Notes from Underground

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Loneliness, Isolation, and Society Theme Analysis

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.
Loneliness, Isolation, and Society Theme Icon

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.

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Loneliness, Isolation, and Society Quotes in Notes from Underground

Below you will find the important quotes in Notes from Underground related to the theme of Loneliness, Isolation, and Society.
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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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.

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.

Related Characters: The Officer
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has described an evening when he saw a man be kicked out of a bar for fighting, inspiring the Underground Man himself to try to get into a fight. His attempt to provoke an officer is unsuccessful; at first he considers challenging the officer to a duel, but instead goes home and writes a letter slandering the officer. This passage reveals the bizarre and comic lengths to which the Underground Man goes in his attempt to create conflict with the officer. He boasts of having "exposed" and "slandered" the officer, but it is unclear what this actually means––the officer treated him in an entirely nonchalant, disinterested fashion, and thus it is difficult to imagine what there is to "expose." 

This passage also highlights the fact that the Underground Man is continually out of step with the rest of society. The journal to which he sent his letter rejects it because "such exposés were no longer in fashion," and the Underground Man's reaction to this is to pursue the even more outdated, unfashionable gesture of trying to challenge the officer to a duel. The implication of these details is that the Underground Man's interest in literature has left him disconnected from the reality of contemporary society. His hope to be perceived as a bold, reckless individual results in him appearing flamboyantly and ridiculously pathetic.  

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.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker), The Officer
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has concocted an elaborate plan to again bump into the officer, who he now considers his mortal enemy. He has even borrowed money for expensive clothes to wear during the act, yet repeatedly loses his nerve at the last minute. Finally he achieves his aim, and in this passage describes the triumph he feels as a result––although the officer does not seem to even notice. This episode is one of the most comic moments in the novel, showing the Underground Man to be a ridiculous, delusional character. To some degree, this may decrease the reader's sympathy for him, as his bizarre, destructive desires seem not only incomprehensible, but totally disconnected from reality. 

On the other hand, this passage raises significant questions about the nature of perception and social interaction. Although the Underground Man's level of delusion is extreme, it nonetheless illustrates the fundamental impossibility of knowing what other people are really thinking. It certainly seems unlikely that the officer was "merely pretending" not to notice the Underground Man, but how could we determine this for sure? The Underground Man's assertion that he "publicly placed myself on an equal social footing with [the officer]" similarly highlights the absurd nature of social status. In all likelihood, nobody on the street noticed or cared that the Underground Man acted as he did; yet the Underground Man himself feels vindicated to the point of ecstasy. Given the Underground Man's joy, does it even matter what others around him think?  

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 7 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Liza
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has continued to taunt Liza by describing how awful her life will be; he tells her that she will become old and ugly, that she will be beaten and humiliated, and that she will grow sick and die in the brothel, and that everyone will forget her once she's dead.

Having said all this, he announces that he has "broken her heart," and describes the process of having done so as "sport" and speaking "like a book." On one level this passage reveals the alarming extent of the Underground Man's cruelty; on the other hand, it suggests that his actions are somewhat beyond his control. His obsession with literature has left him unable to communicate normally or to care about Liza's feelings.

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.

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.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker), Apollon
Page Number: 79-80
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has described his servant Apollon, who is elderly, dignified, and rude. The Underground Man declares that he never hated anyone has much as he hated Apollon, and confesses that sometimes he used to withhold Apollon's wages, just to demonstrate that he could. He would even show Apollon the money to emphasize that he was not paying him purely out of his own "will as his master."

Again, the Underground Man appears to derive sadistic pleasure from bullying those who are in an inferior social position and are unable to retaliate. This passage throws the rest of the Underground Man's statements about free will into a new light. If honoring freedom and irrationality means endorsing the right to treat vulnerable people badly, does this change the value of this freedom?

Part 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker), Liza
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Liza has come to the Underground Man's house, and the Underground Man has shouted at Apollon before bursting into tears in front of Liza. He first feels ashamed in front of Liza and then pities her, before growing cruel again, yelling at her to leave him alone. While this passage hardly contains a sympathetic portrayal of the Underground Man, the reader might well still be drawn to feel sorry for him. His wild mood swings and unpredictable treatment of the other characters seem to stem from a powerful sense of anguish and other emotional forces beyond his control. The Underground Man's statement about "selling the whole world for a kopeck" for some peace may be comically melodramatic, but it nonetheless reveals the Underground Man's deep torment.

Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 90-91
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has confessed to the reader that he never suffered as much as he did during that night with Liza, and that after she left he never saw her again. He ponders ending his "Notes," and admits that he is ashamed of having written them. He claims that the Notes are "not really literature" because they do not have a hero but "an anti-hero" whose negative traits "have been assembled deliberately." This metafictional moment indicates a level of self-awareness different from the kind previously displayed in the novella, in which the Underground Man presupposes that the reader will laugh at or disagree with him. 

Rather than express paranoid fears about being ridiculed, the Underground Man takes seriously the idea that literature needs a "hero" with different qualities from those displayed in his story. Indeed, the Underground Man's reference to his narrative as "not really literature" suggests that the Underground Man himself has a level of awareness of the innovative, avante-garde nature of the novella. As the Underground Man implies, works of art that seem strange and unconventional at the time in which they are produced can be the very works that push a medium forward into new, unexplored territory. The Underground Man's self-awareness about the literature he is writing here also has the effect of making him seem more human, less fictional – because of the way he analyzes his own work, his own writing, the Underground Man starts to feel in a way as "real" as Dostoevksy, the actual author of the book.