Notes from Underground

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Themes and Colors
Thought vs. Action Theme Icon
Loneliness, Isolation, and Society Theme Icon
Human Nature Theme Icon
Reason and Rationality Theme Icon
Spite, Pain, and Suffering Theme Icon
Literature and Writing Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Notes from Underground, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Human Nature Theme Icon

Notes from Underground opens with the underground man’s famous assessment of his own character: “I am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.” He is pessimistic and sees the worst in himself. Moreover, he often generalizes from his own nature and his own ideas about people to speak broadly of human nature. He presents himself not only as one spiteful, sick man, but as an example of how mankind is truly spiteful and sick. He has a very a low opinion of modern man, claiming that anyone of intelligence in the 19th century cannot be a man of action or character. He disagrees with the idea that humans are rational and naturally improve or desire what is good for them, citing examples from history to prove that human society is cruel and bloody in part one.

Additionally, he routinely compares humans to animals. He speaks of people as either bulls or mice in part one, and repeatedly says that people treat him like an insignificant fly. These recurrent animal similes are the underground man’s way of bringing humans down to the level of the animal, suggesting that they are simply one kind of animal among many on this planet, with no special dignity. This tendency to degrade humanity can be related to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which had recently been translated into Russian when Dostoevsky was writing Notes from Underground. In part one, the underground man mentions the scientific discovery that man is descended from apes (an exaggeratedly simplistic version of Darwinism). This idea is a huge blow to the human ego, suggesting that humans are not special creatures, but merely one evolved species out of many.

The underground man thinks of humans as foolish, irrational, cruel, and despicable creatures—including himself. But to what degree does this deluded character speak to a universal human condition or nature? The underground man himself addresses this very question at the end of the novella. Addressing his readers, he says, “I’ve only taken to an extreme that which you haven’t even dared to take halfway.” He claims that his pessimism is simply honesty about true human nature, and that others have similar thoughts or tendencies as he does but suppress them or deceive themselves. Regardless of whether one agrees with the underground man that his pessimistic conception of human nature is the truth, it is hard to disagree that spite, malice, and irrationality don’t form at least part of human nature. The underground man may take these aspects of humanity to an extreme, but his example serves as a corrective to those alluded to in part one, who would naively think that man can be completely good and completely rational. We may not be mere insects, but we are not always noble heroes, either.

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Human Nature Quotes in Notes from Underground

Below you will find the important quotes in Notes from Underground related to the theme of Human Nature.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

I am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased. Then again, I don’t know a thing about my illness; I’m not even sure what hurts. I’m not being treated and never have been, though I respect both medicine and doctors. Besides, I’m extremely superstitious—well at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am, anyway.) No, gentlemen, it’s out of spite that I don’t wish to be treated. . . . My liver hurts? Good, let it hurt even more!

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

In the opening paragraph, the Underground Man introduces himself to the reader. His self-denigrating words establish the tone and themes of the rest of the novel. In this passage, we learn that the Underground Man is sick with a mysterious illness, but refuses to be treated by a doctor, a fact that immediately reveals his mistrust in society––a mistrust that he clings to even at the expense of his own health. We see that he is "spiteful," "unattractive," "extremely superstitious," and masochistic, exemplified by his declaration "My liver hurts? Good, let it hurt even more!" Yet he seems to take a perverse pride in these qualities, akin to the pride in his comment that he is "sufficiently educated not to be superstitious."

Indeed, it is clear from this passage that the Underground Man is deliberately contrarian, taking pleasure in the shock value of presenting himself as a repulsive, ignoble person, and in opposing mainstream values. He even appears proud to contradict himself, pointing out that his education and intelligence should rid him of superstition, but that he is superstitious all the same. Similarly, he respects "both medicine and doctors," but refuses to be treated "out of spite" – a deliberately irrational, self-sabotaging move. 


