A note from the author introduces a fictional character known as the underground man, who the author says is “representative of the current generation,” and whose rambling notes will form the novella that is to follow. The underground man begins by telling the reader that he is a sick, spiteful, unattractive man. He says that he doesn’t know what he is sick with, but he refuses to be treated by doctors out of spite. He has been living underground for twenty years, but used to work in the civil service, where he was rude to anyone who came to his desk. He tells his readers that he is “neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect,” and says that no one of intelligence in the 19th century can be a man of action or character.
The underground man says that he is not to blame for being a bad person, but that his “overly acute consciousness” prevents him from taking action. He says that “being overly conscious is a disease.” He tells the reader that there are times when he wishes someone would slap him in the face, and says that he would neither be able to forgive someone who slapped him nor take revenge on him. Whereas less intelligent people act impulsively to get revenge, someone of “overly acute consciousness” has too many doubts and questions to take action. The underground man compares himself to a mouse that retreats “ignominiously back into its mousehole.” He says that men of action simply accept the laws of nature, science, and mathematics, thinking it impossible to protest that “two times two makes four.” By contrast, the underground man hates such facts.
The underground man argues that there pleasure even in a toothache, saying that after a while someone with a toothache finds enjoyment in indulging in loud moans of pain that annoy others. He says that being “a nasty little man, a rogue” is pleasurable, and then asks the reader, “Can a man possessing consciousness ever really respect himself?” Moving on, the underground man says that he is incapable of apologizing. As a child, he would sometimes cry and repent when he did something wrong, but would then realize that this “was all lies, lies, revolting, made-up lies.” He says that often gets into trouble because of his boredom, which is a result of his hyper-consciousness. He says that men of action only take action because they are stupid. They think that they have found “a primary cause” of something that gives them a reason for acting. But someone who is actually intelligent questions these causes and can think of multiple causes. So, he only acts out of spite.
The underground man speaks of people who believe that humans only do bad things because they don’t know their “true interest” and that if people knew what was in their best interest they would only act accordingly. The underground man disagrees and says that sometimes man desires “something harmful to himself.” He digresses slightly to argue that human civilization has made men more cruel, citing recent military conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War. He says that some people think that as science advances people will live more and more rationally, and society will approach the perfection of a crystal palace. He argues that this kind of existence would be boring and that people prefer to live according to their “own stupid will” rather than logic or reason. He says that sometimes people “desire something opposed to one’s own advantage,” simply in order to exercise one’s free will. He claims that without desire and free will, mankind is nothing but “a stop in an organ pipe,” obeying the laws of nature. He says that human history has been irrational and that such irrationality is man’s only way of rebelling against the rationality of “two times two makes four” and proving that “he’s a man and not an organ stop.” He says that “two times two makes four is no longer life,” and that “two times two makes five” is preferable.
Continuing to argue against the idea that mankind only acts in his best interest, the underground man says that there can be a peculiar pleasure in suffering and that “man sometimes loves suffering terribly.” He says that the utopian idea of the crystal palace is a hoax and that he would reject it because he wouldn’t be able to stick out his tongue rudely there out of spite. He tells his readers not to believe “one word, not one little word,” of what he has written and says that he has no plans to print his notes, but merely writes to relive some of his boredom. He says that it is snowing outside, which reminds him of a story, and so in part two of the novella he will tell “a tale apropos of wet snow.”
The underground man’s story takes place when he is 24 and living a solitary life, but still working in the civil service. At times he wishes to make friends with others in his office, but at other times he hates them and feels alone. He criticizes himself for being overly Romantic, and then digresses about Romanticism. He says that Romantics in Germany and France or overly idealistic and foolish, whereas Russian Romantics remain somewhat practical. The underground man says that he spent much of his time at home reading, but “sank into dark, subterranean, loathsome depravity,” because of depression and a “craving for contradictions and contrasts.” He tells his readers that he is not trying to justify his depravity, but then changes his mind and says he is.
