Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 2, Chapter 10 : Apropos of the Wet Snow | Summary

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Summary

Fifteen minutes later, the Underground Man has retreated behind a screen. From here he peeks out at Liza, who is sitting on the floor and "probably crying." The Underground Man thinks she must have guessed his "burst of passion" was really intended to humiliate her. He thinks she realizes he now feels only envious hatred for her, and he assumes she understands how loathsome he is.

The Underground Man addresses the reader, who must find his behavior "inconceivable." "But why inconceivable?" he asks. He is, after all, wicked, despicable, and incapable of real love. He says he has always seen love as a "struggle" that begins with hatred and ends with "subjugation." He is truly shocked Liza came to show her love for him, and as he watches her through the screen, he wishes she's just go and leave him in peace.

When the Underground Man taps on the screen, Liza realizes it's time to leave. She gathers her things and approaches him; he "grin[s] spitefully" at her. Liza says, "Good-bye" and walks toward the door. He runs after her and grabs her hand. What he does then is so cruel he can scarcely write about it directly. Later in the chapter, however, readers learn he had pressed money into Liza's hand to humiliate her and remind her to him she's nothing but a prostitute. The Underground Man is so horrified by his own "malice" he runs across the room to get away from Liza. He admits this deliberate cruelty was motivated by his thoughts, by his head and not his heart.

Then the Underground Man is overcome with "shame and despair." He runs to the stairway, calling her name, but she is gone. The Underground Man turns back into the room and sits by his table. When he suddenly notices crumpled-up money (a blue five-ruble note) he understands Liza had left it. She has rejected his insult, flinging the money onto the table.

The Underground Man doesn't know what to do. He's such an "egoist" he's incapable of imagining she would do such a thing. He is so upset he throws on some clothes and races outside to find Liza. It's snowing, and the street is deserted. He wants to "fall down before her ... [and] ... beg for forgiveness." At the same time, however, he thinks even if she forgives him and they stay together he will soon hate her. He knows they could never be happy together because he is so worthless and vile, he'd "torment her to death."

He turns back home and starts to rationalize what he's done. His insult will be good for Liza because it will "purify" her. Through her suffering she'll reach a kind of higher consciousness, an elevation of spirit. Would he and she be better off with easy happiness or with elevated suffering? His thoughts torture the Underground Man, who writes, "Never before had I endured so much suffering and repentance." He then states he never saw or met Liza again, nor has he heard anything about her.

The Underground Man says, "Even now, after so many years, all this comes out somehow none too well in my recollection." He says he's felt shame for this incident ever since it happened, and writing the story of the incident is "corrective punishment" for him. He thinks about not writing any more, wondering if his moral corruption and boastful spite could possibly be of interest to any reader. He is an antihero, not the hero a good story should have. Like his readers, he has become "unaccustomed to life," seeing it "almost as labor."

He wonders if people would really be happier or live better lives if they could more easily express their free will. He concludes they would not appreciate acting freely but would want to be guided and controlled by things outside themselves. And if readers should resent the generalizations he's making about "all" people, he says he's not using "allishness" to justify himself. He has "merely carried to an extreme in [his] life" what others have been afraid to carry "even halfway" in their own. The Underground Man accuses people of mistaking cowardice for sensibleness, but he says they're deluding themselves. Perhaps because of this he is more "living" than other people. He insists people would not know how to live unless they have a book to guide them—that living authentically is a "burden" to them. People are "stillborn," but they accept that and are even "acquiring a taste for it." Then the Underground Man writes: "But enough; I don't want to write any more 'from Underground.'"

The novel ends with the author claiming there was much more in the Underground Man's "Notes" but this is a "good place to stop."

Analysis

The Underground Man's rejection of the potential for love is now complete. Love necessarily involves vulnerability, but in his romantic mind, to be vulnerable is synonymous with humiliation. And as happens throughout his story, humiliation demands revenge. He feels a "personal, envious hatred" of Liza because he thinks she now sees how "loathsome ... [and] incapable of loving her" he was. Of course, he's wrong; Liza sees him for what he is, an unhappy man, and loves him anyway. Yet his paranoid belief Liza detests him for his loathsomeness and incapacity to love gives rise to feelings of humiliation. From there it is only a short hop to feelings of hatred and revenge.

For the Underground Man love means exerting power over and controlling the beloved. Yet even he can't "picture to [him]self what to do with the subjugated object" once she's his. Having power—being superior and avoiding humiliation—is everything. What to do next is a mystery. He has "corrupted [himself] morally" to such a degree he can no longer live a real life. "Living life so crushed me," he says, "it even became difficult for me to breathe." Readers can easily picture him retreating underground after this series of events, bringing the novel full circle.

Liza's "rapturous" look at the narrator, the lapse of 15 minutes, and his pressing money into her hand all suggest the two have had sex. But, as the Underground Man has already realized, he enjoys "debauchery," not the "crown of true love," or a loving sexual relationship. In paying Liza for sex he dehumanizes her, demeaning her as an object used for sexual pleasure and not as a loving woman who might have made him happy. He separates himself from her and kills any real human interaction they may have had. She is the "object" he must "subjugate" to reestablish his own superiority and power. He can at least recognize his action as gratuitous, malicious cruelty.

But the Underground Man is so self-absorbed, so seemingly superior, so "egotistical" he cannot believe Liza had the agency—the free will—to throw the crumpled bill he gave her back at him. Her action shows more free will than any of his actions so far. The Underground Man finds this almost inconceivable, but he is so attracted by it he runs out into the snow to find Liza and bring her back. But the snow has erased all trace of her. Symbolically, the snow—which represents the romanticism adopted by the sophisticated Russians in St. Petersburg—has covered up the authentic, pure Russian.

The Underground Man openly admits his terrible insult was inspired by the romantic literature he lives by. After failing to find Liza, the Underground Man even begins to embrace absurd romantic drivel about how his insult will be a "purification" for Liza and will "elevate and purify her." Of course this is romantic nonsense, but the Underground Man tries to alleviate his pain and shame by resorting to romantic tropes.

As the Underground Man thinks about ending his "Notes," he is clearly underground, back in the setting of Part 1. The incidents described in Part 2 that so shamed and humiliated the Underground Man have led to his self-imposed seclusion in his underground hovel and his total withdrawal from society. And from this perspective he returns to the topic of free will. He considers people who have "reached a point where we regard real 'living life' almost as a labor ... and we all agree in ourselves that [living is] better from a book." But in both Parts 1 and 2 of his story, he has shown living "by the book" does not suit the human condition. And indeed, he says, he is not saying he speaks for everyone. He is "not justifying [himself] with ... allishness." He has, he says, merely "carried to an extreme" what others have not dared to do even halfway. In going underground he has repudiated the sham beliefs by which others live, beliefs that make it a "burden for us even to be men—men with real ... bodies and blood."

By the end of Part 2, the Underground Man is so worked up about the trivial, artificial lives of those who are "stillborn," he cannot go on writing. The author tells readers there's a lot more the Underground Man wrote, but "this may be a good place to stop"—a place where both forms of social imposition on human nature, rational egoism and romanticism, have been thoroughly crushed and repudiated by the self-tortured antihero.

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