist School. It is important to note also that Part II is written in the naturalist style, presenting the Underground Man, other characters, and places as realistically as possible in all their squalor. This realism is the sort of writing for which Dostoevsky was admired among the radicals. Unlike Part I, which focused entirely on the narrator's personal psychology, Part II deals with the actual events of his life. First, this allows us to see the way that the Underground Man's rather unique psychology is played out in reality. Second, since in Part II the narrator is presented as a part of society, the conflict we have seen earlier‹the tension between the narrator's image of himself and the image others have of him‹is brought to the forefront. Part I, with its emphasis on personal psychology and philosophy, was best suited to an attack on the philosophical ideas of the 1860s liberals. Part II, dealing with people and events, is aimed at ridiculing the attitude of the romantic liberals of the 1840s. The writing here is far more autobiographical, since Dostoevsky himself belonged to this group prior to his imprisonment.

In this chapter we see a long attack on the Russian romantics. The narrator accuses them of being too involved in literary matters. They live life as practically as the most materialistic bankers, but they also hold their romantic ideals. The romantics, then, fantasize a good deal but actually do very little about it. The Underground Man's character serves to demonstrate this as he fantasizes constantly throughout Part II, but has no idea how to carry through his fantasies.

The poem that opens Part II was written by Nikolai Nekrasov. Written in 1845, the poem is imbued with the spirit of the Œ40s. The poem focuses on the redemption of a prostitute, a theme very common to the writings of the liberal romantics of the time. Part II will serve to demonstrate the absurdity and falsity of this idea.

In the office, the Underground Man tells us, "I retreated further and further into my corner." The corner is only one of a series of metaphors in the novel. Other important ones are the wall, the mansion, the chicken coop, the crystal palace, and the underground. The importance of buildings is that they can both isolate one from the external world and also keep one in a private world of fantasy. Like the underground, the corner is a place where one can be alone from others. Unlike the underground, however, the corner offers a sort of false protection. One is only safe on two sides. On the others two sides one is still clearly visible to others. This is the Underground Man's problem. He cannot fully retreat, because he still sees others and is still seen by them. He can never exist entirely in his own private world, but is forced to interact with others and to see himself through their eyes.

The Underground Man has a strong concern with his face. He finds it repulsive, assuming that everyone else must also find it so. He wants it to appear intelligent, however. The face, of course, is what one uses to interact with the world. It contains the mouth and the eyes, both of which are, for the Underground Man, cut off. He cannot speak to the others. He also notes that he could never withstand anyone's gaze. He would always look away, his eyes failing against others' eyes. Though his face does not communicate directly, however, it is still seen. The Underground Man, believing in his own superiority to others, wants them to be able to see this superiority in his face. He cannot retreat into a world of fantasy completely, since he is rooted always in reality by the way his face looks. He needs it to look intelligent because he wants others to see how intelligent he is. Fantasy plays an important role here, as well. Though the Underground Man is concerned with how others see him, he mostly imagines their responses to his appearance. Whether his face looks noble or intelligent to others is neither known to him nor important. What is important is whether he, looking in the mirror, believes it to look noble or intelligent. He attempts to create a specific image for himself, to define himself. As in Part I, however, this self-definition is aimed at establishing a positive image of oneself in the eyes of others.

The narrator refers to others in his office as sheep. We have already seen sheep mentioned in Part I, as animals for which humanity may build and abandon structures. There seems to be a division among human beings. On one hand there are those who are sheep and resemble other sheep. On the other hand there are superior human beings like the Underground Man. The problem is that sheep are under no obligation to recognize the superiority of the others. While the Underground Man may fantasize that he is superior, no one else recognizes this. He is then humiliated because his superiority remains unknown to anyone but himself. In order to truly feel superior, he must force others to recognize his own superiority. Since he cannot do this, his feeling of superiority is always laced with a feeling of inferiority. He is subservient to the others because it is they that decide whether or not he is superior.

It is interesting to note, also, that the narrator feels he is superior because he is a coward and a slave. He is inferior to others, and this inferiority is the cause of his superiority. One cannot come without the others. A negative and a positive trait are linked together here, and the Underground Man explains that it could never be otherwise. Superiority, then, is not linked to inferiority in his case alone, but in all cases.

