Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 2, Chapters 4–5 : Apropos of the Wet Snow | Summary

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Summary

Part 2, Chapter 4

The Underground Man gets to the hotel far earlier than the other members of his party. A waiter tells him the dinner is scheduled for six o'clock, not five o'clock as he'd been told. He immediately assumes Simonov had changed the time to insult him. He imagines the waiters are looking at him in an offensive way. Everything he sees and hears in the hotel he finds "quite disgusting."

Zverkov leads the others as they enter the dining room. He is laughing with the others but assumes a more dignified air as he greets the Underground Man. The narrator had been expecting Zverkov to act silly, to laugh shrilly with his "little shrieks." He is disappointed by Zverkov's good manners because now he cannot feel superior to the officer. Instead Zverkov's behavior makes him seem superior to the Underground Man. This so upsets the Underground Man he is "left ... breathless" with shock. Yet Zverkov tries to talk in a calm and friendly way with him.

Trudolyubov comments on how early the Underground Man arrived, and Simonov admits he forgot to tell him of the time change. The Underground Man is irritated Simonov doesn't apologize to him for the oversight. He thinks Zverkov and Ferfichkin "must indeed have [found the situation] terribly funny" and humiliating for him. He probably thinks they're laughing at him. A brief argument ensues, but then Simonov tells them all to be seated at the dining table.

Simonov says he couldn't tell the Underground Man of the time change because he doesn't know how to contact him. The Underground Man thinks "he's obviously got something against me." Everyone sits at the table. Zverkov tries to start a conversation with the Underground Man about his work. For some reason this makes the Underground Man furious. He is so beside himself with rage that when he speaks to Zverkov he insultingly imitates his voice pattern. Zverkov either doesn't notice or pretends not to notice the insult in this mimicry. The others inquire about the Underground Man's salary and comment it's "not a fortune" and he is even "downright poor." They keep ribbing the Underground Man until Simonov insists they stop. Then Zverkov tells a story about how he almost got married two days before. The others are engrossed in the story and ignore the Underground Man, who feels "crushed and annihilated" because he's not the center of attention.

The Underground Man squirms because he thinks Zverkov has already noticed the yellow stain on his pants. He thinks of leaving, but then he wonders if he should challenge Zverkov to a duel to restore his own honor. He sits drinking the expensive Lafite champagne. The drunker he gets, the more his "vexation" grows. He "suddenly wanted to insult them all in the boldest fashion, and only then leave"—after he's gained superior status. He broods but notices the others are having "a noisy, loud, merry time for themselves" (while leaving him out). Zverkov tells a tale of romantic conquest, which the Underground Man immediately assumes is a lie. In telling the story Zverkov mentions a "princeling named Kolya" he's friendly with. The Underground Man immediately challenges him by saying "yet there's no sign of this Kolya" at your farewell party. No one says anything until Trudolyubov comments the Underground Man is drunk. The Underground Man thinks they're looking at him with contempt. Then everyone—except the Underground Man—lifts their glasses and toasts Zverkov.

When Trudolyubov comments on the Underground Man's refusal to toast Zverkov, the Underground Man announces he wants to make a speech. He is prepared to say "something extraordinary" but doesn't know what it is. Ferfichkin silences the men so they can hear "all kinds of intelligence" from the Underground Man, who launches into a list of points he wants to make. First, he hates phrases and "tight-fitting waists." Second, he hates "gallantry and gallantizers." On the third point, about love, he rambles on about loving truth, sincerity, thought, "friendship on an equal footing," and other things. Finally, he drinks to Zverkov's health. The others are deeply offended. Ferfechkin thinks the Underground Man should be "punched in the mug" for what he's said. Simonov wants him thrown out.

While Zverkov tries to make peace among the friends, the Underground Man challenges Ferfichkin to a duel the next day. Ferfichkin answers "at your pleasure," but then the Underground Man realizes how ridiculously he is behaving. Then Trudolyubov says they should "drop him" because the Underground Man is "completely drunk." The Underground Man stays seated to show how little regard he has for them, the "nonexistent pawns." He waits for them to begin talking to him but no one does.

After dinner they lounge on couches, with the three friends listening attentively to Zverkov. The Underground Man is enraged and mystified at the "reverence" they show Zverkov. He assumes a contemptuous air when he hears them talking about Shakespeare. He paces back and forth along the wall opposite the couch to show "he could do without them." He's furious they ignore him. He becomes dizzy pacing back and forth for three hours. He thinks of the others as enemies and realizes he'll remember this humiliating dinner for the rest of his life.

