Notes from Underground

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

Chapter 4 Summary:

The Underground Man arrived at the restaurant for dinner. He had expected to be the first there, but it turned out that he was an hour early as the others had changed the time from five to six and failed to tell him. When he arrived, the table was not set yet, and he had to wait as the waiters set it and brought in the candles. He found this humiliating, and was also disgusted by the noise coming from other rooms where people were shouting and squealing.

Finally the others arrived. Zverkov treated the Underground Man with extreme condescension and the Underground Man wondered whether Zverkov now thought himself to be immeasurably superior to him. Simonov said that he could not tell the narrator that they had changed the time because he didn't know his address. He did not, however, apologize. The others were partly sympathetic, but also found the whole situation amusing.

As they sat down to dinner, Zverkov began asking the narrator about his job and his salary, at which point Ferfichkin noted that the narrator was rather poor. The narrator attempted to switch the topic of conversation to something more intelligent, but the others instead decided to listen to Zverkov's boasting. The narrator was offended by the thought that the others thought they were doing him an honor by having dinner with him when, in fact, he was the one doing them the honor. Getting more and more drunk and more and more annoyed, he decided to offend them all and leave. After the others drank to Zverkov's health, the Underground Man stood up and made his own toast, insulting Zverkov. This began a quarrel in the course of which the narrator challenged Ferfichkin to a duel and the others insisted that he was drunk and should be thrown out. He wanted to throw a bottle at their head, but poured himself a glass instead.

At this point the others began to ignore the Underground Man completely and finally moved from table to couch. He wanted to be reconciled with them, but they would not acknowledge him. He then began to pace back and forth across the entire room to show the others that he didn't care about them, but they still ignored him. He thought that he had never humiliated himself so much in his life and wanted to show them just how intelligent and cultured he was. Finally the others decide to go to a brothel. The Underground Man attempts to apologize to them, but they laugh him off and leave. He begs Simonov for money to go to the brothel with them and finally Simonov throws it at him as he runs out. The Underground Man runs into the street and grabs a coach to follow them to the brothel determined that either they will all bow at his feet or he will slap Zverkov in the face.

Chapter 4 Analysis:

The Underground Man's arrival at the restaurant ahead of the others demonstrates his inability to handle reality. First off, the waiters ignore him entirely, bringing in candles only near the end of his wait. Again, he is like a fly: everyone ignores him and he is too proud to stand up for himself. This is another one of the narrator's character traits. He feels that his superiority should be obvious to everyone around him. If someone fails to recognize his superiority, or even his importance as a human being, the Underground Man ought to stand up for himself. He feels, however, that to do so would be to admit to everyone that his superiority is not obvious. Unable to deal with such an admission, the Underground Man prefers being ignored to demanding recognition. The main problem with the restaurant, however, is that other diners are present. Whether they make noise or simply sit silently at their tables, the Underground Man cannot tolerate them. Ordinary people always displease him because they are not literary. His need for literary events persistently comes up against the unedited, harsh reality around him.

When Zverkov finally arrives, he is extremely condescending to the Underground Man. The reason for this is quite possibly the fact that Zverkov's social status far exceeds the narrator's. As a general, Zverkov is not only allowed, but virtually mandated to look down on the poor civil servant within the context of a class-based society. This is probably the reason for Zverkov's remark to the Underground Man: "you could never insult me." Someone in the narrator's position is simply not fit, in the social context, to insult a superior like Zverkov. Despite his preoccupation with his clothes and his attempts not to appear poor, the Underground Man seems oblivious to class distinctions. Instead, he interprets Zverkov's condescension as a sign that Zverkov believes himself superior to the Underground Man "in all respects." Focused on intelligence and moral superiority, the Underground Man misses the fact that success, not intellect, is what counts in society. The worship of success is the status quo, yet the Underground Man insists on viewing it as some despicable abnormality that functions only because others are too stupid to recognize the superiority of intellect to success.

