Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Plot Summary

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Part 1: Underground

A footnote to the title of Part 1 introduces the Underground Man, who is never named in the novel but is known by this phrase in literary tradition. This man is fictional, the author says, but he must exist in Russian society because of the way society is formed, or organized. The Underground Man is "a representative of a generation that is still living," and the book is his diary or confessional.

Part 1 takes place in the 1860s when the Underground Man is 40 years old. It begins with the Underground Man saying he's a sick, wicked, and unattractive man. He is physically sick, but he refuses to see a doctor. That is his right; he is exerting his free will to do nothing. No intelligent man of his time is capable of being or doing anything because, as he will explain at length throughout Part 1, the prevailing philosophy in Russian thought makes freedom of action impossible. Doubts born from his developed intelligence also make action impossible for him. The Underground Man is not only intelligent, he is "overly conscious," which he views as a disease and causes him intense suffering. The Underground Man compares himself to a mouse who hides in its mouse hole because he rejects the rationality—the science and mathematics—that govern life in 1860s Russia. Accepting and living by these "facts" robs humans of their right to act according to their free will. There is no possibility of acting freely, even trivially or self-destructively, as the Underground Man insists is his right. And if he can't act freely, he will remain underground and not act at all.

The Underground Man defends acting according to his own will. He says he gets pleasure from his suffering, which he refuses to act to relieve. For example, he enjoys suffering from a toothache. He refuses to apologize for his actions, for they arise from his free will. He may act out of spite, but he feels that is preferable to acting from a predetermined reason.

The Underground Man attacks the argument attributed to a philosophy—rational egoism, which he never names outright—a utopia will be created if all people act out of their own rational self-interest. He debunks the notion acting this way will lead to goodness and harmony. Instead he insists sometimes people prefer to act perversely, in ways that are against their self-interest but may give them pleasure. Thus a social program cannot lead to a harmonious, rational civilization whose every citizen will exhibit goodness. The Underground Man uses numerous examples of European wars and atrocities—all justified as rational—to counter the rational egoist argument. He rejects rational egoism because it is a Western European construct he feels is alien and adverse to Russian culture.

Using the symbol of an elaborately engineered structure called the Crystal Palace, the Underground Man shows the dull and dehumanizing uniformity science and math impose on people. Living as a cog, or an undifferentiated module in a structure like the Crystal Palace, would not only be boring but would impel people to rebel against the strictures imposed on them. People will rebel against being a mere piano key or an ant in an anthill. Whether or not it is in their best interest, they will break out of the limitations of a philosophy to regain the freedom to act as they please, even if their actions are stupid or harmful. The Underground Man insists people will even reject "2 X 2 = 4" because it is too limiting. They will replace the mathematical fact with "2 x 2 = 5" just to exert their own individual will—even if it results in their own suffering. For free people like the Underground Man, there is pleasure in suffering because it results from their free actions.

Part 2: Apropos of the Wet Snow

Part 2 of the novel largely takes place in the 1840s, when the Underground Man is 24. At this time he is in thrall to romanticism, another form of thought imported into Russia from Western Europe. He explains this early in the first chapter of Part 2 as he "reproach[es himself] with Romanticism" and says Russian romantics are different from European ones because they are "always intelligent."

The Underground Man lives alone but works in the civil service. He is acutely sensitive to slights, real or imagined, from others because he gets his sense of superiority from others' opinions of him. To this end the Underground Man treats with contempt the people he serves at his job as a civil servant. By demeaning them he rises above them. These are all romantic notions, and like other romantics, the Underground Man spends a lot of time at home reading. He gets almost all his ideas, values, and mannerisms from the books he reads.

One night in a bar, an officer brushes past the Underground Man, touching his shoulder. The officer does this without even noticing the Underground Man or their contact. The Underground Man is furious at the incidental contact but even more offended at not being noticed. In his mind the Underground Man plots an elaborate revenge against the officer. He thinks of regaining his honor by challenging the officer to a duel, but then rejects that idea. After days of deliberately walking up and down a promenade in St. Petersburg, the Underground Man finally bumps into the officer. Again the officer doesn't even notice him, but the Underground Man convinces himself the officer just pretended not to notice him. So the Underground Man's honor is restored; he's gotten his revenge.

