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Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 2, Chapters 2–3 : Apropos of the Wet Snow | Summary



Part 2, Chapter 2

Over time young Underground Man stops being ashamed of his debauchery and "reconcile[s] ... [to it by] escap[ing] into everything beautiful and lofty." However, his escape occurs only in his dreams, and he dreams curled up in his room for months at a time. In his dream he is a hero and experiences "raptures [of] repentance" for his debauched behavior. He feels that "an avenue of behavior" will open up for him so he can become a man of action. The Underground Man is tossed between feelings of being "either hero or mud"—there is no in-between. Even during a debauch he would sometimes feel the "beautiful and lofty," which had the odd effect of intensifying his debauchery. These feelings made even his unsavory behavior seem profound.

In his dreams the Underground Man is filled with a "fantastical love" for humanity as he escapes into all things lofty and beautiful. These feelings lead the Underground Man to turn to romantic art and literature because they "acknowledge his perfections." He daydreams of falling in love, of being fabulously wealthy, and donating his money to charity. In this state of imagined grace the Underground Man sees himself confessing his sins while everyone adores him for it. He fantasizes about how the whole world celebrates him. In speaking directly to his reader he justifies his fantasies as being "by no means badly composed (written)," even if some of them are admittedly "vulgar and vile."

The Underground Man can dream his dreams for no longer than three months at a time. Then he must go out into society. He sometimes visits the home of his old boss, Anton Antonych, to bestow on him the effusive love of humankind he feels. If his boss has other guests who speak only of business or politics, the Underground Man stays as long as he can before "paralysis hovered over [him]" and he has to rush home, squelching his "desire to embrace the whole of mankind" for the time being.

At other times, the Underground Man says, he would visit his old acquaintance and former classmate Simonov. Simonov is one of the few schoolmates the Underground Man still associates with. When he meets his other schoolmates on the street he cuts them dead so as not to relive "that hateful childhood of [his]." Yet the Underground Man thinks Simonov is "quiet and equable ... even honest ... and [not so] narrow minded." Their former friendship was "clouded over" in some unspecified way Simonov found "burdensome." The Underground Man believes Simonov found him "quite disgusting," but he still visits him occasionally. One Thursday, "unable to endure [his] solitude," the Underground Man pays Simonov a visit at his home.

Part 2, Chapter 3

Two other former classmates are in Simonov's apartment when the Underground Man arrives. He is certain the pair hates and scorns him, particularly for his lack of material success. Nevertheless, he takes a seat and listens as his acquaintances discuss a farewell dinner they're planning for the following evening for another schoolmate, Zverkov, who is now a military officer. The Underground Man admits he hates Zverkov for his "prett[iness] and frisk[iness]," as well as for his recent inheritance of "two hundred souls," or an estate with 200 serfs. His good fortune has made Zverkov "swagger," though he is still well liked among his schoolmates. The Underground Man enumerates the many things about Zverkov he can't stand. Once when the Underground Man had argued with him, Zverkov laughed it off—thus winning the argument. The Underground Man took Zverkov's lighthearted attitude as an affront and has hated him ever since. As Zverkov's success in the service grows, he deliberately avoids acknowledging the Underground Man whenever he happens to meet him. Now Simonov and his friends are treating Zverkov to a dinner at a hotel before he leaves for a distant province.

Ferfichkin is one of the men at Simonov's house. The Underground Man reviles him as a "monkey-faced fool" who has always been his "bitterest enemy." The other man in attendance is Trudolyubov, whom the Underground Man finds "unremarkable" and dedicated to personal success. The three friends discuss the cost to each for the dinner for four of them. Clearly they're not counting on the Underground Man attending until he puts himself forward as the fifth guest at the dinner. He thinks it's a grand idea, but the others seem "displeased" with the suggestion. The original group offers reasons why the Underground Man was not invited, and he feels offended. Finally Simonov says the Underground Man can accompany them, though the other two complain he is not really wanted at the dinner.

When Simonov asks the Underground Man to pay his share immediately, the Underground Man turns red because he hasn't got the money and he already owes money to his friend. He says he'll pay tomorrow at the hotel. Then Simonov says he has an appointment and must leave. The Underground Man leaves, feeling pleased he's been invited to the dinner.

