The narrator introduces himself as a man who lives underground and refers to himself as a spiteful person whose every act is dictated by his spitefulness. Then he suddenly admits that he is not really spiteful, because he finds it is impossible to be anything — he can't be spiteful or heroic; he can only be nothing. This is because he is a man of acute consciousness and such a person is automatically rendered inactive because he considers too many consequences of any act before he performs the act and therefore never gets around to doing anything. In contrast, a person who is not very intelligent can constantly perform all sorts of actions because he never bothers to consider the consequences.
The man of acute consciousness finds that he cannot even commit an act of revenge because he never knows the exact nature of the insult. Such a man is plagued with an active imagination which causes him to exaggerate any type of insult until it becomes fantasized out of all proportion to the original insult. By this time it is ridiculous to try and perform any act of revenge.
It is easy for other people to classify themselves, but the Underground Man knows that no simple classification can define the essence of one's existence; therefore, he can only conclude that he is nothing. Yet in society, the scientists and the materialists are trying to define exactly what a man is in order to create a society which will function for man's best advantage. The Underground Man objects to this trend because he maintains that no one can actually know what is man's best advantage. Such a society would have to be formulated on the theory that man is a rational being who always acts for his best advantage. But the history of man proves that he seldom acts this way.
The Underground Man then points out that some people love things which are not to their best advantage. Many people, for example, need to suffer and are ennobled by suffering; yet, the scientist and the rationalist want to remove suffering from their utopian society, thereby removing something that man passionately desires. What the Underground Man wants is not scientific certainty, but the freedom to choose his own way of life.
The Underground Man concludes that for the man of conscious intelligence, the best thing to do is to do nothing. His justification for writing these Notes from Underground is that every man has some memory which he wishes to purge from his being, and the Underground Man is going to tell his most oppressing memory.
Sixteen years ago, when he was twenty-four, he lived a very isolated and gloomy existence with no friends and no contacts other than his colleagues at work. To escape the boredom of this life, he turned to a life of imagination. There he could create scenes in which he had been insulted and then could create ways of revenging himself. But he never fulfilled his dreams.
When his isolation became too unbearable, he would visit his immediate superior at his home. Once, however, feeling the need to "embrace humanity," he was driven to renew his acquaintance with an old schoolmate, Simonov. Arriving at the house, he found Simonov with two old schoolmates discussing a farewell party they were planning for Zverkov. The Underground Man invited himself to the party even though he had always hated Zverkov and had not seen him since their school days.
At the party, the Underground Man unknowingly arrived an hour early (the time had been changed) and, during the course of the evening, created a repulsive scene. When the others left to go to a brothel, he begged for some money from Simonov so that he could go too. He was ashamed and horrified at what he had done, but he followed his companions to the brothel.
When he arrived, he was determined to slap Zverkov, but he could not find him; he was relieved to discover that everyone had already retired. Then he met Liza, a prostitute with whom he retired. Later, he awakened and told her in high-flown language about the miseries of prostitution. He knew he was doing so partly for effect and partly because he felt rejected by his friends. Upon leaving, he gave Liza his address and told her to visit him. She promised to do so.
During the next day and for days afterward, the Underground Man was horrified that Liza might actually show up. He knew that he could not keep up the pretense of the previous night. And, one night as he was having an absurd argument with his servant, she did arrive. He was embarrassed that she should see him in such poverty and in such an absurd position. He went into hysterics, and she comforted him. Later, he insulted her and told her that he was only pretending about everything he said. Crudely, he gave her five rubles for her services, but before she left, she crumpled the five-ruble note and left it on his table. He ran after her to apologize but could not find her. His shame over his conduct still trubles him.