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.
Thought vs. Action Theme Icon

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?

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Thought vs. Action Quotes in Notes from Underground

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

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.


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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 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

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 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Underground Man (speaker), Zverkov
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

The Underground Man has embarrassed himself at Zverkov's party, drunkenly making a toast in which he insults Zverkov. Although the other guests react furiously, he nonetheless decides to follow them when they go to a brothel after the party, and begs Zverkov for forgiveness. The Underground Man journeys to the brothel separately from the other guests, and as he does so he fantasizes about violently avenging himself against Zverkov. His idea of being exiled to Siberia and returning to kill Zverkov in a duel is clearly melodramatic, with the narrative arc and detail of a fictional story––and indeed, at the end of the passage the Underground Man reveals he has derived this fantasy from actual works of fiction: Pushkin's short story "The Shot" and Lermontov's play "Masquerade." 

Once again, it is clear that the Underground Man's view of reality has been distorted by his indulgence in literature. The texts he mentions have evidently had such a great influence over him that he begins to confuse their plots with his own life. In one sense, this can be read as a subtle criticism of the literature the Underground Man describes. While these texts have given him grandiose ideas about honor, revenge, and dueling, these notions seem far from reality. The characters depicted in Notes From the Underground, rather than being courageous and noble, are instead narrow-minded, conformist people who behave in an unglamorous, unappealing manner. Although this makes for a less dramatic narrative, it is arguably closer to the truth of human nature.

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?