Zverkov rises and says it's time "to go there," and the others agree. Before they leave, a feverish and desperate Underground Man begs for their forgiveness and friendship, but the others brush past him and leave. They are going to a brothel. Incredibly, the Underground Man (who has no money and has not paid for his share of the dinner) asks Simonov if he can borrow more money so he can go with them. Simonov takes out some cash and throws it at the Underground Man, saying he's "shameless." The Underground Man is left alone amid the detritus of the party. He's so humiliated he shouts out he'll have Zverkov "beg[ing] for my friendship."

Part 2, Chapter 5

The Underground Man thinks at last he's approaching his "encounter with reality." He acknowledges he is a scoundrel as he hurries after the other men. He thinks he knows where they've gone. He gets into a horse-drawn sled (taxi) and hurries off. As he travels to the brothel, the Underground Man plans how he'll slap Zverkov in the face. He imagines the others then beating him and throwing him out. Yet he'll shout to them he's the superior man. He imagines his duel with Ferfichkin and how he'll arrange it. At the same time the Underground Man realizes the "odious absurdity" of his thoughts and behavior.

His fevered mind determines to have them pay for the dishonor he suffered as he paced for hours in the dining room. Then he worries they'll call the police about the duel—and what a scandal that would be. He conjures up vicious ways he'll attack and harm Zverkov. He realizes, of course, if he did all the things he imagines he would be arrested and imprisoned. Yet, he thinks, no matter how many years he spends in prison or Siberia, when he gets out he'll come after Zverkov again and again to challenge him to a duel with pistols. He feels so ashamed he starts to cry.

When he reaches his destination, the Underground Man runs up the front stairs and bangs on the door. The door is opened, and immediately he cries, "Where are they?" When he goes inside he realizes the other men are not there. He is so distressed he begins pacing the room. In a way he's glad because now he's saved from dying during the duel.

The Underground Man notices a young girl who has come into the room. He looks at her attentively, liking her serious expression. She seems "kind and simple-hearted" though "not a beauty." He glances in the mirror and finds his face "repulsive in the extreme." He thinks, "I'm glad I'll seem repulsive to her."

Analysis

These chapters, especially Chapter 4, are almost painful to read, though there is some humor here as well. They reveal in appalling detail the failure of the romantic ideal of a superior man and how the unbearable humiliation of trying to obtain this ideal unhinges the Underground Man's mind. Frequent contradictions make clear how the Underground Man's desperate need for affirmation of his superiority constantly plunges him into paranoia and paroxysms of humiliation. He suffers all the more because he is aware of how shameful his paranoid actions are. For example, he says in his speech he loves "true friendship, on an equal footing," yet he refuses to be on equal footing with anyone. He also refuses to speak with his friends after dinner and instead paces for hours in a rage because they are not including him in their conversation—though he makes no effort to talk to them. His consciousness—he is the author of his own humiliation, and he is experiencing the worst moments of his life—contributes to his feelings of shame.

The character is incapable of normal human contact or engaging in conversation. For him the friendliness of others indicates their superiority (and his own inferiority). Dostoevsky mocks his character without mercy. For instance, when his friends first enter the dining room, the Underground Man is "glad of them for the first moment." Then he forces himself into his perversely romantic mindset: he "almost forgot ... to look offended," he thinks. His ridiculous behavior, of course, brings on the insults and mockery he dreads, to the point he is consumed with the desire for revenge in the form of a duel. Of course, the others find this challenge ridiculous, especially as by now he is thoroughly drunk. They conclude he is insane, "downright crackbrained."

By the time he is in the sled en route to the brothel, in his fevered imagination his humiliation is all the fault of his former schoolmates. Again consciousness intrudes: he realizes, like a true romantic, he's lifted his imaginary revenge scenario from romantic fiction. He refers to Silvio, hero of Pushkin's 1830 short story "The Shot," and Lermontov's 1835 Masquerade, a play.

In these chapters Dostoevsky portrays romanticism, in its obsession with superiority and the approbation of others, as entirely inimical to any honest expression of human nature. For the author the constraints and artificiality of romanticism are as soul crushing as the cold calculations of rational egoism. Both are straightjackets that impose a preconceived nature on humans. Both deform and ultimately destroy whatever truth about human nature a person is able to discover in and for himself. And the author shows romanticism to be just as abhorrent to existentialism as he shows rational egoism to be in Part 1 of the novel. Literature cannot be the primary acceptable source of an individual's thoughts, beliefs, and actions. If it is, as romantics say it should be, then the individual is living an unexamined and inauthentic life. This is anathema to the existentialists.

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