Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Underground | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, titled "Underground," takes place in the 1860s, when the narrator is a 40-year-old recluse. A footnote to the title of Part 1 explains the narrator's view and intention in the book. In Part 1 the Underground Man will introduce himself and his views and tries to explain what has caused him to put his thoughts before the reader. Part 2 will present the narrator's notes about events in his life.

In his footnote the author assures the reader this is a work of fiction. However, he insists based on what he will describe in the text, "such persons" as he writes about "must exist in our society" because of the way in which "our society has generally been formed." The author says the character in this part of the novel is "representative of a generation ... still living." This character—the Underground Man—will introduce and explain himself in this part of the novel.

The Underground Man introduces himself with the words, "I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man ... An unattractive man." He describes several ailments he thinks he has, but he refuses to have them treated "out of wickedness," or spite. He knows he's harming himself but does not seem to care. He says he's educated but also superstitious.

The Underground Man has been living as a recluse for about 20 years. When he was younger he worked in the civil service (as a "collegiate assessor," or government official), where he was deliberately "wicked" and "rude." He enjoyed acting this way because, he says he "didn't accept bribes" and rewarded himself by being rude to others—something he enjoyed. He expresses contempt for the "petitioners" who came to him for help. The Underground Man then confesses being wicked made him feel ashamed, mainly because he was highly aware his true nature was not wicked at all. He says he's really tenderhearted but somehow enjoyed "frightening [the] sparrows" who came to his office.

As an office worker, the Underground Man felt "an inexhaustible delight" in upsetting the petitioners who came to him for help. He particularly loathed an officer who "refused to submit" to the Underground Man's authority and "kept rattling his sabre disgustingly." Eventually the Underground Man gets the officer to stop rattling his sabre, or sword, at him.

In the next paragraph the Underground Man admits he's just lied about being a "wicked official." He claims he lied "out of wickedness." He was, he says, simply "playing around" with the petitioners who came to him in a way that was not wicked at all. He recognized in himself many elements that were not at all wicked—that were, in fact, the opposite of wickedness. Yet for some reason he suppressed these better parts of himself even though doing so tormented him "to the point of shame" and almost "convulsions." Over time the Underground Man got sick of these positive elements in himself. He warns readers not to think he's "asking for forgiveness" for his past behavior. He refuses to repent.

The Underground Man then admits not only was he not wicked, he was not anything. He was not good, not honest, not a "scoundrel." He had no fixed identity; he did not know what he was. He became an Underground Man when he realized "that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything." A 19th-century man, he writes, has an obligation "to be a characterless being." He says, "This is my forty-year-old conviction." He claims being 40 means he's old and only "fools and scoundrels" live to be older, because old age is "indecent." He then angrily defends his right to make these strange assertions, adding he'll "live to be sixty ... seventy ... eighty!"

The Underground Man then assures his reading audience his intention is not to make them laugh. He assumes his readers are irritated by his "chatter." He then admits he no longer works because he's inherited some money from a relative. Upon receiving his inheritance, the Underground Man "settled into [his] corner," his "wretched" room in St. Petersburg. He doesn't like the city but he "will not leave."

He finally states the obvious: the thing any man wants most to speak about is "himself." He will therefore speak about himself.

Analysis

The novel's opening lines, describing the narrator as sick, wicked, and unattractive, are famous in world literature. These lines are like an assault on the reader in which the unnamed narrator, called the Underground Man by literary convention, aggressively asserts his pessimistic view of human nature through his self-loathing. The complexities of human nature lead the Underground Man to contradict himself. He explains he enjoyed being rude to petitioners at his place of work, but then says even though this may have been wicked, he "was not a wicked man." In fact, he recognized "elements" of goodness in himself that made him "ashamed" of acting rudely. Later, however, he "got sick" of these finer elements of his nature and "drove them out" of himself. What, then, is human nature for the Underground Man? It seems to be something arbitrary a person can put on or take off on a whim. It is self-determined and existential. That is, because the universe is beyond knowing, the existentialist must struggle to determine what it means to act morally.

The narrative in Part 1 was written mainly to refute Chernyshevsky's popular rational egoist book What Is to Be Done? Rational egoism proposes a utopian ideal based on pure self-interested rationality. In What Is to Be Done? Chernyshevsky said, "What I want, with all my heart, is to make people happy. ... Can you hear that, you, in your underground hole?" The Underground Man wishes to show he has heard this call, and in Part 1 he argues with force and wit to show how nonsensical this notion really is.

In his opening salvo against rational egoism, the narrator writes, "Yes, sir, an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being ... [and] a limited being." Here the Underground Man is criticizing the self-interested actions demanded by rational egoists. He is also excoriating the rational egoist ideal of a person as a "characterless" cog in a social machine. Such people are "limited" because their actions are circumscribed by reason, which crushes individual free will.

The footnote at the beginning of the book is a direct assault on rational egoism in Russia. The narrator claims the "fictional" character in the novel "must exist in our society ... [because of] the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed." Here, the author reveals in his view the philosophy of the rational egoists has already largely shaped much of Russian society, which is why the character in the novel "must exist." He is a "representative of a generation that is still living out its life." Not all of society has swallowed Chernyshevsky's utopian vision.

The Underground Man is quite willing to endure suffering as long as it is a result of exerting his free will. Capricious irrationality and perverseness arise from this existential outlook on life. The Underground Man tells the reader he is sick, but he refuses medical treatment out of his own "wickedness." He exercises his free will in the matter, even though he is suffering physically because of it. Similarly, the Underground Man says he got pleasure out of being rude to petitioners at work because he freely chose to act that way. He is acutely "conscious" of the pettiness of his rudeness and the shame it made him feel. He is especially aware of his shame at "enjoying ... [being] ... wicked" to others. It is his consciousness of his unsavory motivations that causes the Underground Man to suffer as a result of his actions.

His description of how he treated the sabre-rattling officer is not only clear evidence of the Underground Man's "wickedness ... [and] ... nastiness," but may be a foreshadowing of the run-in the younger Underground Man will have with an officer in Part 2 of the novel. Also foreshadowed here is the Underground Man's need to feel superior to the officer—a motif that is expanded in Part 2.

The Underground Man reveals himself as a true existentialist when he states, "I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good" and "it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something." The character struggles with creating his own identity. When he recognizes goodness in himself he "refuses to let it out" and eventually gets rid of it. The Underground Man himself will decide his identity—who he is and what constitutes his character—even if he finds that impossible.

He later explains after inheriting some money he retreated into his "wretched" underground room in St. Petersburg to (supposedly) stew in his pessimism and existential confusion. The St. Petersburg motif is used here to underscore the Underground Man's existential paralysis and perverse exercise of free will. He says, "St. Petersburg [has a bad] climate [that is doing him] harm," yet he won't leave. After expressing some rather disjointed thoughts about the city, he concludes, "but it's all completely the same whether I leave or not." He is willfully indifferent to his environment and cannot find sufficient reason to justify the act of relocating.

As happens frequently in the novel, the Underground Man's existentialism leads to contradictions, to arbitrary thoughts and actions. Existential ambiguity and freedom allow paradoxical and contradictory ideas to exist side by side in his mind—for example, when he says, "I'm sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am"—and to compel his actions. He claims emphatically living to a ripe old age is "indecent" but then says he "will live to be sixty! ... eighty!" This absurd paradox, couched in a comic diatribe about aging, is another send-up of the rational thought so beloved of the rational egoists. The reader can sense the humor behind the facade of assumed outrage.

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