The Underground Man notes that he sometimes lost his fastidiousness. He suggests that perhaps he never had any at all, and it was all borrowed from books. Here we have again the intersection of fantasy and reality. His fastidiousness manifests itself as something real, and it actively affects the way he interacts with others. However, he admits that perhaps this real feature of his personality isn't real at all. It may simple be an invention that is taken from the fantasy world of books. Throughout Part II, the narrator finds it extremely difficult to determine the difference between the real and the imaginary. He confuses reality with literature constantly, accusing the former of not being similar enough to the latter.

The narrator explains that his nastiness comes in large part from reading a lot and having nothing to do. He then states that he says this to justify himself. It seems, then, that the narrator is lying to justify himself. But he is attempting to justify his nastiness, to explain that he really isn't that bad a person. In the previous chapter the narrator was accusing autobiographers of making up crimes for themselves out of vanity. He, on the other hand, does the exact opposite, attempting to justify his crimes rather than make up new ones.

The second half of the chapter, relating the story of the officer, demonstrates how deeply the Underground Man is trapped in the world of fantasy. He goes into the tavern looking for a literary quarrel. He wants to be thrown out of a window because that would be very picturesque and romantic. What he gets, however, is not a literary quarrel but a simple shove to the side. He is completely ignored. This is something that isn't literary, something that never happens in books or fantasies. The Underground Man is insulted by this precisely because it isn't literary. The gesture of moving someone out of the way is too real, too banal, and too far removed from the world of books. It is this that the Underground Man cannot forgive. He spends the next two years plotting a literary revenge.

We also see that the Underground Man has no way of expressing himself to real people. He wants to complain about having been shoved aside, but realizes that he cannot do so without using overly literary terms. In fact, the term "point of honor" itself is a literary term that cannot be used in an ordinary setting. The Underground Man, however, insists on seen his "quarrel" with the officer in literary terms. His way of seeing the world is something he cannot explain to others, since he sees the world in terms that do not exist in everyday conversation. Honor (like the Underground Man's fastidiousness) is something that does not exist in reality but is invented through books.

Finally, we must note that the Underground Man is concerned throughout to make the officer recognize his existence. The officer becomes a subject of hatred for him specifically because he walks around ignoring people. The Underground Man cannot handle being ignored. He needs to make the encounter with the officer into something unreal, something literary. As a result he lays out the most literary plans, carefully plotted. Whether or not the plan succeeds, however, depends entirely on whether or not the officer notices him. If the officer still ignores him after bumping into him, then the Underground Man has failed and the quarrel is still not a literary one. He thus chooses to believe in the literary fantasy world, insisting, though this is highly unlikely, that the officer did indeed notice him.

The narrator also cannot accept the rules of the real world. In reality, one's appearance and position are highly important. Officers decide whom to yield the way to based on their uniforms and not on their inherent "moral superiority." The Underground Man seems to understand this, which is why he borrows money to dress himself better for the quarrel. He wants to be dressed well enough for his encounter with the officer to appear, superficially, as an encounter of equals. On the other hand, however, the Underground Man does not understand that, though he may feel superior to everyone else, no one will recognize his superiority so long as he is poor. This is not only a detail about the Underground Man's psychology, but is also a criticism of the mores of the time. Society was materialistic, deciding the value of people based on their status and not on what's inside of them. This is something that the Underground Man cannot accept and rebels against.

Chapter 2 Summary:

The narrator recounts that after his episode with the officer he felt remorse, but soon learned to accept it and sank into dreams. In his dreams he would see himself as a hero and experience happiness, feeling these dreams to be entirely sincere. He believed that, since he was a hero, he could sink to any depths of corruption because a hero is never fully corrupted; only the common people are corrupted by debauchery. Since he could not stand to be common, the Underground Man sank to the lowest depths while believing that he was actually higher than everyone else. His vices provided him with the added pleasures of suffering and overly conscious self-analysis.

