Notes from Underground By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part 2: Section 1

Summary

Even at age twenty-four, the Underground Man says, he lived a gloomy and solitary existence with no friends or companions. At the office where he worked, he constantly imagined that his colleagues looked upon him "with a sort of loathing." He could never understand why the other workers were so oblivious to their appearance while he was always so self-conscious about his own. Even workers who had pock-marked faces or who wore dirty, disgusting clothes never seemed disturbed, but he was constantly aware of his own shortcomings. In fact, he hated his own face and was convinced that the other clerks also hated it.

In turn, however, he hated his fellow clerks, yet was also afraid of them. When he saw one of them staring at him, he would try to stare back, but "was always the first to drop my eyes." He was morbidly sensitive but concluded that "every decent man of our age must be a coward and a slave."

Having no friends, he spent most of his time reading, but he was often so bored that he longed for some type of adventure or excitement. To compensate, he "indulged in filthy vice" and frequented various obscene haunts. While returning one night from one of his visits, as he passed a tavern, he saw a man being thrown out of a window. He was in such a strange mood that he envied the man being thrown out.

Entering the tavern, he stood by a billiard table and became highly incensed when an officer "moved me from where I was standing and passed by as though he had not noticed me." This slight nagged at his very existence, since the officer ignored the Underground Man's humanness and treated him as an object. He wanted to start a quarrel but instead sneaked away. It was not from cowardice, however. He says that he has never been a coward at heart, only in action. It was an "unbounded vanity" that drove him away; it was not a lack of physical courage but a lack of moral courage.

His resentment over this insult built until he wanted to return to the tavern and begin a quarrel except that it would be necessary to use literary language and he realized that as soon as he began speaking in literary terms, the other people would begin laughing. This would be too humiliating. Instead, for several years, he stared spitefully at the officer and even wrote a satire on him. It was rejected by the publisher.

Two years after the insult, the Underground Man composed a splendid letter, asking for an apology and hinting rather plainly at a duel. Fortunately, the letter was never sent. Then suddenly he conceived a plan whereby to gain revenge: he often strolled along the Nevsky, the main street of St. Petersburg and had frequently seen the officer strolling there also. While strolling, the Underground Man would always step aside to make way for any important personage or well-dressed stroller. He hated himself for doing so, but was overly-conscious about the shabbiness of his clothes. Like the narrator, the officer would also step aside for people of higher rank. But when he met people less well dressed and of lesser rank, he would walk indifferently past them, forcing them to move out of his way.

To get revenge, then, the Underground Man decided to force the officer to step aside for him. But to accomplish this required great preparations. First, he would have to be dressed as a person of dignity. That would be no easy matter; he was forced to get an advance on his salary. Still, however, he didn't have enough and had to borrow from his superior (Anton Antonich Syetochkin) in order to buy a new beaver fur collar for his overcoat.

Having made all the preparations, he went to the Nevsky and, before he knew it, he encountered the officer. But lie stepped aside for him. Again and again, his courage failed at the last minute, and the officer simply stepped over him. Afterwards he would be feverish and delirious. Then, one day, unexpectedly, the officer was three feet from him. He closed his eyes and did not budge an inch. They bumped into each other, and even though the officer pretended not to notice, the Underground Man knew better. Elated, and singing Italian arias, he was at last able to get home feeling triumphant and exhilarated.

Analysis

The title of this second part, "A Propos of the Wet Snow," becomes the dominant image throughout the rest of the novel. We are constantly reminded of the wet, falling snow. The image is also related to the Underground Man's state of mind during the narration of the events. He is living in a barren, frigid world where he is unable to communicate with other people; and, even in episodes like those with Liza, he uses cold and snow and wetness to describe funerals and other unpleasant episodes.

At the end of Part 1, the Underground Man is reminded of the story of Liza as a result of the falling snow and he must purge this memory from his consciousness. To do so, he must relive the episode which occurred when he was twenty-four years old, one which has haunted him for these sixteen intervening years.

As noted in the commentary to Part 1, the reliving or retelling of an unpleasant or repressed event in the past has, in the twentieth century, become the basis of much modern psychoanalysis. Thus, the entire Notes from Underground can function as a type of confession from a disturbed personality, and can be seen as the forerunner of one of the main trends in twentieth-century literature.

The opening of this section shows the Underground Man to be a person overly self-conscious and overly sensitive. This intense awareness causes him to believe that others view him in the same way as he views himself For example, he says that he hated his own face and therefore assumed that everyone else hated his face. But we know from Part 1 that thoughts such as these emanate only from the man of acute consciousness; thus we become increasingly aware that one of the Underground Man's major drawbacks is his over-sensitivity and his dual nature. His duality is present in almost every action and thought. For example, he says that he "alternated between despising [his fellow workers] and thinking them superior" to himself. At least, he could never help but drop his eyes first when he caught someone staring at him. The Sartrean existential hero would not be the first to drop his eyes; he would "stare down" the other person. The Underground Man's acute self-awareness, in contrast, has rendered him almost totally useless in society.

The realization that he was different and unlike most other people prevented him from acting as he would like to. This same realization is made by Rousseau in the opening section of his Confessions and becomes the subject and the rallying cry of romanticism, freeing the romantic man from the shackles of restraint. And even though the Underground Man says that Rousseau lied in his Confessions (see Part 1, Section 11), the same realization about his own uniqueness renders him inactive rather than liberating him.

This self-awareness causes him, and any "decent man," to become a coward and a slave. As expressed in Part 1, the full realization of the consequences of any act renders the intelligent man inactive. The Underground Man insists that the man of acute consciousness is not a coward at heart, but that he is a coward in action. To prove his point, he narrates his encounter with the officer in the billiard parlor.

Note, however, that before he sees the officer that he is plagued with guilt feelings for having been to a house of prostitution. Thus, when he envies the "gentleman thrown out of the window," this expresses something of a subconscious desire to be punished for his dissipation of the evening.

The episode with the officer illustrates many of the abstract matters discussed in Part 1. Since the Underground Man brooded so long, we see his inability to become a "man of action." He broods upon a subject, but can't act. To perform even the most minimal action, he must adopt the existing social standards and buy clothes which will imply that he is a superior person because of the clothes he wears. Even when he does bump against the officer, it is an action which occurs almost by accident. That is, he is hardly aware of the officer's presence and cannot take time to think about his own decision. This illustrates that, for the man of acute consciousness, simple revenge is impossible.

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