Most of Notes from Underground is made up of the underground man’s rambling thoughts. There is little real action in the plot. This is because, quite simply, there is little action in the underground man’s life. As he himself says, he is a man of “overly acute consciousness,” and his excessive intelligence basically cripples him. He over-thinks and questions everything, and cannot settle on a “primary cause” of anything that would then allow him to decide what action to take. Similarly, he believes that men of action often act out of a simplistic idea of justice that they think vindicates their actions. The underground man, by contrast, cannot settle for an overly simplistic understanding of justice. He thinks things over ceaselessly and sometimes ponders things so much that he changes his mind or contradicts himself. Thus, he can find no basis for acting in a particular way, since he can easily argue himself out of doing something.
The underground man often imagines action but never follows through, as when he is on his way to the brothel in part two and thinks about how he will slap Zverkov in the face. (He never actually does this, as he arrives too late to find Zverkov.) This lack of actual action leads to a pervasive sense of boredom and inertia in the novella, which the underground man describes as key parts of his underground life and which sometimes give rise to his sense of spite toward others. Crippled by his own intelligence, all he can do is retreat underground, talk to himself, and write his thoughts down. Through this pathetic character, Dostoevsky is able to pose a number of troubling (and perhaps ultimately unanswerable) questions: would it be better for the underground man to be stupid and therefore able to act and live like a normal person? What is the value of intelligence or thought if one cannot act on it? And is it possible for a truly intelligent, acutely conscious person to live a functioning life in modern society?
Thought vs. Action ThemeTracker
Thought vs. Action Quotes in Notes from Underground
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.
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.
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.
Naturally, it’ll all be over after that. The department will banish me from the face of the earth. They’ll arrest me, try me, drive me out of the service, send me to prison; ship me off to Siberia for resettlement, Never mind! Fifteen years later when they let me out of jail, a beggar in rags, I’ll drag myself off to see him. I’ll find him in some provincial town. He’ll be married and happy. He’ll have a grown daughter. . . . I’ll say, “Look, you monster, look at my sunken cheeks and my rags. I’ve lost everything—career, happiness, art science, a beloved woman—all because of you. Here are the pistols. I came here to load my pistol and . . . and I forgive you.” Then I’ll fire into the air, and he’ll never hear another word from me again. . . .
I was actually about to cry, even though I knew for a fact at that very moment that all this was straight out of Silvio and Lermontov’s Masquerade.
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.