The Underground Man had dreams that were "beautiful and sublime," experiencing so much love in them that he did not even feel the need to direct that love at anyone or anything real. These dreams were very literary, based on episodes from books. In them, the Underground Man would always be above everyone else, and the rest would grovel at his feet. He imagines his reader saying that this is all repugnant, and attempts to justify himself, but then agrees that it really is repugnant and his self-justification is even more so. In his dreams the Underground Man would sometimes feel such love, such a strong urge to embrace all of humanity, that he sometimes needed to talk to at least one other person. He would visit his office chief, Anton Antonych, who only received guests on Tuesdays, so that the Underground Man was forced to control his impulse to embrace humanity to make it wait until Tuesday. He would go to his chief's apartment, which was very frugal and small, and sit while listening to one of his host's other guests speaking about commonplaces. Entirely unable to communicate with others, the Underground Man would return home having put off his desire to embrace humanity.

Desiring to visit someone on a day that was not Tuesday, the Underground Man went to visit Simonov. Simonov was an old classmate of his and, since the Underground Man hated most of his classmates (so much, in fact, that he changed his job only to get away from them), one of the very few whom the narrator would still greet on the street. Not certain whether Simonov actually found him repulsive, the narrator went to see him for the first time in almost a year.

Chapter 2 Analysis:

The Underground Man is very candid concerning his retreat into fantasy. He notes that as he found himself less and less capable of dealing with reality, he would retreat more and more into dreams of the "beautiful and sublime." He is here again attacking the romantics, in fact showing that their beliefs are only an escape from reality. The attack on the romantics continues as the Underground Man explains that he would often dream of love but without being compelled to actually do anything about it. He would feel so much pleasure in his dreams, that it would be entirely unnecessary for him to emerge from those dreams. The Underground Man values love greatly, but not as an emotion that he can actually feel. Rather, love is a concept that appears in his dreams and makes him feel better, much like the "beautiful and sublime." To direct that love and actually to feel it for another person, however, is well out of his means. Not only does he not know how to feel it, he believes this also to be unimportant. Dostoevsky is attempting here to show that the romantics, despite believing in the most honorable things, never manage to actually defend these. It is not enough to believe in something; one must also act on that belief.

Dostoevsky's sarcasm continues, however. At times, the Underground Man does actually feel compelled to do something about his dreams. He wants, occasionally, to embrace all of humanity. Since he cannot do this, he decides to attempt to socialize with at least one other person. Through that one person he wants to embrace humanity as a whole. Again, what we see is a criticism of the romantics. Like the Underground Man, if they ever act on their ideals, they act on them in the most simplistic way and one that does nothing to actually uphold the ideals.

In Anton Antonych's apartment, the Underground Man listens to a number of civil servants talking about their work and about success. The Underground Man not only doesn't say anything, but actually cannot say anything and has no idea at all of what he could possibly way. These conversations are real, not literary. The Underground Man knows only how to talk to characters from novels; when real people are involved, he falters. Listening to conversations and being unable to participate in them, the Underground Man decides to postpone his desire to embrace humanity. That desire is not really something he feels urgently, but only as an aspect of his egoistical dreams. Realizing that he cannot carry out his embracing of all humanity, the Underground Man backs off completely, abandoning his dream of embracing humanity. The emergence from the fantasy world to the real world is impossible for the Underground Man. He is so entrenched in the literary world that he cannot communicate enough with others, or find them interesting enough, to ever actually speak to them. By being trapped in the literary world, the Underground Man succeeds in separating himself even more from reality.

Chapter 3 Summary:

Coming into Simonov's apartment, the Underground Man found two more of his former classmates there: Ferfichkin and Trudolyubov. They ignored him completely. Though the narrator says he understood that they must look down on him for his professional failure and his poor clothes, he was surprised that they treated him as something utterly insignificant, like a house fly. They school chums were discussing plans for a farewell dinner to Zverkov, another old schoolmate of theirs, who was an officer and about to leave on assignment. The Underground Man hated Zverkov in school because he was attractive and lively and everyone else loved him. Zverkov was rich and bragged about it. He would brag also about his future duels and the women he would conquer, and everyone adored his stories. The narrator notes that he would gladly have exchanged his own ugly intelligent face for Zverkov's attractive stupid one, even though he hated Zverkov's face. At times Zverkov and the Underground Man had quarreled in school, but only the latter actually felt these quarrels. Zverkov was unperturbed. When Zverkov came a little closer to the narrator as they were graduating, the narrator was actually flattered, despite being filled with spite. The narrator notes that his classmates must have kept in touch with Zverkov even though they considered themselves inferior to him.

