Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 1, Chapters 2–3 : Underground | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Chapter 2

The Underground Man tells his readers why he's aware he is not worthy even to become an insect. He digresses to blame his self-denigration on living in St. Petersburg, an overly "abstract" city. He assures his readers he does not take pride in his "sickness" of self-hatred, though he then asserts everyone takes pride in their sickness. He defines his sickness as consciousness. He wonders why, when he is most aware of the beautiful things in the world, he acts in the most unseemly way. Again, he rambles on about "how everyone does" this, but says he's different. He acts badly because for him "it had to be so"; it was his "normal condition." He says he struggles against this blight in his nature and is ashamed of being this way. He claims to be especially ashamed of getting pleasure out of acting badly.

The Underground Man then tries to explain the nature of this pleasure. He says for him the pleasure arises from realizing how much he has humiliated himself by his actions. Yet he insists he cannot do otherwise; he cannot and doesn't wish to change. He tries to explain how his "heightened consciousness" is the root cause of it all, but then admits his situation is impossible to explain.

The Underground Man admits he has "terrible amour propre" (self-esteem) and feels highly insecure. He feels malformed and deserving of mockery or even physical abuse. He is in despair, but he finds pleasure in his hopelessness. He is somehow always blamed for everything, even though he's blameless. He wonders at this treatment because he's "more intelligent" than other people. Yet his intelligence enables him to accept blame as deserved. He rejects generosity because it is futile. Even if he attempted to be magnanimous he could not, because his nature, allow it.

Part 1, Chapter 3

The Underground Man discusses the "normal" person who is determined to take revenge for a slight. The vengeful person, he says, is consumed with this feeling, like an angry bull. In a digression about a wall, the Underground Man explains why the normal man is glad to have a wall that stops him from taking revenge. For the normal man the wall is morally "soothing," a welcome constraint on his action.

The narrator states he envies the normal man to the point of illness. He envies his stupidity, saying being stupid may be beautiful. Unlike the normal man who fits in the world naturally, the Underground Man says his own existence is unnatural because of his "heightened consciousness." Because he is a rebuff to nature, the Underground Man says he regards himself more as a mouse than a man.

The Underground Man then examines the "mouse in action." Where the natural man may seek revenge as a form of justice, the "nasty" mouse man, possessed of "heightened consciousness," denies justice. He is beset by so many questions and doubts he is unable to act, to take revenge. The Underground Man refers to these impediments to action as "fatal slops" and "stinking filth." He is so paralyzed by doubts and anxieties, other more normal men find him both loathsome and comical. The mouse man can only "wave the whole thing aside" with its little paw and do nothing. The mouse man then must crawl back into his hole and stew in a venomous spite. Yet he will not forget his lifetime of insults and ridicule. He will fantasize about taking revenge but never take action.

The Underground Man says he's spent 40 years marinating in his despair and futile fantasies of vengeance, this "poison of unsatisfied desires" within himself. He states he takes pleasure in this vengeful poison. The Underground Man then claims he was never slapped. He changes the subject even though his readers must find it "so extremely interesting."

The Underground Man then returns to the subject of the normal man being blocked from revenge by a "stone wall," which consists of the "laws of nature," such as science and mathematics. There is, he says, no way to dispute or rebel against these implacable laws of nature. Humans are as obliged to accept the laws of nature, such as the product of two times two, as they are to accept that "a wall is a wall." Yet the Underground Man asserts these laws of nature "are not to [his] liking." He admits he can't break through a wall "with his forehead," but he refuses to be reconciled to the wall. The Underground Man's consciousness rejects reconciliation, because it would make him to blame for the wall's existence. He knows he's not to blame, but the conclusion reconciliation implicates him makes him "gnash his teeth" in rage. His refusal to be reconciled with the wall (or other laws of nature) paralyzes the Underground Man and makes him incapable of action. This untenable situation fills him with rage, though he knows there's no one to be angry with.

Analysis

In these chapters existentialism collides with rational egoism. The Underground Man addresses his existential sense of identity using an animal image; he says he's "not deemed worthy even to be an insect." Later he describes his nearly constant humiliation and shame but says there is "no way out" for him. He claims he cannot change who he is, but then admits, "in fact there is perhaps nothing to change into." "Even if you did wish [to change] you would still not do anything," he says, because there's no point. He concludes, "consequently ... there is simply nothing to do at all."

