Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 2, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Part 2, titled "Apropos of the Wet Snow," recounts incidents that occurred in the 1840s, 20 years before Part 1. The Underground Man explains he is only 24 in this part of the novel. For the sake of clarity, this young man will continue to be referred to as the Underground Man, though he is not yet the committed recluse he later became.

Part 2 takes place in St. Petersburg in the 1840s. It opens with an excerpt from a poem by the Russian romantic poet N. A. Nekrasov (1821–78). The poem, written in 1845, is about a woman rescued from her degraded life as a prostitute.

At 24 the Underground Man already describes himself as gloomy and solitary. He has no friends and avoids interacting with or even looking at people. He imagines his coworkers view him with loathing, which torments him. He wonders why others in his office, whom he considers even more loathsome than himself, aren't as self-conscious and cowed by the judgment of others as he is. He is amazed they seem not to care what others think of them. He realizes it's his "boundless vanity" that impels him to think others despise him. His vanity makes him hate his face, which he thinks has a mean expression despite his efforts to wear an expression of nobility and intelligence.

The Underground Man admits despising and fearing his coworkers, but at the same time he often "set them above [him]self." On some level he wants to "fall into the common rut" and be just like others. But he states that "as a man of our time" (the romantic period) he was highly "developed," while his coworkers are "dull-witted ... sheep." He feels his highly developed sensibilities and intelligence have made him into something of a "coward and a slave" in the face of others' ridicule. At this time, he says, all "decent people" must be cowards and slaves and incapable of meaningful action.

The narrator describes his life as full of contradictory behavior, such as periods when he's silent and withdrawn and periods when he's chatty. He wonders if he adopted these divergent moods from reading books.

The Underground Man then satirically describes how Western European romanticism has changed the native Russian character. European romantics are foolishly "translunary," whereas Russian nature is more solid and steady. It was only the introduction and adoption of romanticism by educated Russians that changed their down-to-earth nature. The Russian romantic, says the Underground Man, is one who "see[s] everything ... more clearly than our very most positive minds do" and yet is "not reconciled with ... anything [but does] ... not spurn anything." The Russian romantic is practical at the same time as he "serves the beautiful and lofty."

Alas, young Underground Man is not as versatile as the highest exemplars of the Russian romantic. He admits he spends most of his time alone, reading. When he is not reading he's debauching, or engaging in some unnamed and unsavory behavior. His unstable life has led to his "hysterical thirst for contradictions, contrasts," which in turn lead to more debauchery.

One night he passes a tavern where a disorderly customer is "chucked out the window," and this evokes envy in the Underground Man. He goes into the tavern hoping he too "will have a fight ... and get chucked out." But nothing happens.

Young Underground Man then relates an incident in a tavern with an officer. The Underground Man is standing by a billiard table "blocking the way unwittingly" when the officer passes by him. The officer, "with no warning or explanation," simply moves the Underground Man out of his way. He is outraged and "cannot forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me." The Underground Man is determined to confront the officer but "changes his mind" and instead "efface[s] himself spitefully." He insists he did not retreat out of cowardice even though he "constantly turned coward in reality." He explains had the officer been of sufficiently high rank he would have challenged him to a duel. But dueling is so French he decides against it.

The Underground Man then explains how he became a coward out of "boundless vanity." He would have had to explain to those in the tavern the reason for fighting the officer. He could do this only by using "literary language" they were too stupid to understand. For the romantic "points of honor" can only be discussed in the language of literature. The Underground Man is sure the oafs at the tavern would beat him for using such exalted language, so he does nothing. For years when he passes the officer in the street he looks at him with "spite and hatred." During this time the Underground Man digs into the officer's life. He follows him and finds out where he lives. He also writes a story caricaturing and ridiculing the officer, but no one will publish it. Instead the Underground Man writes him a letter in which he implores the officer to apologize to him. He fantasizes about how the letter will motivate the officer to become his friend. Of course the Underground Man never sends the letter.