The Underground Man inherits some money and no longer has to work. He remains secluded in his rooms for three months at a time, reading and contemplating all things "lofty and beautiful." But after three months of isolation he gets antsy and goes out to visit his few acquaintances. One day he visits his former schoolmate Simonov at his apartment. There are two other former schoolmates at Simonov's house. The three men are planning a farewell dinner for their mutual friend, Zverkov. The Underground Man also remembers Zverkov, who he hates for being handsome and charming. The three friends largely ignore the Underground Man, so he essentially invites himself to the dinner the next night. Simonov and the others are fairly outraged at the Underground Man's impudence.

The Underground Man arrives at the hotel dining room early, and he's furious to learn the time was changed and he wasn't informed. Yet Zverkov is polite and tries to draw the Underground Man into conversation. Because in his heart he feels inferior to the others, the Underground Man takes offense at everything Zverkov says and is extremely rude to him. When the four friends relax and talk after dinner, the Underground Man paces back and forth in front of them for three hours. He's waiting for them to invite him to speak with them. He knows he's humiliating himself by his ridiculous pacing, but he can't stop himself. The others must recognize him first to make him feel superior. The Underground Man is so enraged he imagines challenging Zverkov to a duel.

The four friends depart, leaving the Underground Man alone in the dining room. He thinks he knows where they've gone, so he gets a sled taxi and hurries to a brothel he believes they frequent. But when he gets to the brothel they are not there. Instead he meets a young, innocent woman, Liza, who is a prostitute at the brothel. The Underground Man plays the romantic hero to "save" Liza. He tries to convince her to leave the brothel and live a better life as a beloved married woman. The Underground Man first paints a picture for Liza of the horrors of her future life, when she is old, sick, and discarded. He then describes a totally unrealistic picture of connubial bliss, but it is the clichéd image of love taken from romantic literature. Before he leaves the brothel the Underground Man gives Liza his home address.

Several days pass and still Liza does not show up at his door. The Underground Man describes his antagonistic relationship with his servant, Apollon. Unlike the Underground Man, the romantic who depends on others to reinforce his sense of superiority, Apollon has an innate self-confidence. Apollon therefore has a natural superiority over the insecure Underground Man, who engages in silly, petty acts to force Apollon to be submissive to him. The Underground Man has a screaming fight with the silent Apollon, and just then Liza enters the apartment. The Underground Man is filled with shame that she has heard him yelling at Apollon, at his shabby clothes and furniture, and at the overall poverty of his existence. Liza, who comes from a poor family, doesn't care about all that. But the Underground Man must reestablish his superiority over her. He launches into a vicious tirade against her. He even tells her the things he said to her at the brothel were part of his "game," "a show" he put on to draw her in so he could humiliate her.

Liza is dumbstruck by the Underground Man's rant. Yet it dawns on her he's so beside himself with rage because he's unhappy. She gets up and embraces him and, for a few minutes, the Underground Man allows her to love him. But he finds the vulnerability of loving intolerable. Hatred and the desire for revenge rise in him. He wants to find a way to control Liza and humiliate her, and he asks Liza to leave him in peace. As she gets ready to go, the Underground Man visits the ultimate humiliation on Liza: he spitefully insults her by slipping some money into her hand. Liza rejects the money and leaves. The Underground Man wants to run after her and beg her forgiveness, but then he decides to just let her go.

The Underground Man has not seen Liza since that incident (nearly 20 years). He feels ashamed by what he'd done, but he's described the incident honestly in his "notes." The Underground Man is furious at how emotionally crippled people are, but claims he has lived a life of extremes. Finally, the Underground Man states he will not write anymore.

The author concludes the novel by stating the Underground Man had written more "notes" but it's for the best if the book stops here.

Notes from Underground Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 In isolation, the Underground Man lives underground.

Rising Action

2 The Underground Man criticizes rational egoism.

3 An officer is the target of the Underground Man's revenge.

4 The Underground Man invites himself to Simonov's dinner.

5 The Underground Man humiliates himself at the dinner.

6 Liza meets the Underground Man at the brothel.

7 The Underground Man tries to "save" Liza.

8 Liza visits the Underground Man's rooms.


9 The Underground Man viciously insults Liza.

Falling Action

10 Liza leaves the money and runs outside.

11 The Underground Man looks for but cannot find Liza.


12 The Underground Man stops writing.

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