The Underground Man quickly proceeds to invite himself to Zverkov's farewell party. The others do not want him there and protest, claiming that he never got along with Zverkov and that this is really a private occasion for friends. In the end, however, they can't stop him from coming. Later, the Underground Man realizes that he doesn't want to go because he hates Zverkov and because he doesn't actually have the money he needs to contribute for the dinner. He realizes, however, that he is bound to go since it would be completely tactless to do so and he always does the most tactless thing. He decides to save money by not paying his servant.

The narrator goes home and is tormented by nightmares, remembering his years in school. He was sent there by distant relatives, and could not get along with his fellow students because he was not like them. They teased him and he took refuge in his pride. They made fun of his face, but he insists that they all had stupid faces and that even boys who were attractive when they got to the school soon took on an excessively stupid appearance. His schoolmates had no interest in important subjects and knew nothing about life. They were interested only in success and confused it with intelligence. The Underground Man hated his peers and they hated him. He was interested in humiliating them, so he began to study and performed much better in school than they did, reading books that they could not understand. The narrator insists that while his peers hated him for this, they also submitted morally. Lonely, the Underground Man had attempted to befriend some of his schoolmates, but this was usually a failure. He had one friend, but dominated him entirely and began to despise him as soon as he had dominated him. Having finished school, the Underground Man had instantly quit his special job in the civil service so as to break ties with his past.

Having woken up the morning of the dinner, the narrator was certain that a radical change in his life would occur that day. He came home early from work and polished his boots for the second time that day. His servant refused to do this, and the Underground Man went to special trouble to polish the shoes so that his servant wouldn't notice and despise him for it. He worried that his clothes were in poor shape and that the others would despise him for this. The narrator was aware that he was exaggerating the importance of all these things, and he was concerned that the dinner would be an encounter that was common and not literary. He claims that there is not time for thought because reality was looming. He wanted not to go, but knew that he would then reproach himself for having run from reality. He wants to prove to the others that he is not the coward he thinks he is. Finally, he began to dream that he would subjugate everyone and make them love him, aware at the same time that he did not need to subjugate them and didn't want them to love him.

Chapter 3 Analysis:

When he walks into Simonov's apartment, the Underground Man notices that the others ignore him as if he were a fly. In Chapter 1 of Part II, the narrator notes that, walking along the Nevsky Prospect, he is a "fly in the eyes of society." The image of the fly differs from that of a mouse, an image used in Part I, in that the mouse is the image that the narrator assigns to himself, while the fly is the image he feels others assign to him. This distinction also underscores one of the main differences between the two parts of the novel. The first part presents the narrator in isolation, while the second finds him interacting with other people. Both the mouse and the fly are small, insignificant, and repulsive. The mouse, however, is something that runs away and hides. The fly, on the other hand, is simply ignored. The image of the mouse, then, serves to bring out the fact that the Underground Man is a person who isolates himself because he is afraid of others. The image of the fly shows the Underground Man as someone who, no matter what he does, is entirely ignored by the rest of society.

It seems worthwhile to look at some of the names that appear in this chapter. The name Ferfichkin, while it does not actually mean anything, evokes the image of something small and unpleasant, like a rodent. The name Trudolyubov, in Russian, means a lover of work. The narrator's subsequent insults aimed at Trudolyubov seem to cast doubt on the ideal of labor. Zverkov, finally, is clearly derived from the Russian word zver', which means "animal." The name reminds us of the narrator's references to animals throughout the novel as creatures inferior to human beings.

Deciding whether or not to attend the dinner party, the Underground Man realizes that he will go because he will do anything that is tactless and indecent. The Underground Man does such things, of course, out of spite. He knows that the others do not want him to attend. He knows also that he himself has no desire to attend. As a result, he wants to attend even more, just so as to do something that will spoil the day for everyone. This decision to attend the dinner party follows the patter of the toothache that the narrator had described in Part I. A cultured man with a toothache, according to him, will moan simply to spite himself and others. The Underground Man decides to attend the dinner party for the same reason.