The Underground Man eventually gets his revenge against the officer on one of his many walks along the Nevsky Prospect (St. Petersburg's main boulevard). The Underground Man suffers torments parading along the road looking for the officer. When he sees the officer promenading, the Underground Man usually "swerves out of his way" as if he was lowlier than the officer. This submissive behavior tortures the Underground Man until he's determined not to give way—to bump into the officer "shoulder to shoulder" when they walk by each other.

The Underground Man goes through absurd contortions to prepare for the confrontation. He borrows money to buy a fancy collar for his overcoat and practices his "performance." Yet "after many attempts ... we simply couldn't bump into each other—and that was that!" No matter how hard he tries to stand his ground, the Underground Man always loses courage and gives way to the officer when they meet on the boulevard. Finally the Underground Man succeeds in bumping into the officer while walking the Nevsky Prospect with his eyes closed. The officer does not even acknowledge the Underground Man when this happens, but the Underground Man views the encounter as "preserving his dignity" and making him the officer's equal.

Analysis

The title of Part 2, "Apropos of Wet Snow," refers to St. Petersburg, that most Western European of Russian cities.

The poem that introduces this part of the book is a sentimental and conventional recounting of "saving" a prostitute from her debauched life. This was a common trope in romantic literature. That Dostoevsky ends this excerpt with "Etc., etc., etc." shows how much he disparages these clichéd romantic literary ideas. Note, however, in the first paragraph of this chapter Underground Man refers to himself as a savage, a description that reflects back on Part 1 and foreshadows events to come later in Part 2.

In Part 2 the narrator's character is of a man of the romantic period in Russian society and culture. This part of the book focuses on the romanticism of the 1840s, in contrast to Part 1's focus on the rational egoism of the 1860s. Here Dostoevsky shows how the misguided presumptions of the romantics led the young Underground Man of the 1840s to become the 40-year-old recluse of the 1860s.

This chapter is a comic parody of the romantic writing and life of the time. Dostoevsky deftly ridicules the self-consciousness, obsession with superiority, and bookish immersion in romantic literature that were essential to Russian romantics. The author seems to have great fun bursting the romantic bubble by satirizing it through his narrator's overwhelming need to be recognized as a superior person even by those people he purports to despise. If they fail to kowtow to him, he is crushed by humiliation and self-loathing. The romantic is obsessed with status and thus with recognition and offense. He is vain and defensive about his dignity and honor at the same time he is paralyzed by cowardice.

In several incidents in this chapter, especially the incident with the officer at the tavern, the romantic narrator feels he can only communicate ideas and feelings he's gotten out of books. To impress on others his dignity and intellectual superiority, a romantic must express these adopted ideas in "literary" language. If he does not speak this way he risks exposing himself as insufficiently intellectual and unworthy of all the other romantic notions that define his life and self-image. In showing the absurdity of this approach, Dostoevsky shows romanticism to be an inauthentic guide to behavior.

Contradiction is an important literary style in this parody of romanticism. Contradictions not only reveal the so-called ideals of the romantics, they also make them ridiculous by juxtaposing them with their opposites. For example, the Underground Man needs to look "extremely intelligent" even though he finds doing that is "positively stupid." He is a "coward and a slave" precisely because he is so intellectually and morally "developed." Reading "delights him" but it also "bore[s] [him] terribly." In his soul he has "never been a coward" although he "constantly turn[s] coward in reality." He says he is not interested in "justifying [him]self" for his debauchery, while in the next sentence he admits, "I precisely want to justify myself."

Satire and humor vividly bring out the absurd demands and torments of the Underground Man's romantic existence. They are especially effective in illuminating his superiority and humiliation, states the Underground Man seesaws between almost constantly. He is tormented by his appearance and wishes his face had a more attractive expression, but he "would even have agreed to a mean expression, provided [that others] . . . found [it] terribly intelligent." The Underground Man admits that "[A] decent man cannot be vain without ... despising himself." At the tavern the Underground Man cannot justify himself to the other customers because he can only use "literary language," which "the putrid and blackhead-covered clerk with a collar of lard" could never understand. So the conflicted Underground Man must protect his superiority by not communicating it. He's furious he can't have a "real quarrel ... more decent ... more, so to speak literary" with the officer.