The Underground Man's inability to act—his inertia—contrasts with the rational egoist imperative to act and always to act rationally in one's own self-interest. The character is setting himself up in direct opposition to this key principle of rational egoism.

In Chapter 2 the Underground Man refers to his heightened consciousness as a sickness because it makes him hyperaware of his existential situation. He refers to a paradox that arises from his consciousness: "The more conscious I was of the ... 'beautiful and lofty,' the deeper I kept sinking into my mire ... [and] getting stuck in it." The reference to "beautiful and lofty" is from German philosopher Kant's 1764 Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime. According to Dostoevsky translator Richard Pevear, the phrase, using lofty in place of sublime, was frequently used in Russia in the 1840s but was less popular by the 1860s. The Underground Man's greatest struggle is fighting against the "blight" of his true nature. Consciousness causes suffering, here and in much of the novel.

The Underground Man calls St. Petersburg "the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe." This refers to the city's symbolic and literal meaning as a metropolis planned to mimic Western European capitals. In its symbolic use readers can find a critique of the city as being too Western and "un-Russian." The Underground Man's detestation of St. Petersburg is one reason he retreats to his wretched "corner" and lives as a recluse.

The Underground Man further explores his "heightened consciousness" in Chapter 3 when he describes the way in which people take revenge. He places before the reader the image of a typical revenge-seeker as an angry bull charging at a wall. Then he presents the antithesis of this "normal man": a mouse seeking revenge. Hints he is the mouse he describes are found in references to its 40 years of suffering and living underground.

The symbol of a mouse—a small, weak, and generally despised creature—is a perfect stand-in for the narrator. Humorously, the narrator bestows his mouse self with the same "heightened consciousness" that prevents him from acting to take revenge for an insult. As in Chapter 2, the mouse is burdened with the same doubts and "stinking filth" of thought that thwarts the Underground Man's ability to act. It gives up on action and retreats into its little mouse hole (the Underground Man's "loathsome, stinking" hovel). There the mouse is "beaten down [and] derided" so it "immerses itself in cold, venomous, and ... everlasting spite." Its inability to act leaves the mouse—and the Underground Man—only fantasies of revenge that do not soothe but rather make him "suffer a hundred times more" than if he had acted.

The narrator then returns to the topic of the "normal" man, who behaves like an irrational animal, a bull, when seeking revenge. This person actually enjoys constraints in the form of the laws of nature. The Underground Man compares these laws—with mathematics as an example—to a stone wall that can constrain the irrational (animal) impulses that are part of human nature. He asserts for "active" men a wall is "not a deflection" but a soothing, moral resolution to their otherwise irrational and headstrong action. These men of action welcome the constraint of the wall because they are glad to be limited to rational action only.

These "active" men are, of course, rational egoists and are the same ordinary, "normal" men the Underground Man has said he envies. The fact they are "active" indicates they have accepted the rational egoist tenet one must engage actively in the world motivated by one's rational self-interest. Although the Underground Man views active men as "stupid," he envies them their place in "the bosom of nature": the stone wall of so-called natural law.

The wall is a construct of rationality—of rational egoism—and the Underground Man uses the symbol of math to emphasize how unassailable it is. He admits most "normal" men (rational egoists) are "obliged to accept" the wall and mathematics as implacable natural laws. Then he asks, "[but] what if two times two is four is not to my liking?" In a key statement on the theme of free will, the Underground Man admits he can't "break through such a wall with my forehead." Yet he is adamant in saying, "neither will I be reconciled with it simply because I have a stone wall here and have not got strength enough" to physically break through it.

Chapter 3 ends in a magnificent diatribe that sums up the Underground Man's torment. As an existentialist who exerts his free will to refuse to be reconciled to the stone wall, the Underground Man must sink into a state of inertia. The wall constrains action, and since he refuses to be constrained he will not act. The Underground Man's inertia leads him to the "revolting conclusion" he is somehow to blame for the stone wall (perhaps because he's unable to act to demolish it). His conscious decision to reject the wall coupled with his inertia leaves him "impotently gnashing his teeth." His situation makes him unbearably angry, but he realizes "there isn't even anyone to be angry with; there is no object to be found." He decides life is therefore "a stacked deck ... [and] a cheat," and the more aware he is of this, "the more it hurts!" His is an existential suffering, but his anguish also arises from the rational egoist society he cannot bear to live with—and which has forced him to retreat underground.

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