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.
Reason and Rationality Theme Icon

The Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky and his followers believed that man only desired what was in is best interest, and that mankind could be improved and taught to listen to reason so that society would progress to a kind of utopian existence, symbolized by the image of a perfect crystal palace (which the underground man derogatively refers to). The underground man can be seen as Dostoevsky’s answer to Chernyshevsky.

In part one, he rambles and rants about numerous topics, but the primary one is a debate over rationality: to what degree are humans rational? Do they really only ever desire what is good for them? The underground man defiantly asserts that man is not rational and insists that human history is irrational. He argues that the perfect existence of the crystal palace, with everyone behaving reasonably, is impossible—and not even desirable. The underground man’s major claim is that man will occasionally desire something not in his best interest, if only to demonstrate his ability and free will to do so. If mankind behaved only according to reason, logic, and scientific fact, he would become an “organ stop,” as the underground man puts it. Life would be nothing but obeying the rules of scientific and mathematic fact, summed up by the simple equation, two times two equals four. If the whole world operates according to logic, facts, and equations, how can there be free will or human choice? The ability to choose actions that are not logical, that are not reasonable or “right” decisions is the very thing that gives humans free will and individuality, argues the underground man. The only way to stand up for humanity is to oppose the bland rationality of two-times-two-equals-four and delight in the irrationality of two-times-two-equals-five.

Not only does the underground man argue for the importance of irrational behavior, but he also provides an example through his own actions. He often contradicts himself and emphasizes his ability to hold multiple viewpoints at once, to change his mind, and even to be hypocritical. His self-contradiction and ability to disagree with himself is a way of championing individuality over reason. Moreover, in part two, we repeatedly see the underground man act illogically and not in his best interest, as he embarrasses himself and gets himself into awkward, even painful situations, such as inviting himself to Zverkov’s party, or going to the brothel, or giving Liza his address. Thus, one can see part two as the proof to the argument of part one. In part one, the underground man argues for the irrationality of human behavior, and in part two he shows examples of his own irrational behavior. Both his arguments and his actions form a powerful counter to the optimism and utopianism of those who would look forward to the perfect rationality of the crystal palace.

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Reason and Rationality Quotes in Notes from Underground

Below you will find the important quotes in Notes from Underground related to the theme of Reason and Rationality.
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 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 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

Two times two makes four—why, in my opinion, it’s mere insolence. Two times two makes four stands there brazenly with its hands on its hips, blocking your path and spitting at you. I agree that two times two makes four is a splendid thing; but if we’re going to lavish praise, then two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.

Related Symbols: Two Times Two Equals Four
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has claimed that the reader whom he is addressing wishes to make people more rational using the laws of science, a notion he finds outrageous. In this passage, he declares that "two times two makes four" is "mere insolence." He personifies this mathematical formula, describing it as standing brazenly with its hands on its hips." Through this personification, the Underground Man makes explicit the connection between logical thinking and rigid authoritarianism. Of course, mathematics by itself is merely an abstract mode of thought, and thus it is strange to describe it as "insolent." On the other hand, by making the connection between mathematical reason and authority, the Underground Man emphasizes that logic is used in a cruel and oppressive way.

Such thinking stands in direct opposition to the contention of Enlightenment thinkers (who were influential at the time when the novel was written) that scientific reason will automatically lead to a more humane, compassionate world. However, the Underground Man also contradicts himself in this passage; having called two times two makes four "insolence," he then describes it as "a splendid thing." Rather than undermining the Underground Man's argument, however, this contradiction actually supports it, as contradiction itself (like two times two equals five) is an example of illogical thinking. The Underground Man thereby emphasizes the connection between irrationality and freedom, even if that means the freedom to contradict oneself and not make any sense. 

Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Related Symbols: The Crystal Palace
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has returned to the concept of the crystal palace, and in this passage he provides a more detailed explanation for why the idea is so reprehensible to him. He is disturbed by the notion that the palace is "indestructible," representing a frozen, unshakeable state of existence that can never be challenged or changed. However, what the Underground Man seems to find most horrifying is the prospect that in the crystal palace it would be impossible to "stick one's tongue out" or make another "rude gesture." This passage is comic, and at first seems entirely absurd. If people were living in a perfect state of reason, compassion, and peace, would it really matter that they couldn't stick their tongues out?

However, this superficial silliness belies a more incisive and serious point. The freedom to act in a rude and stupid manner is valuable not because stupidity is important, but because freedom is. As the Underground Man has previously argued, if people do not have the ability to act in a foolish and self-destructive manner, then they are really nothing more than machines. Note that sticking one's tongue out in particular is a gesture reminiscent of childhood; this is significant, as many opponents of scientific rationalism embrace childhood as a state of existence in opposition to the oppressive forces of logic and authoritarianism. 

Part 2, Chapter 8 Quotes

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?