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Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 2, Chapters 6–7 : Apropos of the Wet Snow | Summary



Part 2, Chapter 6

The Underground Man awakes from a drunken stupor in a small room in the brothel. After only a few moments he remembers all that had happened that evening. Yet it seems strangely distant "as if I had long, long ago outlived it all." Although the humiliating memories seem far off, he's filled with "anguish and bile." He suddenly sees a pair of eyes looking at him "curiously and obstinately" but with an expression that is "sullen ... as if utterly alien." The young woman's face makes the Underground Man contemplate debauchery without love. It is possible he has had sex with this young woman. He considers the "absurd, loathsomely spiderish notion" of debauchery—defined here as loveless sex—which consists of performing the "crown of true love" in a situation without love.

The couple converses, and the Underground Man learns her name is Liza. At a loss the Underground Man begins talking about the weather, thinking "the whole thing [is] hideous." He questions Liza and learns she's from Riga (Latvia), is 20 years old, and has been in the brothel only two weeks. Quite soon the Underground Man feels sickened at being in the brothel. He thinks he should leave but does not.

The Underground Man tells Liza about a scene he witnessed earlier that day when people carrying a coffin out of a basement almost dropped it. Liza is a bit nonplussed at the direction the conversation is taking. The Underground Man implies the "basement" was really the bottom floor of a brothel. He and Liza talk about why it's a "bad day for a burial" because of the weather and other "nasty" circumstances.

As the conversation continues, the Underground Man invents details he can't possibly know but that make the story more personal to Liza. He tells her the dead woman was a prostitute who died of consumption and owed her madam money. The more he talks, the more he embellishes; he is "laying it on thick." He tries to get Liza to talk about facing her own death, but she can't see the point. Trying to draw her out, he acknowledges while she's young and healthy now, as she ages she'll "fade ... [and] be worth less" as a prostitute. He paints a picture of her decline as she grows older until, sooner rather than later, she'll die. The levelheaded Liza replies, "Well, so I'll die." She continues to fend off his intrusive personal questions.

The Underground Man presses on, asking her if she thinks "it [is] a good path you're on." She deflects him by saying, "I don't think anything." He talks about how happy she'd be if she gave up prostitution and got married to "find love ... [and] be happy." The wise Liza reminds him "not all the married ones are happy." Undeterred, he paints an idyllic picture of how much better married life is than Liza's current life. As he begins to "feel what [he] was saying," a goal seems to open up for him.

He explains to Liza she's a slave to her madam and the brothel, whereas he is "nobody's slave." He says she's given up her will and lives in chains that will ensnare her more strongly the longer she remains a prostitute. He admits he, too, "gets into the muck," and he asserts the way he and Liza have met is an "outrage." When Liza agrees with him, the Underground Man begins thinking of her as a kindred spirit. But he's really thinking only about "the game" he's playing with her and how he can "get the better" of her.

When the Underground Man asks Liza if she wouldn't prefer to be living at home with her parents, she hints her home life was miserable. To further his "game," the Underground Man recounts his own miserable childhood as an unloved orphan and how a loving family would have changed his life. He says if he were a father he'd worship his daughters more than his sons. He'd even be too jealous to marry his daughter off, but then admits of course he'd consent to a good marriage for her.

Liza remarks, "some [families] are glad to sell their daughters," implying that's what happened to her. The Underground Man curses such unloving families and says she's truly an "unfortunate one." He claims poverty causes families to behave in this cruel way, but Liza says poverty isn't necessarily the fault.

The Underground Man then launches into a description of marriage in which both happiness and quarrels are equally to be valued. Even if the wife or husband is unfaithful there is joy in reconciling and forgiveness. He rhapsodizes about how connubial love should last forever, even grow as time passes. He waxes poetic about a parent's love for her "rosy, plump" children and her eagerness to sacrifice herself for them. As he nears the end of his idyllic fantasy the Underground Man thinks, "I'll get [Liza] with pictures!" although he's rather unsettled in spinning his tale of endless joy he had spoken with something resembling true "feeling."

He considers how his vanity would suffer if she laughed at his portrait of idyllic marriage. But when Liza tries to speak, her voice is low and trembling. Now the Underground Man feels "guilty before her" for making her the victim of his "game." When he asks Liza what she's thinking, all she can say is his story is like something "from a book." He thinks Liza is assuming a "mask of mockery" to hide her true feelings because she's "bashful and chaste-hearted." This elicits a "wicked feeling" in him, and he thinks, "You just wait."

Part 2, Chapter 7

The Underground Man now launches into a long monologue in which he tries to get Liza to see the error of her ways. He says he "felt vile" finding himself in a brothel, but he also wonders if he would fall in love with Liza if she was "living as good people live." He would adore and respect her then, he says, although he can't feel respect for her when she's in a brothel. He tells her she's putting "her soul ... in bondage" along with her body. Again he speaks poetically about love being "a diamond" and how she's "profaned" love by her current circumstances. While this brothel allows its prostitutes to have lovers, a man couldn't love her knowing she could "be called away from him any moment" by another man, a client. He warns her no client would marry her, her room and board are provided only so she can work and demean herself, and she's in debt to the madam. He imagines her older when the madam will kick her out on the street.

The Underground Man continues in this vein, painting a picture of the horrors faced by an aging prostitute and how dreadful her life will be. She'll be a drunk, she'll lose her looks and her health. He claims to have seen a girl in just such circumstances, beaten by clients and holding "some kind of salted fish," and says he wants to prevent Liza from the same fate. He says maybe once this girl "was just like you ... [and] see where she ended up?" He tells Liza she'd be luckier to die young from consumption, or tuberculosis, than live to experience such an awful future. Even if she dies, everyone "will turn away from you—because what good are you then?" He begins to get carried away by his story. He tells Liza people will think "Hurry up and croak" because she'd be old, sick, and useless. They'll bury her hastily in waste ground and "cover [her] quickly." No one will visit her grave and her "name will disappear."