In Part 2, Chapter 1 revenge spurs the Underground Man to stalk the officer who offended him. Clearly he's deluded in his pursuit, because he is only humiliating himself. What is comical is it's only when his eyes are closed, when he is not trying to find his mark, that he can bump shoulders with the officer. This unnoticed bump puts the Underground Man in an "ecstasy ... feeling perfectly avenged," though his beliefs are unwarranted. To shore up his feeling of superiority the Underground Man must force himself to believe the officer did notice him and just pretended he didn't. Later, the Underground Man imagines writing a letter to the officer that would "make him come running to me." Then "He would protect me with his dignity, I would ennoble him with my development and ... ideas." The fantasy is so absurd it is humiliating for the Underground Man to believe it.

The Underground Man sees romanticism as filled with contradictions. A romantic is "practical ... (for example) [wanting] some nice government apartment, a little pension ... [as well as ] little volumes of lyrical verses ... to preserve 'the beautiful and lofty' inviolate in himself ... to preserve himself ... in cotton wool, like some little piece of jewelry." The romantic is satirized: he wants 'lofty' things but also values the most bourgeois material comforts. The "remarkable versatility" Underground Man praises in romantic figures still leaves them incapable of shedding their identity as "bandits and thieves ... [as] inveterate scoundrels." And while the Underground Man spends his time reading books that "delighted and tormented" him, he finds them so boring he must escape from them into some sort of immoral behavior. At one point the Underground Man proudly characterizes himself as "morbidly developed," as if this description was a compliment ("how a man of our time ought to be developed"). Yet he's telling the reader this romantic development is a disease, even a deadly disease. Readers can see in the young Underground Man a glimmer of the self-awareness that illuminates Part 1. He can see the absurdity of the romantic view even while he is mired in it.

In addition to seeing the contradictions of romanticism, the Underground Man rages against it as an import from Western Europe. The West and its ideas are for him antithetical and even corrosive to the true Russian spirit. He even decides not to challenge the officer to a duel because duels are too "French." Romanticism makes hypocrites of Russians who "never lose their ideal ... though they wouldn't lift a finger for their ideal." The Underground Man insists "only among [Russians] can the most inveterate scoundrel be perfectly and even loftily honest in his soul while not ceasing in the least to be a scoundrel." He says "practical rogues come out of our Romantics (I use the word 'rogue' lovingly)." The verbal irony is obvious, as is the outrage.

Although this chapter is full of satiric humor, it also speaks to themes of human nature and free will. There is as little free will to act in the life of a romantic as there is in a life controlled by rational egoism. The romantic is as trapped in his emotional, status-based, literary cage as the rational egoist is by the calculated mathematical "laws of nature" that predetermined his every action. In Part 2 behavior is circumscribed by feelings and actions that are deemed permissible because they're found in romantic literature. Free will is further constrained by the slavish, almost paranoid, obsession the romantic figure has with how he is perceived and judged by others. The romantic may spout literary allusions to "the beautiful and lofty" all he wants, but he's still a slave to others' conceptions of what his feelings—and thus his actions—should be.

The author's vision of human nature is as pessimistic here as it was in Part 1. The comic relief of this chapter is welcome, but the reader should not be diverted by it into ignoring the seriousness of Dostoevsky's outrage at the romantic view of human nature. The Underground Man states, "Every decent man of our time is and must be a coward and a slave. That is his normal condition. ... He's made that way, and arranged for it." In his view this is what romanticism has done to human nature. The romantic Underground Man may be comical as he ties himself in knots to present himself as the ideal of his time. Yet later in the book the moral bankruptcy of romanticism, with its focus on self-regard and recognition by others, reveals a serious, even fatal, flaw in the emotional view of human nature. In Part 2 Dostoevsky takes on and eviscerates life based on inauthentic "lofty" emotions and feelings. As he does in Part 1, the author shows no single social construct can or should constrain the perhaps limitless variability of human nature and free will.

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