Summary and Analysis
The Underground Man continued to describe horrendous scenes of prostitution. He also told Liza that in another place, at another time, it would have been highly possible that he could have fallen in love with her and would even have considered it an honor to be betrothed to her. But here, in a house of prostitution, he has only to whistle and she must come to him whether she wishes to or not: her wishes are insignificant — only his are important.
Furthermore, to practice prostitution is not just to sell one's body, but also to sell one's soul. This is a more horrible loss because now she can never really fall in love with anyone. Even if she were allowed to have a lover, he would have to be of such a type — such a brute — that he would not be worth her love.
The Underground Man then reminded Liza that she was sacrificing her health and that when she was twenty-two, she would look thirty-five. Then she would begin moving from one house to another until she ended up in the worst possible house in Haymarket Square. To prove his point, he told about a prostitute who was once turned out in Haymarket and by 9 o'clock in the morning, she was already "drunk, dishevelled, half-naked, and covered with bruises." And, eight or ten years ago, this very wreck was exactly like Liza today. Many prostitutes, he continued, die of consumption — a strange disease because until the last, each victim thinks that she will recover. Instead, she is usually dumped in the "filthiest corner of the cellar, in the damp and darkness," so that her moans and cries will not disturb the customers.
All at once, the Underground Man realized that he had worked himself to such an emotional peak that it was difficult for him to continue. He also knew that he had so skillfully exercised his rhetoric that Liza was deeply disturbed. Never before had he witnessed such total despair. Liza lay on the bed, sobbing into her pillow, "clutching it in both hands. Her heart was being torn to pieces." The Underground Man tried to calm her but he could not stop her weeping until he found some matches and lit a candle. Only then did Liza begin to calm down. The Underground Man effusively asked her forgiveness then invited her to his address. She promised to come visit him.
Before he left, however, she ran to fetch something for him. It was a letter which a young medical student had written to her. A few days ago, at a dance where no one knew anything about her background, she had danced all night with this young man and, afterward, he had written this letter. It was in a respectful and sincere style and exposed his tender feelings for her. The Underground Man knew that she would keep this letter always; it was her treasure.
The Underground Man continues to torment Liza with the reality of her deplorable condition, painting her situation in the bleakest, most horrible images he can conceive. This type of scene foreshadows Dostoevsky's later writings in that Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment also described to Sonia (a prostitute) the horrors of her profession and pointed out how she was destroying her life. This type of scene is a favorite device of Dostoevsky.
One of Dostoevsky's greatest attributes as a writer is the manner in which he can depict scenes of degradation and expose all the abject horror inherent in that situation without ever destroying the reality or verisimilitude of the situation. The Underground Man merely points out some of the degrading aspects of prostitution — that men come to Liza only when they are drunk, that they are later ashamed of their actions, that she must be a slave to the man and come at his whistle, that she is destroying not only her body but also her soul, and that in a few years when her health begins to fail, she will be shifted from house to house and will die of consumption in some forlorn, cold, dark cellar only to be dumped into the first water-filled grave that is available.
Whether or not Liza is aware of the truth of the Underground Man's statements prior to this night is not as important as the fact that after his description, she is earnestly desirous of escaping the trap she is in. For she is not a prostitute by choice or desire; she was sold into the trade by her parents and cannot escape until her debts are paid off. But, being trapped as she is, the Underground Man's speech serves only to torture her since there is no possibility of escape.
The intensity of her desire to escape is seen in her revealing the existence and contents of the letter from the smitten medical student. This is her most prized possession. To show it to the Underground Man affirms the power of his speech on her. The irony of the situation, however, is that the letter shows that she can evoke genuine feelings for love from others, whereas the Underground Man is incapable of communicating with another person. As the Underground Man leaves, Liza is left alone with her prized treasure, but the Underground Man is also alone — exhausted and bewildered and solitary, he must walk home through the snow.