The narrator immediately reveals that he is a sick, spiteful, and unattractive man who believes that his liver is diseased. He refuses to consult a doctor about his liver, out of spite, even though he knows that he is hurting only himself by his spite. He is now forty years old and has been a spiteful person ever since he began working for the government twenty years ago. Throughout his employment, he never accepted a bribe, but he did delight in making any petitioner feel uncomfortable and unhappy, even though most of the petitioners were timid and poor.
The narrator confesses that the real motive for his spitefulness lies in the fact that he is really neither a spiteful nor an embittered man. He simply amuses himself, like a boy scaring sparrows, by being spiteful. Furthermore, he says, he was lying when he said he was a spiteful man; he was lying out of spite because even if he wanted to, he couldn't really become a spiteful man. Furthermore, he cannot become anything. Even though he is aware of many opposing elements within himself, he can't become anything — neither hero or insect, honest or dishonest. He will live out his life in his small corner because an intelligent man can't do anything; only a fool can. "A man of character, an active man is preeminently a limited creature." A man living in the nineteenth century is morally obligated to be a creature without a character.
To become older than forty, the narrator tells us, is "bad manners, is vulgar, immoral." And he has a right, he feels, to say this because he plans to go on living for many, many years past forty. As for the reason he joined the civil service, he says that he did so only to have something to eat. When a distant relative died, leaving him 6,000 rubles, he immediately resigned and settled down in his "corner" — a wretched, horrid room on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. He has a servant, a stupid, ill-natured country woman, and he knows that he could live more cheaply elsewhere, but he refuses to leave, even though the climate in St. Petersburg is bad for his health.
In introducing himself as a sick, spiteful, and unattractive man, the Underground Man sets the tone for the entire narrative. He describes what is now commonly called the "anti-hero"; that is, a person whose traits and actions are not considered heroic or even admirable — a person who might even be common and ordinary, but one with whom we can align ourselves in one way or another because his ideas strike us as proper and reasonable or, at least, understandable whether or not we agree with those ideas. The use of the term "anti-hero" has become prominent in twentieth-century literature and here, in Notes from Underground, is one of the germinal ideas for this type of character.
The Underground Man is one who is sick and spiteful, and we acknowledge that here is a man who is sick mainly because he cannot accept the ideas currently popular in his society. He is spiteful because he resents the direction of development he finds in his society, and his revolt against these unacceptable trends render him, in the eyes of his contemporaries, a spiteful being. But he is also physically sick and won't consult a doctor, out of spite. And he is also spiritually sick, as we find out in Part 2, because he can't accept love.
Dostoevsky conveys these ideas dramatically by having the Underground Man address an imaginary audience who is, he assumes, antagonistic to his ideas. Part of the paradox, then, is that the "spiteful" narrator constantly interrupts his narration in order to try and seek the approval of his audience and to justify his own behavior. He intentionally identifies himself as being spiteful because he knows that his audience will characterize him as a spiteful person; therefore, he anticipates his audience by admitting that he is spiteful.
Dostoevsky offers yet another paradox when he has the Underground Man admit that he was lying when he said that he was spiteful, then confessing that he could never become spiteful. This type of contradiction is characteristic of the Underground Man and is further realized when he admits that "I am well educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious." These ideas lay the groundwork for presenting his later ideas or beliefs in the necessity of man's contradictory nature.
The contradiction introduces us to several important aspects of Dostoevsky's writing. First, as noted, Dostoevsky is always concerned with the sense of duality present in every man. Crime and Punishment, the novel that lie wrote after he finished Notes from Underground, depicts a character with a split personality. Here, Dostoevsky was attempting to illustrate the complexity inherent in human nature and to show how contradictory impulses inhabit the same personality. Second, we should note that this entire work is in the form of a long confession. This obsession for confession characterizes a large portion of Dostoevsky's mature writing; throughout his major novels, characters constantly confess all types of vagaries. Finally, Dostoevsky introduces the concept, to be developed more fully later, of the relationship between honesty and self-evaluation. For example, the Underground Man is attempting to be honest with both his readers and with himself, but as he suggests in Section 11, there are some things that one will never admit — even to himself.
Part of the narrator's difficulty lies in his realization that he can do nothing and can become nothing because an intelligent man will always consider the complexity of anything for so long that often he ends up doing nothing. In contrast, the average or normal man can perform actions, but only because he is a limited creature who hasn't the intelligence to evaluate the intellectual ramifications of his actions.
Throughout the narrative, a central problem involves determining how "spiteful" the Underground Man is. To determine this, one must deal with layers of paradoxes. Basically, as noted above, he is spiteful mainly because he is going against the main trend of his society. However, when he says "I am a spiteful man" and then contradicts himself by saying he was lying when he said he was spiteful and then adds that he "was lying from spite," we are then confronted with a double paradox and must conclude that the Underground Man is actually a spiteful man; but the problem continues in that we basically agree with what this disagreeable man says and, while we tend to dislike him as a person, we are forced to accept most of his views.
As factual history, the Underground Man is the same age (forty) as Dostoevsky was when he wrote this novel, and he also lived in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), the capital of Russia until 1917. St. Petersburg was built by Peter the Great on land which had once been marshland and was reclaimed; the references the Underground Man makes to the unhealthy climate of St. Petersburg refer to this fact.