In response to Zverkov's condescension, the Underground Man thinks about the former's "dumb sheep's brain." This is more than a simple insult. First off, we've already seen that the name Zverkov identifies him with animals. Second, in Part I, chapter 9 we saw mention of sheep as animals for which human beings leave the structures they build. Whereas human life consists of striving and building, the life of animals such as sheep is based on inhabiting existing structures, never actually exercising their own creativity. Zverkov is thus an animal, a sheep, someone who does not care about striving or creation, but only about existing within the established system and maintaining the status quo.

The Underground Man is annoyed by the dinner party because it is too common. The others berate or ignore him in a way completely incompatible with his view of himself as superior. The Underground Man thus decides to infuse the meeting with a literary element by attempting first to dominate the others, then to spite them, and finally to prove his moral superiority. All these attempts fail, however. When the Underground Man attempts to challenge Ferfichkin to a duel, for example, everyone bursts out laughing because he seems so ridiculous. He is like a character out of a novel attempting to function within reality, and this attempt simply can't work. In real life people certainly did fight duels. These duels, however, were generally fought over some real offense. The Underground Man, on the other hand, thinks of duels as the best way to make a quarrel literary; he is thus ready to challenge someone for an offense too minor to fight over. This attempt to infuse the real with the literary is amusing to the others because of the incompatibility of the gesture with the context in which it is made. Attempting to end the conflict and place himself on top, the Underground Man says, "you'll shoot first, and I'll fire into the air." The others, of course, once again find this comment completely absurd. There is no room for the Underground Man's literary fantasies in the real world.

Even where the Underground Man is capable to make the conflict a little more literary, he shrinks away. For a moment, for example, he considers throwing a bottle at the others, starting a proper literary quarrel. Instead he pours himself a drink. The Underground Man holds himself back not because he is a coward, but because he is far too indecisive to act. In Part I we have already seen his explanation for such indecisiveness. The overly conscious individual can never take direct action but is able to avenge himself only out of spite and only in minor ways that hurt him much more than his target. In this instance, for example, the Underground Man paces back and forth through the room for three hours. He gets tired and sweats. He grows extremely frustrated. The others, on the other hand, ignore him. While his pacing must certainly have been annoying to them, it was also far more painful for him, both physically and emotionally, than for his schoolmates. The real irony of the pacing is that it achieves the exact opposite purpose of what it is meant to. The Underground Man wants, by his pacing, to show that he does not need the others but can be completely self-dependent. It is obvious, however, that the Underground Man is attempting to get the others' attention. First off, he intentionally stomps his heels as he paces. Second, why else would he be pacing back and forth by himself if not to get the attention of the others?

The end of the chapter sees the Underground Man begging to be allowed to come to the brothel. He convinces himself that either the others will recognize his superiority or he will slap Zverkov. We see here a complete break with reality, where the Underground Man humiliates himself begging Simonov for money in order to satisfy a fantasy that one knows ahead of time to be too literary to succeed.

Chapter 5 Summary:

Heading to the brothel to meet Zverkov, the Underground Man imagined this as a confrontation with reality. He decided that since the idea of the others begging for his friendship was just a romantic dream, he would instead have to slap Zverkov in the face. He began to imagine how he would walk in, find Zverkov with Olympia (a prostitute who had, in the past, rejected the narrator and made fun of his face), slap him, and drag him around by the ear. He imagined how the others would beat him and throw him out and he would be forced to fight a duel with Zverkov. He worried about the difficulties of procuring pistols and finding someone to act as his second. He even imagined what would happen if Zverkov refused to fight a duel and he had to attack him instead, was arrested, and sent to Siberia. He would then come back fifteen years later with two pistols and forgive Zverkov. The narrator was extremely touched by these dreams even though he knew that they were out of books. He stopped the carriage and climbed out, feeling ashamed. Then he got back in and headed for the brothel.

Feeling that nothing on earth could now prevent the slap, the Underground Man arrived at the brothel only to find that the others had already dispersed. He was overjoyed, feeling he had escaped death without cowardice since he felt he would certainly had slapped Zverkov had he been there.