We should note also the repetition of a common theme in this chapter: the Underground Man's extreme concern with others' opinions of him. He carefully goes through his clothes and reproaches himself for being too slovenly to have anything decent to wear. He goes so far as to polish his boots for the second time in one day, a very difficult procedure considering that he has to do this without his servant noticing. We have already seen this preoccupation with appearance in chapter 1 of Part II, as the Underground Man prepares himself to confront the officer.

Though the Underground Man is convinced that he is morally superior to other human beings, he wants them to view him as an equal based on his clothes rather than his intellect. At the same time, however, he despises anyone who judges people based on their external appearance and the clothes they wear. This tension is present throughout the novel, as the Underground Man believes both that one makes oneself what one is (the mouse sees itself as a mouse) and that what one is depends on others (society sees him as a fly). This apparent contradiction‹the Underground Man's belief that he should not be judged by his external appearance coupled with an excessive obsession with his appearance‹is more than simple hypocrisy.

While the Underground Man desperately wants to be able to define himself in isolation from what others think of him, he is never able to achieve this. He believes, in fact, that certain of his beliefs about himself can be reversed only by external events. The Underground Man says, for example, that if he did not go to the party he would be a coward and would reproach himself for the rest of his life, claiming that he "retreated before reality." Instead of fleeing society and defining himself in isolation, the Underground Man wants to define himself through others' opinions of him. He says: "I desperately wanted to prove to all this Œrabble' that I really wasn't the coward I imagined myself to be." In isolation, the Underground Man sees himself as a coward. His negative belief about himself can change only if others believe that he is not a coward. We have already seen hints of this idea earlier in the novel: the Underground Man's opinion of himself depends on others' opinions of him.

As an aside, we may observe that the narrator presents us with an important distinction between two different kinds of external appearance: one's face and one's clothes. One's face, as a part of one's physical body, is supposed to express who one is inside. Thus the Underground Man is concerned in chapter 1 (Part II) to make his face appear intelligent and noble. In this chapter he recalls that the students in his school all had stupid faces. The Underground Man also notes, however, that he would gladly have exchanged his intelligent repulsive face for Zverkov's stupid handsome one. The difference between these two faces is that the Underground Man's face is important for something internal: its intelligence. Zverkov's face is handsome, and its importance lies in its externality. Besides faces, clothes also play an important role in the narrative. Clothing, throughout the novel, symbolizes success. Dressing well is the only way that the Underground Man can make himself equal to the officer; most importantly, he does not think the clothes will make him look equal to the officer, but will actually make him equal. Clothes seem to stand in for success: anyone well dressed is considered successful. Anyone poorly dressed is considered unsuccessful. One's status in society thus depends on the clothes one wears. The Underground Man has a problem: he has neither a handsome face nor good clothes. His efforts at making himself externally equal to others fail, and he is forced to resort to other means, primarily to insisting on his moral superiority and his overdeveloped consciousness.

We finally come to one of the Underground Man's most important features not yet seen in the novel: his need to dominate others. Hegel, in his famous "master/slave dialectic," argued that human beings define themselves by dominating other human beings. In order to have self-consciousness, one needs to have one's self validated by another, something that is achieved by dominating the other. This is what the Underground Man is really after. He cannot define himself in isolation. He needs the approval of others not only to help him define himself, but also to disprove his negative beliefs about himself. He can see only one way of doing this: to force others into believing him to be superior.

Recalling his years in school, the narrator mentions that when others hated him, he decided that he wanted their humiliation rather than their affection. He studied hard and earned better grades than they did only in order to dominate them. As a result, he claims that they "submitted morally." This submission is really the only thing that the Underground Man seeks in his relationships. He remembers his only friend in school. He dominated this friend and finally attained his complete subjugation, only to abandon him. The Underground Man is interested only in dominating and subjugating others. He needs them to acknowledge his superiority since this is the only way that he can define himself. The fact that the Underground Man is unable to dominate everyone is yet another reason why he is unable to ever fully define himself.

Finally, this chapter deals with the Underground Man's struggle to reconcile the real world with the world of thought, fantasy, and dreams. "This isn't the time for thinking. Reality is now looming," the Underground Man says at one point. In his world of fantasy, the Underground Man imagines he will subjugate Zverkov and force his friendship on him. In reality, of course, this can never happen. The Underground Man's need to dominate others can be fulfilled only in fantasy; in reality he can never achieve his desires.