Summary and Analysis
Suddenly at 2 A.M., a noise awakened the Underground Man out of his half-conscious state. When he was fully cognizant of his surroundings, he noticed two eyes observing him. He and the prostitute gazed at each other for awhile, then he asked her name. She told him that it was Liza and that she came from a town called Riga. She had been in the house of prostitution for only two weeks.
The Underground Man questioned her about other matters and then stopped as he suddenly remembered a scene he had observed the day before: a coffin of a prostitute was being dragged from the basement of a filthy, debris-littered house. He turned to Liza and told her what he had seen, recalling how the grave diggers had to stand in water and how the corpse was buried in an icy, watery grave. He then launched upon a discourse about death and the nature of dying. Liza merely listened to him, strangely, asserting at intervals that she was not concerned about dying. The Underground Man then painted a depressing picture of how a person could not last long leading a life of prostitution. He even suggested that in another situation, she could find a husband and live a happy, married life. Liza, however, knew that being married was not synonymous with being happy.
The Underground Man continued to torment Liza with his tales of the horrors of prostitution. He told her that she would never be able to buy her freedom and would get deeper and deeper in debt to the madam. He used himself as an example of how hideous prostitution is: they came together and said not one word and it was hours afterward before they spoke. This can hardly be considered love.
Liza then became involved in what the Underground Man was saying and he, in turn, began taking new pleasure in being able to completely control her responses and emotions. He continued talking about prostitution versus the advantages of family life. He confessed that he had no family and thus this was part of his problem. Liza countered by saying that some families "are glad to sell their daughters." The Underground Man then realized that Liza had been forced to enter prostitution. Only in a family where there is no love and no God could such a thing happen. He continued talking about family happiness and mutual love, courage, and respect, and when he had finished, Liza looked at him and told him that he spoke "like a book."
The scene between the Underground Man and Liza is highly typical of Dostoevsky's writing. In its subject matter, in its character delineation, and in technique are the kernels of what one thinks of as "typical Dostoevsky." In terms of subject matter, a confrontation between an intelligent, trubled man of awareness and a simple, passive prostitute is the subject matter of his next major novel, Crime and Punishment. Throughout his writing, in fact, Dostoevsky created many climactic scenes involving people of opposite attributes who react against each other. Nowhere else in literature can we find such scenes of sustained mental and emotional agony between opposites. Yet the unlikelihood of such encounters are made realistically believable by Dostoevsky's genius in giving verisimilitude to his characters.
Liza is only one of many down-trodden, shy, passive, and oppressed women found throughout Dostoevsky's novels. Like Sonia in Crime and Punishment, Liza says very little other than to answer, cursorily, questions put to her by the Underground Man. Instead, her very passivity, her simple presence, evokes from the protagonist varying responses and reactions. But ultimately we feel that in Liza there is a greater love of humanity and a greater responsiveness to life than there ever can be in the Underground Man. Whereas his suffering carries an imposed artificiality about it, her suffering seems real and intrinsically sincere.
The sordid story which the Underground Man relates concerning the degradation inherent in a life of prostitution is a masterpiece of narration. The entire scene is permeated with images of wetness, of morbidity, and of decay. The depiction is a seemingly accurate one of the horrors of prostitution, but we must ask what was the Underground Man's motivation for describing such a depressing scene to Liza. Out of his own misery, one could easily maintain, he wanted others to suffer. Also, having just been rejected by his former schoolmates, he was determined to make another outcast feel rejected. In a sense, then, he desperately needed Liza, but was unable to respond to her except by being superior and tyrannical.
The Underground Man enjoys hearing his own voice, especially in view of his recent rejection, and he enjoys the sense of power he feels in giving his "sermon" and in totally captivating his listener. There is a certain degree of honest intent in his narration, but there is also hypocrisy since he knows he is partly showing off his superior rhetoric and knowledge. And he knows that he will never be able to fulfill the expectations he has created in Liza. But, becoming involved in his own rhetoric, he cannot stop and compulsively continues. In the same way that he was earlier driven to embrace humanity, now he cannot stay this impulse to talk and to tyrannize.