The madam brought out a girl for the Underground Man. He looked at her and felt something inside him that was despicable. Looking at himself in the mirror, he saw that his face was spiteful and repulsive. This made him happy, since he wanted to seem repulsive to the prostitute.

Chapter 5 Analysis:

As the Underground Man rides to the brothel after Zverkov, he thinks of it as a "confrontation with reality." As we see, Part I took place entirely in the narrator's head. Part II, where the narrator encounters other people, is a confrontation with reality. Reality, for the Underground Man, is thus always marked by the presence of other people. Yet, since he lives in a world of literary fantasies, the Underground Man is unable to approach reality head on. Instead, he tries persistently to infuse reality with his own literary world. As a result, the Underground Man persistently confuses reality with fantasy. On his way to the brothel, he thinks that either his schoolmates will fall at his feet and beg for his friendship, or he will give Zverkov a slap in the face. Then, realizing that the first possibility is only a fantasy, the Underground Man decides that the only realistic outcome is his giving Zverkov a slap in the face. The Underground Man does not realize, however, that this slap in the face is by no means "reality." The slap is just as fantastic and literary as anything else the Underground Man's thought of. Even if he were to walk into the brothel and find Zverkov there, he would almost certainly never slap him; we have already seen from Part I the narrator's inability to carry out revenge. Rejecting one literary fantasy, that of the others falling at his feet, the Underground Man accepts another fantasy‹the slap‹in its place as reality. We can see just how literary the idea of the slap is simply by examining the Underground Man's fantasies about what the slap might lead to, as well as his belief that the slap is fate and that nothing on earth can stop it.

When the Underground Man arrives at the brothel, there is no one there. He is overjoyed. "It was as if I'd been delivered from death," he thinks, "and I felt it joyously in my whole being." This situation is analogous to what we saw in Part I as the response of the bull, or the man of action, to a wall. Prepared to seek his revenge and finding no one to revenge himself on, the Underground Man feels he has run head on into impossibility. His reaction to impossibility is not at all the reaction he had earlier attributed to himself, but is rather the reaction he had attributed to the man of action. He finds this wall of impossibility soothing and comforting, as if he had done all he could but now it was out of his hands.

The Underground Man imagines all sorts of things happening as a result of his planned slap in the face. He imagines being banished to Siberia, then coming back in fifteen years, coming to Zverkov, and saying, "look, you monsterŠ I've lost everything‹career, happiness, art, science, a beloved woman‹all because of you." Naturally this is all a complete fiction. The Underground Man does not have art, or science, or happiness, or a beloved woman, or much of a career. He realizes, even, that this entire fantasy, which he imagines as his future, is straight out of a novel. At the same time, however, it brings out real feeling in him. It seems that only fantasy, not reality, can ever really make the Underground Man feel anything.

In this chapter we see the image of the wet snow recurring. The Underground Man opens his overcoat and feels the snow sneak in under his clothes. He doesn't care because "everything was lost, anyway." That wet yellow snow has turned into a nihilistic symbol: nothing matters any more. Neither the wetness of the snow, nor the misery of the Underground Man, are important.

Chapter 6 Summary:

Waking up in the brothel, the Underground Man realized that the prostitute was examining him very closely. He thought about how disgusting the idea of debauchery was. He realized that he had said nothing to the girl in the past two hours and had been pleased by this. Then, when the girl did not lower her eyes in response to his stare, he became uneasy and asked her name. It was Liza. He began a conversation with her but her responses got shorter and ruder, which prompted him to continue the conversation.

The Underground Man began to talk about prostitutes who died from there work, remembered by no one. The girl began to listen more attentively as he went on about how much better it is to be married and to have love than to live such a life of slavery to a madam. He was becoming interested in what he was saying, even though none of his sentiments were genuine. At one point, when the girl agreed with his statement that it was a disgrace for people to meet in brothels, he felt that he could dominate her soul. He was doing all this for sport.