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Yes, sir, an intelligent man in the nineteenth century must be, is morally obliged to be, principally a characterless creature; a man possessing character, a man of action, is fundamentally a limited creature.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has continued to tell the reader about himself, explaining that he used to work for the government as a civil servant, and enjoyed being rude to people on purpose. He then contradicts himself, saying he was lying about ever being rude, but that he wasn't a good person either. In this passage, he concludes that "an intelligent man in the nineteenth century" must be "characterless," because to be otherwise is to be "limited." Here the Underground Man again reveals his contrarian logic; ordinarily we would think of being a man of "character" and action" as being less limited as a result of these qualities. 

By situating himself as "an intelligent man of the nineteenth century," the Underground Man emphasizes that he is presenting himself not as a curious oddity, but as a figure epitomizing certain social themes and issues of his era. Although he rejects society, he remains invested in critiquing what he perceives to be its failings.

Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

I swear to you, gentlemen, that being overly conscious is a disease, a genuine, full-fledged disease. Ordinary human consciousness would be more than sufficient for everyday human needs—that is, even half or a quarter of the amount of consciousness that’s available to a cultured man in our unfortunate nineteenth century, especially to one who has the particular misfortune of living in St. Petersburg, the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world. (Cities can be either premeditated or unpremeditated.) It would have been entirely sufficient, for example, to have the consciousness with which all so-called spontaneous people and men of action are endowed.

Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has confessed that he has tried to become an "insect," but that it is not possible, because he is "overly conscious." In this passage, he explains that he sees being overly conscious as "a genuine, full-fledged disease," and that it would be preferable to have "even half or a quarter of the amount of consciousness" that he possesses as a cultured and well-educated resident of nineteenth-century St Petersburg. He seems to be arguing something similar to the idea that "ignorance is bliss," that thinking too much about things inevitably leads to discontent.

Having earlier in the story criticized "men of action," he now speaks of them with a degree of envy, saying that their level of consciousness is "entirely sufficient." His comment that St Petersburg is a "premeditated city" shows that even on the level of urban geography, too much thought has a negative, crippling effect. 

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

“There is some enjoyment even in a toothache,” I reply. I’ve had a toothache for a whole month; I know what’s what. In this case, of course, people don’t rage in silence; they moan. . . . In the first place, these moans express all the aimlessness of the pain which consciousness finds so humiliating, the whole system of natural laws about which you really don’t give a damn, but as a result of which you’re suffering nonetheless, while nature isn’t. . . . I beseech you, gentlemen, to listen to the moans of an educated man of the nineteenth century who’s suffering from a toothache. . . His moans become somehow nasty, despicably spiteful, and they go on for days and nights. Yet he himself knows that his moans do him no good: he knows better than anyone else that he’s merely irritating himself and others in vain. . . Well, it’s precisely in this awareness and shame that the voluptuousness resides.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has taken on the voice of the reader, imagining the reader laughing at him and suggesting he will say he loves having a toothache next. The Underground Man then "responds" to this imagined interjection by saying that yes, he does derive pleasure from a toothache. This exchange between the narrator and his anticipated reader is comic; the Underground Man is aware of his own ridiculousness, and seems determined to embrace it. Yet at the same time, there is also a degree of truth within the Underground Man's foolish, flamboyant claims. The fact that people derive pleasure from an ailment such as a toothache––whether the source of the pleasure is the pain itself, or the opportunity to complain about the pain––is an example of an illogical, yet completely recognizable human characteristic. 

Indeed, the Underground Man's use of the term "voluptuousness" suggests that by behaving in irrational, contradictory, and self-sabotaging ways, people make life fuller and richer. The implication is that if everyone behaved logically and never indulged in perverse or pointless acts, life would be mechanical and dull. On the other hand, this fact does not redeem or erase the ridiculousness of indulging in one's own pain. The young man with the toothache "knows that his moans do him no good"; in fact, they make the situation worse by "irritating himself and others in vain." Yet the Underground Man implies that it would be even worse if no one ever behaved in this silly, self-destructive way.