The Underground Man is enraged he's going to honor a man he can't stand, but he knows he will attend—even though he also knows he has no money to contribute. Of the little money he has, most has to go to his servant, Apollon, in wages.

That night the Underground Man has "hideous dreams" of his terrible experiences at school. He had been dumped in the school as an orphaned child by relatives who never cared about or loved him. The other boys tormented him for his low status, so he "hid himself away from everyone" because he hated them. He describes the bullying and mistreatment he suffered at the school. He comes to view his schoolmates as petty and vulgar and feels superior to them. The more superior he feels and acts, the more they torment him.

The Underground Man tells how he turned to books as a way to excel and avoid his tormentors. Although the boys deride his reading, he feels they began to view him as morally superior to them. When his teachers begin recognizing his academic achievement the other boys stopped tormenting him but still hated him. His treatment at school made the Underground Man unable to relate to people. He once had a friend, but the Underground Man behaved like a "despot ... [who] wanted unlimited power over [his friend's] soul." Once he had broken this friend's will, the Underground Man rejected him. Since then he's avoided people. This makes him wonder why he visited Simonov.

When he awakes the next morning the Underground Man feels as if "a radical break in my life was going to come." He goes to work as usual but is preoccupied with how he'll dress and act at this evening's dinner. Back home he spruces up his shoes and clothes. Most are too shabby to wear; he'll need to buy some new clothes. One pair of trousers has an embarrassing yellow stain. The Underground Man trembles with despair at the contempt he imagines will be heaped on him by Zverkov and the others. He considers not going at all, but he feels he's committed himself and must go. He screws up his courage by imagining how he'll wow them with his intellect, his "lofty mind and ... wit." Then he'll have the advantage over them, not the other way around. He fantasizes then they will "drop Zverkov" and worship him instead. The Underground Man imagines how magnanimous he will be in accepting their fawning adoration. In an agony of self-doubt, the Underground Man leaves his rooms for the dinner.


The young Underground Man is struggling to find out how he fits in with his society. In existential terms he tries to forge his identity in relation to other people and the world. His interactions with others are so fraught he spends months at a time dreaming of himself as heroic, feeling "such positive ecstasy, such happiness, that not even the slightest mockery could be felt by me." In his dreams he can feel "faith, hope, love," and he longs for "some miracle, some external circumstance ... [that would] expand suddenly a horizon or appropriate activity ... quite ready made" that would enable him to "step forth" and act in the world. For romantics, all action must come "ready made" from romantic literature, not from one's free will. Thus his romanticism hobbles the character's social progress in the same way it clouded his thinking in Part 2, Chapter 1.

Dostoevsky satirizes the romantic ideal by exaggerating it wildly. Sections of Chapter 2 are hilarious as the Underground Man describes his comically grandiose, but ultimately humiliating, dreams of his superiority, his elevation by others to near godlike status. In his dreams others see him as "perfection," as a saint who "triumphs over everyone" and who is then rewarded for his magnificent humility with a ball given at a villa on the banks of stunning Lake Como in Italy. He becomes "a famous poet" and all because he's "confess[ed] before all the world [his] disgraces"—his unnamed acts of debauchery. The Underground Man's dreams are the "hero" half of a life that is either "hero or mud." He tries to justify his "vile" debauches by mixing in "everything beautiful and lofty" when he is acting most vilely. He adds ironically that "I had a noble loophole for everything," which made his vile actions acceptable to his romantic sensibilities. At the end, however, he realizes even the comfort he takes in the overblown unreality of his dream is humiliating.

Dostoevsky's withering satire again exposes the absurdity of the romantic man. The Underground Man's dreams fill him with love that "was never in reality applied to anything human, there was so much of it ... [the] need to apply it ... would have been an unnecessary luxury." The romantic is supposed to feel love in the abstract but not necessarily to give love to others. In the grip of this dreamy love, the Underground Man goes to visit others (such as his old boss), but if the conversation bores him he returns home and suppresses his "desire to embrace the whole of mankind." The verbal irony here nails the hypocrisy and absurdity of the romantic approach to love.