The narrator went on talking, explaining the importance of family and that living with one's parents must be much better than living in a brothel. He understood that his moralizing was absurd, but continued speaking, talking about the love of a father for his daughters. He supported his claims with examples that are clearly not taken from his own experience. He talked about families and the love between husband a wife and their love for their children.

Finally, when his speech was finished, Liza commented that it sounds like something out of a book. The Underground Man's pride was hurt. Failing to realize that Liza was attempting to mask her real feeling behind sarcasm, he was angered and decides to get back at her.

Chapter 6 Analysis:

The central question of this chapter is that of the Underground Man's motivation in attempting to redeem Liza. Why does he decide to do this and what is he trying to achive? The Underground Man first begins speaking to Liza when he realizes that she is staring at him in the dark. Speaking of her gaze, he says: "I found it oppressive." Lying in silence next to him, the prostitute knows nothing of his alleged "moral superiority." As a result, she is free to examine him and despise him. This is something that the Underground Man cannot allow. We have already seen that the Underground Man's view of himself is determined by what others think of him. If the prostitute despises him, his pride is hurt. Accordingly, he decides to dominate her and force her to regard him with respect.

Later, after the Underground Man has given Liza a long speech, she angers him by saying that it sounds like something out of a book. Of course everything he says is something out of a book, and this is something that the Underground Man realizes. He wants, however, to believe that he is capable of addressing reality as well as literary subjects. He wants to believe that he is capable of dealing with the real world. Thus, when Liza observes that he is not able to do this, the Underground Man feels his pride hurt and decides to strike back, to dominate Liza out of anger. He wants to hurt her because she has hurt him.

The Underground Man never takes his task of redeeming the prostitute seriously. Instead, he is planning to dominate her from the very beginning. "Surely I can handle such a young soul," he thinks to himself. He notes, also, that what interests him is the sport of it, the game of dominating another.

The Underground Man begins his attempt to converse with Liza by mentioning the foul snow outside. This is certainly not an accident. We have already seen the snow as an image of Petersburg's corrupting culture and as a nihilistic symbol, something the Underground Man doesn't care about because nothing matters any longer. Here the snow again appears as a negative symbol, a symbol of pollution and degradation, as it opens the Underground Man's attempt to dominate a prostitute. He wants to dominate her by showing her the filth of her profession. The foul snow symbolizes both the corruption of the Underground Man's mind and the degradation of Liza's life.

The Underground Man realizes that he himself is touched by the false sentiments he professes. He discovers suddenly that he is not speaking coldly, but feeling everything he says. "I'd been longing to expound these cherished little ideas that I'd been nurturing in my corner," he says. The Underground Man's sentiments are entirely manufactured, arrived at not through experience with reality, but while sitting in the underground and thinking. The ideas and sentiments he expresses have no relation to reality; they are simply literary ideas. And only such literary ideas are capable of arousing true passion in the Underground Man. "Artifice goes along so easily with feeling," he says.

Liza and the Underground Man both pretend to be something they aren't. Liza attempts to mask her innocence with sarcasm. The Underground Man, on the other hand, hides his attempt at domination behind a façade of sincerity. While both put on masks to deceive the other, neither one suspects that the other is doing the same thing, making true communication between the two of them impossible. As a result of Liza's sarcasm, the Underground Man decides to dominate her. Liza, as a result of the Underground Man's deception, believes he can help her escape the brothel.

During his lengthy monologue, the Underground Man preaches to Liza about selfless love. He speaks of families where the mother loves the child and the child loves the mother. This image of love as a selfless activity is something that the Underground Man simply invents but is unable to accept. He cannot imagine feeling love for another without a concern for one's own ego. The Underground Man presents something closer to his view of love when he mentions a wife who torments her husband out of love. Love, for him, always involves domination, control, and torture. Love is a battle where two individuals attempt to subjugate each other. Selfless love is an ideal Dostoevsky defends in many of his novels. The Underground Man, then, is an illustration of an instance where that ideal fails.