The Underground Man pauses, understanding he's "wax[ing] poetic" and is even making himself sick. Yet the more clearly he realizes this, the more he wants to "reach [his] goal quickly ... It was the game ...[though] not just the game." He realizes he's speaking "bookishly" but doesn't know any other way to speak. However, he "suddenly turn[s] coward" when he sees Liza sobbing in despair into a pillow. She is shattered and beside herself with misery, biting the pillow and her own hand. The Underground Man tries to calm her down but is himself "in a sort of fever, almost horrified." When Liza recovers a bit, she sits up, and he holds her hand and asks for her forgiveness. To make up for hurting her so badly the Underground Man gives Liza his home address and says, "come to me." She whispers, "I will." The Underground Man says, "Till then" and gets up to leave.

But just before he goes Liza asks him to wait while she fetches something. When she returns she no longer looks "sullen, mistrustful" as she had earlier. Now "her eyes were soft, pleading ... trustful, tender, timid." Liza hands the Underground Man a piece of paper. As she watches him with childlike, imploring eyes, he reads a love letter to her. The letter is proof someone does love Liza "sincerely ... respectfully." She relates how she had gone to a party and met this fine young man from a good family, who then sent her a letter through a friend. Neither he nor they know of her current situation, which she might well leave. The Underground Man understands Liza wants to restore her pride in his eyes. But he says nothing and leaves. As he walks home, a "nasty truth" is becoming clear to him.


These chapters are essentially a parody of the romantic literature of the1840s. The Underground Man's harangue hits all the notes that were so common in romantic writing. The overarching trope is the hackneyed plot of an honorable man saving a fallen woman (a prostitute) from her debased, debauched life. In these chapters this absurd, banal plot is presented in a way that mocks the romantics' obsession with such gallant behavior. Even the revelation of what form the Underground Man's past "debauchery" has taken—he is not a gambler or a drug addict, but seems to consort with prostitutes—is framed in flowery language. He is horrified to consider debauchery mocks the "crown of true love."

The Underground Man covers all the romantic bases. He paints for Liza horrific pictures of a terrible decline and early death. In Chapter 7 he imagines her dying "of consumption," a wasting disease usually associated with tuberculosis. It is the most overused cliché among romantic clichés. He exaggerates her isolation and abandonment, insisting for example everyone who knows her will think, "Hurry up and croak, you slut." His depiction of Liza's future is horrific, and his forcing it on her is the height of cruelty.

The Underground Man contrasts the portrait of Liza's decline and death with an unrealistically beatific life of perfect married love as the romantics see it. "Your husband [will be] a good man who loves you, pampers you, never leaves your side. ... after you've married someone you love there's so much happiness ... even in grief."

Contradictions abound in these chapters. When the Underground Man waxes poetic about how lovingly ideal marriage and family are, Liza interrupts him to hint at how awful life in her real family was and how abominably her parents treated her. She strongly implies her family sold her to the brothel. The Underground Man's effusive praise for idyllic family life also contradicts his own experience as a youth abandoned and unloved in a boarding school. Nor can he decide if the effect he is having on Liza is vile or good.

The romantics' literary obsession is clear in these chapters. Even Liza, who is probably not well educated, notices the Underground Man's manner of speaking is inauthentic, "as if it's from a book." And the Underground Man says of himself, "I knew I'd been speaking stiffly, affectedly, even bookishly [but] I couldn't speak any other way than 'as if from a book.'" As a romantic, the Underground Man models himself and his speech on what he's taken from the romantic literature he's read. On some level Liza understands the inauthenticity of the Underground Man's tale and his telling of it. For example, in discussing Liza's "unfortunate" family life the Underground Man provides the romantic excuse for misfortune: "It all comes mainly from poverty." But Liza corrects him, saying "Honest people have good lives even in poverty." Her experience, that some people are just dishonest and vile, flies in the face of the romantic conceit only poverty could cause the downfall of otherwise honorable women.

The theme of free will is a driving force in these chapters. The Underground Man tries to make Liza admit she's "a slave ... [who] gave up everything" to the brothel and the madam who runs it. He is speaking as if he possesses free will, yet his adherence to the romantics' creed reveals him to be as much of a slave to fashionable ideas as Liza is to the house of ill repute.

It is not entirely clear yet what the Underground Man's "goal" is in speaking to Liza this way. His thoughts reveal the purpose of his speechifying as a "game that fascinated me," but readers don't know his motive. He might be using Liza to somehow get revenge (on someone, anyone) for his earlier humiliation. He could also be showing he can control another person's feelings, as he once did with a schoolmate, to regain his own sense of superiority. He does regain some humanity by asking Liza to forgive him. As in Part 1, he is not completely devoid of humanity.

Still, viewed in the light of the romantic viewpoint, the Underground Man is a fake. He uses emotion and feeling not to elevate his spirit but to manipulate and hurt Liza. In some way the Underground Man's behavior toward Liza may reveal human nature in its true form—with all its flaws. In existential terms the Underground Man is inauthentic throughout the episode with Liza. He reshapes her identity and her meaning in the world in a romantic fiction manufactured by his mind. Furthermore, the truth he sees at the end of Chapter 7 is not one of clarity. It is a "nasty truth."

The Underground Man refers to "snow" or "wet snow" several times in these chapters. The romanticism motivating the Underground Man's behavior has a foreign, European origin. St. Petersburg is a Western-type city, and wet snow, as a symbol of Western culture, is a reminder of the pernicious effect of Western ideas on Russian culture.

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