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Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Summary and Analysis Part 1: Section 2


The narrator tells us why he could not become an insect even though he has wished many times to become one. He is too acutely conscious, which, he says, is a real "thorough-going illness." The flaw in any cultivated man is that he possesses a higher level of consciousness than is necessary. It would be better to possess only the amount given to "direct persons and men of action" who seem to have the correct dosage.

He does not mean to brag about his illness (i.e., his overdose of consciousness), but it is fashionable to brag about one's diseases. He is, however, convinced that every type of consciousness is a disease. For example, often when he feels "every refinement of all that is 'good and beautiful,'" he also feels and does very ugly things. "The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was 'good and beautiful,' the more deeply I sank into my mire…." Thus, he feels that depravity might perhaps be the normal state of man. Until now, he has always felt ashamed of this condition — especially after he had just completed a loathsome act and then began to feel a positive, real enjoyment from his depravity. This enjoyment, he says, has always been directly correlated to his "too intense consciousness of [his] own degradation" and has stemmed from his awareness that he could never become anything else and probably will never want to change.

The worst aspect of the narrator's sickness is that it is in agreement with the "normal, fundamental laws of overacute consciousness." He concludes that one is not responsible for being a scoundrel and wonders if that is any consolation to the person who realizes that he is a scoundrel.

There have been moments in his life when he would have enjoyed being slapped in the face. His consciousness forces him to admit that he is to blame for every insulting thing that happens to him, but the humiliation is that his blame is due to no fault in himself, but is in accordance with the laws of nature which control him. Thus, if he were insulted, he would probably not seek revenge because he could never decide what to do. He could not seek revenge because his acute consciousness forces him to realize the impossibility of his being anything different from what he is.


Section 2 introduces in germinal form many more ideas that are both central to this work and prominent throughout Dostoevsky's fiction. The narrator continues his attack against scientific rationalism by asserting, paradoxically, that one of the main flaws in mankind is an over-developed consciousness. This acute awareness is a most dreadful illness. The paradox of these views works on many levels. In any society, especially one given to scientific rationalism, a man's education and intellectual achievements are to be lauded in the highest sense. These are the qualities which define man's humanity and separate him from the beasts. Yet, the Underground Man sees them as an illness because these very attributes, that is, "acute consciousness" and "intellectual awareness," are the very things which make it impossible to accept scientific rationalism. To be able to accept the prevalent society of his day, the Underground Man asserts that a person must be a non-thinking man of direct action. A high level of consciousness will always cause a man to reject his society; thus, man's greatest attribute becomes his worst illness.

The Underground Man finds in his society that it is fashionable for people to brag about their diseases. So, since he is persuaded that a high level of consciousness is a disease, he will be fashionable and brag about his disease — the paradox being that his disease is that which is desired by all intelligent people and it is a disease only in terms of a scientific society. The idea of a man's acute consciousness being a detriment to living in a scientific society is used here in only a paradoxical sense, but Dostoevsky makes extensive, serious use of this idea later. In subsequent novels, he develops the point more fully that the greater the intellect, the more that the intellect must suffer. The ignorant are simply not aware of the complexities and imperfections in the world, but the great intellect suffers intensely for all of mankind. In other words, the great intellect is aware of wars and holocausts, of innocent suffering, of starvation in all parts of the world, of disease and poverty, and of all the trials of mankind; therefore, the great intellect suffers for all of the ills of society, whereas the limited intellect or "the man of direct action" is concerned only with matters of the moment.

Concerning the duality of man's nature, the Underground Man says that in a scientific society, man's nature must be consistent, but he, the Underground Man, views man as a highly inconsistent being. He uses as an example the fact that people, while in the midst of contemplating "the good and the beautiful" also allow ideas of depravity and vulgarity to intrude upon their thoughts. Again, this idea is developed more fully in later novels and receives its climactic form in Dmitri Karamazov's discussion in The Brothers Karamazov. Following publication of this later novel, this idea was often referred to as the Madonna-Sodom opposition, meaning that radical and diametrically opposed feelings exist at the same time within a person. Dmitri Karamazov says, "I can't endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What's still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna." Dmitri wallows in his emotional quagmire but, at the same time, longs to imbue his life with utmost purity. He is especially attracted to purity as represented by the Madonna image but, at the same time, finds himself helplessly trapped in a life of orgies. These orgies he equates with the city of Sodom, destroyed by God because of its corruptness.

Further, Dmitri Karamazov says, when he sinks "into the vilest degradation," he always reads Schiller's "Hymn to joy." In the very depths of that degradation he makes such pleas as: "Let me be accursed. Let me be vile and base, only let me kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded. Though I may be following the devil, I am Thy son, 0 Lord, and I love Thee, and I feel the joy without which the world cannot stand."

The acute consciousness referred to by the Underground Man is ultimately related to a "self-consciousness." The average man, "the man of direct action," functions on instinct and never stops to evaluate his actions. He is close to being an animal which responds instinctively and does not consider, much less contemplate, the ramifications of his actions. Therefore, the "direct man" can perform an act of depravity and not be trubled by it. However, the Underground Man is always intensely conscious of any act of depravity, and consequently, takes pleasure from his depravity by being aware of it. This awareness renders him inactive in that he constantly evaluates every aspect of any act in such depth that there can be no clear lines for direct action. Thus, knowledge and self-consciousness have given him an omniscience that seems (or would seem so to his scientific-oriented audience) to be a liability, one that renders him a spiteful, inactive man.