The underground man’s story takes place when he is 24, living a very solitary life. He doesn’t even really look at other people in his office and feels that his coworkers dislike him. He hates his coworkers, but sometimes thinks of them as superior to him. He calls himself “a coward and a slave,” and says that “a decent man must be a coward and a slave.” He tells his readers he felt completely alone, and thought no one at the office was like him.
Even when not physically isolated from society underground, the underground man is socially isolated from others, such as his coworkers. He vacillates between wanting their acknowledgment and rejecting them. He generalizes from his own experience to claim that “a decent man must be a coward and a slave.”
At times, the underground man would try to talk with those in his office and make friends, but at other times he would remain aloof. He would often criticize himself for being overly Romantic, and digresses about Romanticism. He says that Russian Romantics have more common sense than those in Germany or France, who he sees as foolish, impractical, and overly idealistic. He says that as an example of how he was different from other Romantics, he didn’t quit his job, because he needed the money.
The underground man cannot decide whether he wants friends or wants nothing to do with those less intelligent than himself. He criticizes himself for sometimes being caught up in Romantic fantasies from literature and prizes his own practicality in contrast to German or French Romantics.
The underground man says that he spent most of his time at home reading, but “sank into dark, subterranean, loathsome depravity.” He says he did this because of depression and “a hysterical craving for contradictions and contrasts.” First he tells his readers that he is not trying to justify his behavior, but then he says he is. He says that he was “carrying around the underground in my soul.”
Reading literature offers the underground man some escape from his boring, lonely life. His “hysterical craving for contradictions” is exemplified when he first says he is not trying to justify himself, but then says he is. Such self-contradiction proves his ability to behave illogically.
One night, the underground man sees a man get kicked out of a bar for fighting. He goes into the bar thinking that he could also get into a fight. He gets in an officer’s way, but the man simply moves him without saying anything, as if he didn’t even notice him. Instead of the fight he was hoping for, the underground man says he was treated “as if I were a fly.” He thinks of challenging the officer to a duel, but goes home and says he retreated because he was afraid that everyone at the bar would laugh at him when he spoke in literary Russian about duels and honor.
The underground man wishes for some kind of interesting event in his action-less life, something from a story like a bar brawl or duel. Even some kind of suffering would be preferable to his normal inaction. But he only thinks of such action, and doesn’t actually do much of anything. The officer ignores him completely, showing the degree to which the underground man is both isolated from and neglected by society.
The underground man would frequently see the officer on the street after this event, and would often stare at him “with malice and hatred.” He writes a story about the officer and sends it to a journal, but it is not published. He thinks again of challenging the officer to a duel, and writes a letter to him. He says that if the officer had “even the smallest understanding of the ‘beautiful and sublime,’” they would become friends as a result of his well-written letter. But ultimately he does not send the letter.
The underground man tries to channel his spite and malice toward the officer into a story. He imagines challenging the officer to a duel (he seems to be obsessed with the idea of duels, from old literature), but never carries out this action. It is not clear whether the underground man completely hates the officer, or envies him and wants his friendship, as he imagines his letter might bring them together. It may not even be clear to the underground man.
The underground man describes how he used to stroll along a particular street sometimes, and “darted in and out like a fish among the strollers,” constantly stepping out of people’s ways. This made him feel humiliated, like “a fly in the eyes of society,” forced to get out of everyone else’s way. He occasionally sees the officer on this street, and steps aside whenever he and the officer walk into each other’s paths. He devises a plan to walk into the officer, not change his path, and bump into him.
Even when among others, the underground man feels isolated and neglected by others, who treat him like a fly. His recurrent animal similes (often comparing himself to a fly) serve to denigrate both himself and mankind and bring human nature down to the level of an animal. At the same time, his pride makes him take offense at being treated as a “fly.”
First, though, the underground man wants to get nice clothes, ones that would make him look respectable. He buys all new clothes, and even has to borrow money from his office chief, Anton Antonych Setochkin, to pay for them, which is embarrassing for him. The underground man sets out to bump into the officer, but finds he kept stepping out of the way at the last second.
The underground man’s embarrassment shows that he cares to some degree what Anton thinks, suggesting he has some desire for friendship or companionship of a sort. He devises a plan of action with the officer, but has trouble turning his thought into actual action.
One time, the underground man trips and falls, and the officer merely steps over him. Finally, he carries out his plan, and bumps into the officer. The officer acts as if he didn’t notice anything, but the underground man says he is sure the officer was simply pretending. He feels as though he has kept his dignity and feels “avenged for everything.”
The underground man finally takes action, but in a rather pathetic way. Yet he feels that he has asserted himself in society and upheld his honor simply by bumping into the officer. In believing that the officer is just pretending not to notice him he attributes to the officer some of his own hyper-consciousness. It seems just as likely that the officer actually doesn’t notice him.