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Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Quotes


I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man. An unattractive man.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 1

These famous opening lines of the novel introduce the Underground Man as the solitary, embittered, and self-hating individual who narrates the book.


It is impossible for an intelligent man to become anything, only fools become something.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 1

This quote introduces the theme of rational egoism, a social construct based on facts, science, and math. Thus an "intelligent" man in the age of rational egoism can become only what science and math determine is rational for him to be, not what he wants to be. The dull, narrow-minded "fool" can be something because he rejects limiting his life to the dictates of rational egoism.


To be overly conscious is a sickness.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 2

Here the Underground Man reveals himself to be acutely aware—overly conscious—of himself in light of the constraints of a rigidly rational social order. Being so conscious of one's desires and needs when society is a rational straightjacket makes him ill. The conflict between consciousness and reality is for him a sickness that causes him great suffering.


The pleasure lay precisely in the vivid consciousness of one's own humiliation.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 2

Here the Underground Man insists vile actions humiliate him, but he takes pleasure in being humiliated. The pleasure arises out of the exercise of his free will. He does cruel and vile things out of contrariness—acting in opposition to his own advantage and social norms and expectations—and his awareness of that contrariness gives him pleasure. Part of his pleasure is understanding exercising his free will shatters the social system built by the rational egoists.


Laws of nature need only be discovered ... then man will [not] be answerable for his actions.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 7

The Underground Man despises the lack of personal responsibility that comes with actions prescribed by rational formulas. For existential man the exercise of free will is vital only if he takes full responsibility for his actions. In a rational egoist society all action is predetermined by facts and science. Acting according to these formulaic "laws of nature" (as rational egoists would have people do) leaves people unaccountable for their actions.


Man needs only independent wanting, whatever [the] cost and wherever it may lead.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 7

The Underground Man believes free will, or independent wanting, is the one thing human nature demands. People will do what they want even if it is unreasonable or harmful to them. It is the freedom to break free from restricted desires and prescribed action that is important. Calculating the reasonableness, the cost, or the end result of an action is unimportant so long as the action arises from one's independent will.


The best definition of man: a being ... on two legs [who] is ungrateful.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 8

The Underground Man is being sarcastic in defining humans as "ungrateful." Ingratitude here refers to those people who reject the material comforts offered by rational egoists, who insist people act in their own self-interest to gain the most profit and advantage. The ingrates of the quote are those contrarians who reject the soul-deadening comforts of rational egoism in order to act according to their free will—even if doing so deprives them of bourgeois comforts.


After two times two there would ... be nothing left.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 9

Once people live according to the facts of reason, science, and math there is nothing left for them because they have relinquished their free will to narrow, rigid reason. The Underground Man goes on to say for the man who exercises his free will two times two can equal five if he chooses to believe that.


I am not going to bow and scrape before you. I have the underground.

The Underground Man, Part 1, Chapter 10

The Underground Man has totally rejected the tenets of rational egoism. He refuses to give in to its stringent, will-crushing rules. He would rather live as a bitter, solitary recluse in his underground hovel—rejecting society—than bend to its rational dictates.


I turned coward not from cowardice but from the most boundless vanity.

The Underground Man, Part 2, Chapter 1

In Part 2 the Underground Man identifies himself as a romantic. He admits he has no moral courage to speak in ordinary words. As a romantic man of his time he can only speak in affected, literary language lifted from romantic literature. By using this 'exalted' language he preserves his superiority and romantic identity. Yet he is aware it is his vanity and his need to appear superior that makes him speak this way. His cowardice comes from being too weak to overcome his vanity and speak from his heart as a 'normal' person would.


For a man to humiliate himself more shamelessly and voluntarily was really impossible.

The Underground Man, Part 2, Chapter 4

Romanticism demands the true romantic be a superior person whose superiority must be affirmed by others. This quote is from a key scene in which the Underground Man paces in front of his acquaintances, who ignore him. He is so needful of their speaking to him first he humiliates himself by pacing for hours while waiting for them to address him. The Underground Man knows he's acting in a ridiculous and humiliating way (and he knows his friends know), but he can't stop himself. The romantic man cannot exist until his superiority is affirmed by others.


[Apollon's] majestically self-confident, and permanently mocking look ... drove me to fury.

The Underground Man, Part 2, Chapter 8

Apollon is in many ways the Underground Man's nemesis. The servant is a man of assured, innate self-confidence. He exudes superiority because he knows himself and his superior qualities. Apollon does not need others to confirm his superiority, but he's keenly aware the Underground Man does need this recognition. Apollon's natural confidence makes the Underground Man furious. Apollon sees his master's need for others to bow and scrape to him, and that makes Apollon regard the Underground Man "mockingly."


And what I am confessing to you now, I will also never forgive you.

The Underground Man, Part 2, Chapter 9

The Underground Man is in a frenzy of self-loathing as he tells Liza why he's treated her so cruelly. He has played a game with her with the purpose of hurting and humiliating her utterly. Yet in this quote he reveals by confessing his purpose to her he is also deeply humiliating himself. As happened at the dinner when he vowed his schoolmates would pay for his humiliating pacing, here the Underground Man tells Liza she must pay the price of his having humiliated himself. He makes her pay with an act of terrible humiliation and cruelty.


[For me] love [was] a struggle [that] started from hatred and ended with moral subjugation.

The Underground Man, Part 2, Chapter 10

Liza has shown she loves the Underground Man, and he is astonished to find he envies her for her ability to love. Yet for the Underground Man love is "tyranny" and "domination." In this quote he reveals he cannot love because for him love is a struggle whose aim is the "moral subjugation" of the so-called beloved. For the Underground Man, revealing his real emotions—those not derived from romantic literature—is humiliating. That humiliation makes him hate the object of his love. His hatred forces him to destroy the lover, Liza, by dominating and subjugating her.


Try giving us more independence ... we will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage.

The Underground Man, Part 2, Chapter 10

In this quote the Underground Man explains how romanticism, like rational egoism, destroys people's free will. He asserts even if the romantic man is given some freedom he is too cowardly, too terrified to use it. Instead he would come crawling back to his books—and his inauthentic life based on them—to be guided by romantic ideals. Thus the Underground Man unites rational egoism and romanticism as equally hurtful to people's exercise of free will—the one thing that makes them truly human.

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