The underground man is a lonely, isolated character. He speaks and writes from a mysterious place underground, separated from society. But even before retreating underground, he feels isolated even within society, whether at school (where he had no friends) or at work (where he hates all his coworkers). The underground man lives a life effectively in isolation from mainstream society, but it is not clear whether he does this out of choice—does he reject society or does society reject him? Does he crave the acknowledgment of others or does he not even want it? At times, it seems that he disdains society and voluntarily withdraws himself into isolation because he feels that he is more intelligent than everyone else. However, at times it seems that he lives by himself simply because no one likes him, and because he is rude and cruel to others. In the end, it is probably a bit of both: having been rejected by many people, the underground man scorns them and withdraws, but this withdrawal makes others dislike him even more, so that he withdraws still more. This cyclical pattern results in his near-complete isolation from society.
The underground man has an ambivalent attitude toward society: on the one hand, he despises it, but on the other hand he envies those who can function in mainstream society and occasionally wishes that he had friends or companions. This ambivalence can be seen especially through his struggles with shame and embarrassment. These are social emotions, as they are only felt in relation to other people: one feels ashamed or embarrassed in front of other people or because one imagines what others might think. Around others, the underground man continually feels ashamed and embarrassed, as can be seen in his interaction with the officer in part one, or at the party in part two. As these feelings hint that he really does care what others think, the underground man becomes angry at himself for feeling embarrassed and ends up vacillating between embarrassment and defiantly acting in a rude, shameful way (as when he paces back and forth during the party for Zverkov).
Because of his problematic relationship to society, the underground man lives a lonely, boring life. However, his isolation does afford him certain benefits. By being so separated from mainstream society, he gains a critical distance from which he can observe, critique, and comment on society. Also, when growing up, his isolation from others gave him time to read, learn, and become a very intelligent person. Thus, the underground man does not entirely hate his isolation. He goes back and forth between wanting to be a part of society and wanting nothing to do with it, between feeling unfairly exiled from others and voluntarily exiling himself. Perhaps the most pathetic thing about his character is not so much that he is isolated from others, but that he cannot even make up his mind about what he wants—friendship or solitude.
Loneliness, Isolation, and Society ThemeTracker
Loneliness, Isolation, and Society Quotes in Notes from Underground
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!
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.
One morning, although I never engaged in literary activities, it suddenly occurred to me to draft a description of this officer as a kind of exposé, a caricature, in the form of a tale. I wrote it with great pleasure. I exposed him; I even slandered him. At first I altered his name only slightly, so that it could be easily recognized; but then, upon careful reflection, I changed it. Then I sent the tale off to Notes of the Fatherland. but such exposés were no longer in fashion, and they didn’t publish my tale. I was very annoyed by that. At times I simply choked on my spite. Finally, I resolved to challenge my opponent to a duel. I composed a beautiful, charming letter to him. . . But, thank God (to this day I thank the Almighty with tears in my eyes), I didn’t send that letter.
Suddenly, three paces away from my enemy, I made up my mind unexpectedly; I closed my eyes and—we bumped into each other forcefully, shoulder to shoulder! I didn’t yield an inch and walked by him on completely equal footing! He didn’t even turn around to look at me and pretended that he hadn’t even noticed; but he was merely pretending, I’m convinced of that. To this very day I’m convinced of that! Naturally, I got the worst of it; he was stronger, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I’d achieved my goal, I’d maintained my dignity, I hadn’t yielded one step, and I’d publicly placed myself on an equal social footing with him. I returned home feeling completely avenged for everything. I was ecstatic. I rejoiced and sang Italian arias.
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.
For a while I felt that I’d turned her soul inside out and had broken her heart; the more I became convinced of this, the more I strived to reach my goal as quickly and forcefully as possible. It was the sport that attracted me; but it wasn’t only the sport. . . . I knew that I was speaking clumsily, artificially, even bookishly; in short, I didn’t know how to speak except “like a book.”
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.
But in those days I was so embittered by everyone that I decided, heaven knows why or for what reason, to punish Apollon by not paying him his wages for two whole weeks. . . . I resolved to say nothing to him about it and even remain silent on purpose, to conquer his pride and force him to be the first one to mention it. Then I would pull all seven rubles out of a drawer and show him that I actually had the money and had intentionally set it aside, but that “I didn’t want to, didn’t want to, simply didn’t want to pay him his wages, and that I didn’t want to simply because that’s what I wanted,” because such was “my will as his master,” because he was disrespectful and because he was rude.
But, do you know what I really want now? For you to get lost, that’s what! I need some peace. Why, I’d sell the whole world for a kopeck if people would only stop bothering me.
Perhaps I should end these Notes here? I think that I made a mistake in beginning to write them. At least, I was ashamed all the time I was writing this tale: consequently, it’s not really literature, but corrective punishment. . . . A novel needs a hero, whereas here all the traits of an anti-hero have been assembled deliberately.