Part 1, Chapter 7 Quotes

Oh, tell me who was first to announce, first to proclaim that man does nasty things simply because he doesn’t know his own true interest; and that if he were to be enlightened, if his eyes were to be opened to his true, normal interests, he would stop doing nasty things at once and would immediately become good and noble, because, being so enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would realize that his own advantage really did lie in the good; and that it’s well known that there’s not a single man capable of acting knowingly against his own interest; consequently, he would, so to speak, begin to do good out of necessity. Oh, the child! Oh, the pure, innocent babe! Well, in the first place, when was it during all these millennia, that man has ever acted only in his own interest? . . . And what if it turns out that man’s advantage sometimes not only may, but even must in certain circumstances, consist precisely in his desiring something harmful to himself instead of something advantageous?

Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has described a greedy person he knew who only cared about red wine; he confesses that he would like to become like this person, but that it is possible only in his dreams. In this passage, he discusses the concept that people do "nasty things" only because they don't know or understand their own interests, and if they were "enlightened," then they would act in a positive, upright manner. This is a fairly well-accepted (if optimistic) view of human nature, but one that the Underground Man disagrees with vehemently. He declares that no person in "all these millennia" has acted only in his own interest, and that sometimes there is a perverse kind of advantage in "desiring something harmful" for yourself. 

While the Underground Man's claims may sound absurd, this does not mean they are inaccurate. In fact, Dostoevsky was ahead of his time in describing many aspects of human nature that became central concerns of 20th century literature, philosophy, and psychology, including neurosis, irrationality, and self-destructive behavior. However, at the time the novella was written, these phenomena were not widely discussed and acknowledged, and thus the Underground Man's views push him to the fringes of society, at odds with the people around him. 

Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

Who would want to desire according to some table? And that’s not all: he would immediately be transformed from a person into an organ stop or something of that sort; because what is man without desire, without will, and without wishes if not a stop in an organ pipe?

Related Symbols: The Crystal Palace
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has described the widely-held belief that as human civilization advances, we will eventually reach a "crystal palace," a state in which everyone lives happily and harmoniously according to the laws of nature. The Underground Man believes that this is neither possible nor desirable, and in this passage explains that if human free will was reducible to science, this would make a person nothing more than an "organ stop." The "stop" is the part of the organ (a musical instrument) that pushes wind through the organ's pipes in order to make sound, and it is only activated by someone pressing the keys. The Underground Man thus implies that rational, scientific viewpoints see people as a mechanism controlled by an external force – in this case, the laws of nature – and in so doing eliminate their free will, their very personhood.

But I repeat for the one-hundredth time, there is one case, only one, when a man may intentionally, consciously desire even something harmful to himself, something stupid, even very stupid, namely: in order to have the right to desire something even very stupid and not be bound by an obligation to desire only what’s smart.

Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has earlier expressed his view that scientific understandings of rationality and free will reduce a person to nothing more than an "organ stop." According to him, this cannot be true because humans do not tend to act in their own interest––rather, as he explains in this passage, people deliberately act against their own advantage simply to prove that they can. The Underground Man's statement that there is "one case, only one" in which people act against their own interest is purposely meant to be ironic, as this one case encapsulates every occasion and reason why a person might behave in a self-sabotaging manner under the umbrella of "in order to have the right to desire something very stupid." 

In short, anything can be said about world history, anything that might occur to the most disordered imagination. There’s only one thing that can’t possibly be said about it—that it’s rational.

Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has discussed people's desire to behave in a self-destructive, irrational way just to prove that they have the right to do so. Here he claims that "anything can be said about world history" except that it is "rational." Once again, the Underground Man expresses disdain for the idea that as civilization advances, humanity is becoming more logical, fair and compassionate. Instead, he views the history of humanity as chaotic, filled with meaningless suffering and nonsensical acts. This perspective directly opposed many nineteenth-century understandings of history, including Enlightenment and Marxist views. Under these ideologies, history is teleological, meaning that it operates according to cause-and-effect momentum and moves in a particular direction.

