Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 1, Chapters 4–6 : Underground | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 4

In the opening of this humorous chapter, the Underground Man explains how he can find pleasure in the suffering caused by a toothache. His moans of pain are actually "crafty" moans of pleasure at his pain. The moans of pleasure express the "futility of pain" as a part of nature. The Underground Man says a man is "a slave of [his] teeth" if no one fixes them. The only consolation in such a situation is to "whip yourself" to create more pain—which might distract from the toothache—and give the conscious man even more pleasure.

The Underground Man then describes how "a man touched by development and European civilization" will moan from a toothache in a "nastily wicked way" for days on end. Such moaning, he says, is just a "flourish" arising from "spite and craftiness." This westernized sufferer enjoys bothering his family with his moaning. He accepts losing his status as a hero and being viewed as a chenapan (a no-account or rascal). The Underground Man then admits to being "glad" at annoying others because his pleasure at bothering them is a part of his true character.

The character ends the chapter by addressing his readers who, he thinks, find him funny. He says he may seem funny, but his jokes are "confused" because a man who hasn't "the slightest respect for himself" cannot tell good jokes.

Part 1, Chapter 5

The Underground Man explains he can't have the slightest respect for himself because he finds pleasure in pain and humiliation. He says he thinks repentance is a kind of "law of nature" but still rejects it as a "loathsome, affected lie." He also rejects "tenderheartedness" to torment himself and because being submissive is "boring." Instead of acting to regenerate himself before others, the Underground Man lives a fantasy life of adventure so he can seem "to live, at least a little."

Sometimes, the Underground Man explains, he uses his fantasies to conjure up an offense against himself. Twice he forced himself to fall in love. These "stunts" humiliated him and made him suffer. He blames these absurd fantasies on boredom arising out of inertia. Yet he embraces inertia because he is exceptionally conscious and therefore rejects action. In contrast, he says, "normal" men act in response to the most trivial incidents. They are "at ease" and so have no trouble thinking their inane actions are meaningful.

The Underground Man cannot "set himself at ease." His intellect analyzes causes for action and finds other causes (an infinite number of causes) behind them. This realization is paralyzing for the Underground Man, who therefore cannot act. Whereas "normal" men can find "justice" in their silly vengeful actions, the Underground Man cannot find a cause that would justify any vengeful act. When he seeks revenge, the Underground Man even loses his spitefulness, and the reason for his seeking revenge evaporates. The only thing to do is to "give the wall a painful beating." The Underground Man will not do that, so instead he sits "with folded arms" in his state of inertia. He admits he's an intelligent man but one who is a "babbler" and has "never been able to start or finish anything."

Part 1, Chapter 6

Another humorous chapter, this opens with the Underground Man wishing he was doing nothing for the reason laziness is part of his character. Then, he says, he'd respect himself. Then at least he could define himself as a "lazybones," a type of "mission." He claims not to be joking and says if he were lazy he'd "ceaselessly respect himself." Being lazy is as worthy as being a wine expert, he says. If he could be a "lazybones and a glutton" he would spend his life contemplating all that was "beautiful and lofty." He would find the beauty in "trash," in any art or work of literature. For celebrating these lofty and beautiful works the Underground Man would demand respect, and he would persecute anyone who did not respect him. He declares such a life would be "utterly charming." He'd become fat and content, and men who saw him would declare, "There's a real positive!"


These chapters are full of humor, satire, and contradiction as the Underground Man first reveals his true nature and then writes as if he was, or could possibly be, a "normal" rational egoist.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the relationship between consciousness and suffering. For the Underground Man one way to relieve suffering—such as the toothache described in Chapter 4—is to make himself suffer more. Here again he insists on the contradiction the more one suffers, the greater one's pleasure in suffering becomes. Yet he also finds the "futility [of pain] ... humiliating for our consciousness." As he's done before, the narrator goes on to describe how his higher consciousness permits him to derive great pleasure from humiliation and suffering.

Another theme that sometimes rather humorously runs through Chapter 4 is the baseness and stupidity of Russian men who adopt the ways of Western Europe. The Underground Man defines the "normal" rational egoist man as "touched ... by European civilization, like a man who has 'renounced the soil and popular roots'" of his homeland. Such a Russian man must by definition and action be inauthentic and therefore ridiculous, if not despicable.

Chapter 5 opens with a paradox: "How is it at all possible for a man to have the slightest respect for himself if he has presumed to find pleasure ... in his own humiliation?" The theme of free will is set in opposition to the behavior expected of "normal" rational egoists. Free will simply impels him to act perversely. To do otherwise—to "sit ... with folded arms"—is just too boring.

In another paradox stated toward the end of Chapter 5, the Underground Man claims he's "an intelligent man only because throughout [his] entire life [he's] never been able to start or finish anything." Generally such paralysis is not the hallmark of intelligence. Yet the Underground Man is so keenly conscious of his existential dilemma, he cannot find anything meaningful to start, let alone finish. He reveals his despair when he writes, "What's to be done if the sole ... purpose of every intelligent man is babble—that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void." He is acutely aware of his predicament. As he writes, he babbles. He feels he has no identity—he is empty—and so his words pour into the "void" of the indifferent and meaningless universe.

Also in Chapter 5 existential inertia leads the Underground Man to create a fantasy life in order "to live, at least a little." These fantasies are the fruits of "boredom ... crushed by inertia." For, he says, the immediate fruit of consciousness is inertia, a "conscious sitting with folded arms." Note this statement contradicts what the Underground Man said earlier about it being "too boring to sit there with folded arms."

He contrasts his boredom and inertia to the busyness of the rational egoist action by stating that "normal" men act because they are too "dull and narrow" to find motivation in a deep need or impulse, which he labels a primary cause. Instead they act based on those trivial secondary causes with which they are more at ease. They are able to take action because they are without doubts and are rational—whereas the Underground Man is beset by paralyzing doubts.

The Underground Man is hampered by his existential identity, or perhaps by his true human nature. He says if he acted out of "wickedness" all doubts would be erased, and he could easily act. But he then asks, "what's to be done if there is also no wickedness in me?" Without wickedness his spite vanishes, and without spite he cannot find a reason to act. His existential awareness also stymies his action. Unlike "normal" men, the Underground Man looks for primary causes as the impetus to action. But he's conscious enough of the infinity of potential meanings (or total lack of meaning) in the universe to realize he can never find a primary cause that would compel action.

Chapter 6 is a satire that lampoons the life of the rational, "normal" man as prescribed by the rational egoists. The author uses verbal irony to open the chapter when he writes, "If I were doing nothing only out of laziness ... how I'd respect myself." The irony lies in the fact laziness usually evokes contempt, not respect. Yet the Underground Man declares if only he could have the identity of a "lazybones," his life would have meaning. He proceeds to imagine in hilarious detail what such a rational, defined life would be like. He satirizes the pastimes of "lofty" men whose "careers" and lives revolve around wine, bad art, and gluttony. If he were only "rational" himself, the Underground Man would find a similar "appropriate activity" for himself. Then he would find everything—even "trash"—lofty and beautiful. And furthermore, others would view his fat and indolent self as a "real positive." The intelligence and wit in this sketch show another side of the narrator. His humorous, mocking portrayal might be, for some readers at least, more convincing an argument against rational egoism than his descriptions of his perversity.

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