The Underground Man's dreams reveal several issues that dominate these chapters: the tension between one's inner self and social identity, the fear of humiliation, and inertia or the inability to motivate oneself to act meaningfully in the world. He is paralyzed by inertia, his incapacity to act. He seems to have lost all free will. This is partly because of his obsession with romantic ideas of how one should behave. He is fixated on being superior to others; on displaying his exaggerated sense of self-esteem and having others recognize it. But his fragile sense of self-worth—which masks his self-loathing—is constantly demolished by his equally intense sensitivity to humiliation. When the Underground Man does go out into society, his hypersensitivity makes him interpret nearly every look, gesture, or word as a personal insult. Coupled with his enormous need to be seen as a superior being, in company the Underground Man is at once arrogant toward others and internally fuming at real or imagined humiliating slights.

Readers come to sympathize with the Underground Man somewhat as they learn he has suffered humiliation since his childhood, when he was bullied and tormented at school. It is likely his dreadful school experience gave him his sensitivity to humiliation and turned him into someone who sees others and the world as the enemy that must be defeated and a man who cannot accept or give love. Rather, he must feel superior to others, an emotion that drives his behavior in his visit to Simonov's rooms. The Underground Man finds reasons to dislike and disparage all three former schoolmates he finds there, as well as the officer in whose honor they are planning a dinner. To the Underground Man the officer, Zverkov, is a swaggering vulgarian who yet had "adroitness and good manners." The Underground Man envies and hates Zverkov for his "gifts of nature" and his supreme self-confidence, which the narrator views as a direct challenge to his own claims of superiority. The Underground Man states Zverkov "always regarded me as nothing," which demeans him.

Later in the text, the Underground Man describes a truly unsavory situation in which he came to nearly enslave and control a boy who befriended him. His need to feel superior led him to a kind of psychological sadism. As soon as he had "gain[ed] a victory" over the boy and utterly crushed his will, the narrator "pushed him away." Friendship for the Underground Man means the other's recognition of and submission to his own superiority and power. The total domination the Underground Man craved in this friendship will inform later incidents in his life.

The two schoolmates present at Simonov's are denigrated as an "impudent ... monkey-faced fool" (Ferfichkin) or simply "unremarkable" (Trudolyubov). Disparagement helps the Underground Man feel superior to them. Although they clearly do not want him to attend the dinner, he thinks it would be "a most handsome thing, and they would all be won over at once and look upon [him] with respect" if he asks to dine with them. Here the Underground Man's mistaken sense of superiority deludes him into thinking his mere presence at the dinner will elicit respect.

Instead the Underground Man's humiliation arises directly from his forcing himself into their plans. When the friends evince "displeasure" and smirk at him, he seethes with anger. Then he becomes more infuriated and humiliated by Simonov, who asks he pay now for his share of the dinner. He uses his anger to mask the humiliating fact he is not superior; it is the other men who understand life, each other, and how to function in society.

In one of several contradictions in these chapters, the Underground Man says about the dinner, "I would go on purpose; and the more tactless, the more improper it was for me to go, the sooner I would go." As in other situations the Underground Man imagines or experiences, the stronger his desire not to do something, the more he's determined to do it. Or, contrariwise, the more something will benefit him, the more likely he is not to do it. These contradictions are self-destructive. Yet they are also, in a way, perverse enactments of the Underground Man's free will. At school the Underground Man was tormented by the students who humiliated him, yet he "constantly thirsted for their humiliation." The books that provided him with solace contributed to the literary romantic he would later become.

The yellow stain the Underground Man finds clearly visible on his trousers is another source of humiliation. The yellow color represents cowardice and also hints at a humiliating inability to control one's bodily functions. Both forms of disgrace will be on full display when the Underground Man wears the pants to the dinner, as he can't afford to buy new ones. Before he's even left the house the Underground Man has lost his dignity. To regain it he pictures "getting the best of them ... making them love me" so much they "drop Zverkov" (a reference, perhaps, to how the Underground Man once pushed away the friend he dominated).

The chapter provides reminders of Western Europe, whose culture undermines that of Russia. The dinner is held at the Hotel de Paris, which sounds upscale and French. When the Underground Man looks out his window he sees "wet snow" falling over St. Petersburg. Wet snow represents St. Petersburg, this most Western European of Russian cities.

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