The Underground Man's view of history, meanwhile, more closely resembles movements of thought that emerged following the First World War, such as existentialism. People who had previously believed that humanity was growing more rational and compassionate over time were shocked and disillusioned by the senseless brutality of the war. As a result, many developed a more cynical understanding of mankind as cruel, illogical, and self-destructive. What is striking is that Dostoevsky's Underground Man espouses these exact ideas many decades before World War 1 took place. 

Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

Of course, I hated all my fellow office-workers from the first to the last and despised every one of them; yet, at the same time it was as if I were afraid of them. Sometimes it happened that I would even regard them as superior to me. At this time these changes would suddenly occur: first I would despise them, then I would regard them as superior to me. . . . All others resembled one another as sheep in a flock. Perhaps I was the only one who constantly thought of himself as a coward and a slave; and I thought so precisely because I was so cultured. But not only did I think so, it actually was so: I was a coward and a slave. I say this without any embarrassment. Every decent man of our time is and must be a coward and a slave. This is how he’s made and what he’s meant to be. And not only at the present time, as the result of some accidental circumstance, but in general at all times, a decent man must be a coward and a slave.

Page Number: 30-31
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has jumped back in time, recalling his life at the age of 24 when he worked as a civil servant. He has recalled that he had no friends, and in the office didn't even look at anyone. In this passage, he describes the mixed feelings he possessed toward his coworkers––he "despised everyone one of them," but also felt inferior to them and was fixated on the idea that he himself was "a coward and a slave."

Once again, this passage powerfully describes the contradictory, irrational, and self-sabotaging nature of modern subjectivity. The Underground Man's conflicting feelings about his coworkers, while seemingly paradoxical, actually reinforce one another. He resents them for their conformity ("as sheep in a flock"), but can't help but feel isolated from the group.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

Once I even had a friend of sorts. but I was already a despot at heart; I wanted to exercise unlimited power over his soul; I wanted to instill in him contempt for his surroundings; and I demanded from him a disdainful and definitive break with those surroundings. I frightened him with my passionate friendship, and I reduced him to tears and convulsions. He was a naïve and giving soul, but as soon as he’d surrendered himself to me totally, I began to despise him and reject him immediately—as if I only needed to achieve a victory over him, merely to subjugate him.

Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has described his years in school, confessing that he was lonely and that his classmates taunted him. The Underground Man describes the way that the other boys' rejection and disdain for him made him feel disdainful to them in return. In this passage, he describes his one friendship, with a "naïve and giving" boy who the Underground Man ends up tormenting. The Underground Man's description of this episode creates a bleak and disturbing portrait of human relationships. Although the friend himself is described in positive terms, the Underground Man seems uninterested in these good qualities. Instead, the friend's appeal lies in the opportunity the Underground Man has to "subjugate him." 

Indeed, in no sense does this friendship soften or redeem the Underground Man; rather, he uses it as an opportunity to drag his friend into his own misanthropic view of the world. The Underground Man's confession that he wanted to have a friend in order to "exercise unlimited power over his soul" is comically sinister, but nonetheless speaks to the idea that all human relationships are fundamentally governed by manipulation and the desire for power. The Underground Man's ruthlessness is illustrated by his seemingly uncaring attitude toward his friend's anguish, and the fact that as soon as the friend submits to him, he begins to "despise him."  

Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

It’s a different thing altogether; even though I degrade and defile myself, I’m still no one’s slave; if I want to leave, I just get up and go. I shake it all off and I’m a different man. But you must realize right from the start that you’re a slave. Yes, a slave!

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker), Liza
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has had sex with Liza, a prostitute in the brothel, and at two in the morning wakes up next to her, feeling nauseated. They discuss her life, and the Underground has encouraged her to leave the brothel and get married. When Liza comments that not all married women are happy, the Underground Man responds by telling her that she is "a slave," and at least he himself is not a slave. This passage shows the Underground Man's senseless and seemingly boundless cruelty. There is no obvious reason why he torments Liza, who is clearly vulnerable and in an inferior social position to him, and yet he does it anyway.

