Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 1, Chapters 10–11 | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Chapter 10

The Underground Man criticizes the indestructible crystal palace because one cannot stick one's tongue out at it. He suggests a chicken coop is as good as the palace if one uses it only to shelter from the rain. But he insists people need more than that. He urges his readers to offer something more, something different that would not only keep him from getting wet but also satisfy his "wanting ... [his] desires."

Readers may laugh, the Underground Man says, but he will accept their ridicule as long as he's not forced to compromise and accept the "recurring zero, simply because according to the laws of nature it exists." He rejects material comforts and well being because by accepting them he "destroys [his] desires, wipe[s] out [his] ideals." He says if they can "show him something better"—something that can encompass human wanting—then he'll consider it.

He has never found an edifice at which someone cannot stick out one's tongue. Furthermore, he says, he'd "rather have his tongue cut off" if only a society could exist that does not have things he might want to taunt with his tongue. The Underground Man ends with a warning: "[we] underground ones ought to be kept on a tether" because one day they may emerge and "talk, talk, talk."

Part 1, Chapter 11

The Underground Man says he has reached the end of his tirade. He's decided rather than constantly rage against action, he will continue to live underground in a state of "conscious inertia." He admits the underground is not the answer; he'd prefer something "completely different, which [he] thirst[s] for." He just cannot find this thing he prefers. He then says perhaps he's been lying all along.

The Underground Man then assumes the voice of his detractors. They question the Underground Man's humiliation and wonder why he represses his thirst for life. He has them say he talks nonsense and is afraid of "asking forgiveness" for his impudent contrariness. They deride his wit and insist he's not funny. They also admit he's suffered but say he has no respect for his suffering. He lacks integrity and "boasts about consciousness," even though he's so depraved he cannot be a truly conscious human being. He has them conclude by accusing him of telling "Lies, lies, lies."

The narrator admits he's just put words in the mouths of his detractors. He asserts what he wrote is a true reflection of what they would say about him because he's been listening to them through a "crack" in his hovel.

The Underground Man then explains why he addresses his readers as "gentlemen" and assumes his writing will indeed be read. He writes, he says, because he has memories he wants to reveal. The memories are so deep at times he has been afraid to reveal them even to himself. Now, however, he's "resolved to write them down" as truthfully as possible. His notes are a type of autobiography, and even though most autobiographies contain some lies he hopes to tell the truth. He is in fact "writing only for [him]self" and not for other readers. If his writing style seems to address general readers, that's just because it's easier for him to write that way. Yet he's sure "I shall never have any readers."

He wonders if writing as if to a public readership has helped him write "more decently." But he then questions why he's writing at all. He states he's committed his memories and ideas to paper because that way he's judged more harshly than if he simply "recalled everything mentally."

Another reason the Underground Man writes, he explains, is because "he's bored." Furthermore, he has remembered a particularly troubling incident and believes if he writes about it then he'll be "rid of it." A few days ago it had snowed, and this reminded him of the incident he will recount in Part 2 of the novel "apropos of" (relating to) the wet snow.

Analysis

The Underground Man compares the mathematically rigid and uniform Crystal Palace to a chicken coop. He calls the Crystal Palace an impossible edifice because it represents a perfection that does not allow people to ridicule it. It is impossible, also, because no construct can be so perfect it fulfills all human wants and desires. The Crystal Palace is like a chicken coop in both may be shelters that keep the rain off your head. But the Underground Man states people live for more than that, so neither the palace nor the chicken coop fulfill man's "wanting."

He frames the discussion in terms relating to rational egoism. He will not accept or prefer the palace because it was built according to the laws of reason. He says if the rational egoists can "show [him] something better ... [he] will follow [them]." In the meantime he refuses "to bow and scrape" before rational egoism. It's preferable to him to retreat to his underground.

When the narrator discusses having his tongue cut out, he is wishing for a society (the edifice) that would give free rein to his free will. In his original manuscript, Dostoevsky had included text that suggested the Christian religion as possibly being the "edifice" that might satisfy him and his thirst for "something better" than either the Crystal Palace or the chicken coop. Most literary critics cannot explain why the Russian government's literary censors of the period edited out Dostoevsky's text about religion. It is worth noting, however, he felt Christianity would be more existentially satisfying than rational egoism.

In Chapter 11 the Underground Man says if the free will to act according to his desires is denied him, he will make do with his "conscious inertia." His consciousness of his predicament as a man living in a rational egoist society allows him to accept inaction as preferable to the rationalist's prescribed action. He admits he knows his underground lair is essentially unsatisfactory. Yet he will stay underground until he finds "something different, completely different, which I thirst for but cannot ever find." What he can't find is meaning or complete individual freedom. He would rather live an unsatisfying underground life than submit or conform to rational egoism, which robs life of meaning because it denies free will.

The Underground Man concludes Part 1 of the book by explaining why he is writing it. He says he's writing as if for an audience even though he knows he "shall never have readers." There is situational irony here for, of course, Dostoevsky is writing a novel he certainly intends to publish. The Underground Man says he's writing to "rid himself" of the memory of an awful incident in his past, and he hopes to tell the truth about it.

Part 1 ends with a reference to wet snow, which signifies St. Petersburg as it leads the reader directly into the incidents described in Part 2 of the book.

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