Furthermore, his cruel words to Liza contradict what he has claimed earlier in the narrative, which is that he is "a coward and a slave." This contradiction suggests that the Underground Man deliberately seeks out people who are weaker to him in order to increase his sense of his own superiority. Meanwhile, Liza's suggestion that she is not necessarily less free than a married woman is apt; under many circumstances, prostitutes did indeed have more freedom than married women. By calling Liza a slave just as he earlier called himself one, however, the Underground Man emphasizes that everyone is constrained by societal expectations, material conditions, and their own mind, meaning no one is truly free. 

Part 2, Chapter 8 Quotes

I felt particularly reassured and relaxed after nine o’clock in the evening and even began to daydream sweetly at times. For instance: “I save Liza, precisely because she’s come to me, and I talk to her. . . . I develop her mind, educate her. At last I notice that she loves me, loves me passionately. . . “Liza,” I say, “do you really think I haven’t noticed your love? I’ve seen everything. I guessed but dared not be first to make a claim on your heart because I had such influence over you, and because I was afraid you might deliberately force yourself to respond to my love out of gratitude. . . No, I didn’t want that because it would be . . . despotism. . . . It would be indelicate (well, in short, here I launched on some European, George Sandian, inexplicably lofty subtleties. . .) . . . In short, it became crude even to me, and I ended by sticking my tongue out at myself.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker), Liza
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has spent days in fear that Liza will come to visit him, and regrets giving her his address. However, after a few days pass he relaxes and begins to fantasize about behaving in a kind, loving manner to Liza. In this dream, the Underground Man adopts a different tone from the one he uses while addressing the reader; he speaks to Liza in a gracious, magnanimous manner, telling her that he noticed her love but that he was wary of having too much power over her. This is a stark contrast to the Underground Man's earlier behavior, as well as his opinions on interpersonal relationships. While he previously confessed to being a despot, in this passage he rejects despotism, and instead of taunting Liza wishes to "save her." 

Note that these fantasies emerge only after the Underground Man has convinced himself that Liza will not see him in real life. This highlights the disconnect between the Underground Man's delusions about people (including himself) and the way in which people (and the Underground Man himself) actually behave. Indeed, the Underground Man was highly disturbed by the notion that Liza might actually come to his house, highlighting the fact that he doesn't want real people to shatter his delusions. This explains why the Underground Man is so obsessed with literature––it provides material for his fantasies (note the mention in this passage of the writer George Sand) while not threatening to destroy those fantasies in the way that real life inevitably does.

Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

I know that I’ll be told this is incredible—that it’s impossible to be as spiteful and stupid as I am; you may even add that it was impossible not to return, or at least to appreciate, this love. But why is this so incredible? In the first place, I could no longer love because, I repeat, for me love meant tyrannizing and demonstrating my moral superiority. All my life I could never conceive of any other kind of love, and I’ve now reached the point that I sometimes think that love consists precisely in a voluntary gift by the beloved person of the right to tyrannize over him.

Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has told Liza he hates her, only to feel overwhelmed by an unfamiliar sensation––the catharsis that comes from making himself vulnerable in front of a sympathetic person. The two cry and embrace one another, but the Underground Man insists that he "hates" Liza even as he is drawn to her. In this passage he explains that, strange as it may seem, he could not return Liza's love because to him "love meant tyrannizing and demonstrating my moral superiority." This claim certainly makes the Underground Man a more sympathetic, pitiable character. If it is true that the only kind of life he's ever experienced or ever been able to imagine is "tyrannizing," can we really blame him for his cruel behavior or rejection of society?

At the same time, this passage leaves a key question unresolved. Is the Underground Man a unique case, with a particularly unhappy and desperate experience of life––or does he represent all of humanity? The Underground Man himself is certainly invested in presenting himself as an example of the typical well-educated nineteenth-century man. Yet especially at this point in the narrative, it is easy to diagnose him as an individual with an unusually sad and strange relationship to other people.