One night, the underground man sees a man get kicked out of a bar for fighting. He goes into the bar, thinking that he can get into a fight. He purposely gets into an officer’s way, but the officer moves him aside without saying anything, barely noticing him and treating him like a fly. He thinks of challenging the officer to a duel but then realizes that everyone would just laugh at him for speaking in literary Russian about antiquated notions of honor. He goes back home and soon after sees the officer frequently around St. Petersburg. He writes the officer a letter, but ultimately doesn’t send it. He often sees the officer on a particular street and usually gets out of the officer’s way when they are about to walk into each other. He plans to walk into the officer and not move out of the way out of defiance and spite. He borrows money from his office chief in order to buy respectable-looking clothes for his encounter with the officer. He tries to bump into him, but keeps moving out of the way at the last second. Finally, he carries out his plan and bumps into the officer, but he acts as if he doesn’t notice the underground man at all. The underground man is convinced that the officer was merely pretending not to notice him, and he feels “avenged for everything.”
His happiness soon wears off, though, and he seeks escape from his despair in his dreams of “all that was beautiful and sublime.” He says that he dreams for three months straight, involving scenarios where he is a hero, like a character from a work by Lord Byron, and where everyone loves him. After three months of these dreams, though, the underground man feels a desire “to plunge into society.” He decides to go visit a former schoolmate named Simonov, whom he hasn’t seen in a year. He enters Simonov’s apartment and finds that two other former schoolmates are there as well. No one seems to notice the underground man and he says that they treat him like “some sort of ordinary house fly.” His former schoolmates are planning a farewell dinner for a friend named Zverkov who is leaving St. Petersburg. The underground man remembers Zverkov from school, and hates him for being an arrogant, attractive man. He recognizes Simonov’s guests, both of whom he despised in school. He invites himself to the party for Zverkov, and they reluctantly allow him to come.
After leaving Simonov’s apartment, the underground man berates himself for interfering with the party. He thinks he shouldn’t go, but realizes that he will definitely go, even though he doesn’t have any money. He recalls his years at school, when he was “a lonely boy,” and didn’t have many friends. He says he hated his schoolmates and was more intelligent than them. Occasionally he would try to make a friend, but would only use these potential friends to try to “exercise unlimited power” over someone else.
The next day, the underground man plans for the party. He is worried that it will be horribly awkward and he will be under-dressed, but he decides to go to prove that he isn’t intimidated by Zverkov and his other former classmates. When he arrives at the hotel where the party is being held, no one else is there, and a waiter informs him that dinner is not set to start for another hour. The underground man waits around embarrassedly as the waiter sets the table. Finally, the others arrive and Simonov apologizes for telling the underground man the wrong time for the party. Zverkov and Ferfichkin laugh at the underground man for having to wait by himself for so long. After some awkward conversation, the other party guests speak amongst themselves, ignoring the underground man and leaving him feeling “completely crushed and humiliated.” He gets progressively drunker and tries to break into the conversation, but the others notice how drunk he is and look at him like an insect. The underground man stands up and makes a toast in which he insults Zverkov. Ferfichkin angrily says that the underground man deserves to be “whacked in the face,” and he challenges Ferfichkin to a duel, at which everyone simply laughs. The underground man continues to drink at the party and paces back and forth, stomping his boots. None of the others pay him any attention. They all leave to go to a brothel, and as they are leaving the underground man begs Zverkov for his forgiveness. He decides to follow them to the brothel and demands that Simonov lend him money for a prostitute. He thinks that he will either win his former schoolmates over as friends or he will slap Zverkov in the face.
While riding a cab to the brothel, the underground man decides he will definitely slap Zverkov in the face to regain his honor. But when he arrives there, he can’t find Zverkov. He sleeps with a young prostitute named Liza and then wakes up at two in the morning, feeling “misery and bile” growing in him and “seeking an outlet.” He tells Liza about a dead prostitute whose coffin he saw being carried to a cemetery earlier in the day, and speaks at length of the horrible life of a prostitute. He and Liza speak about families and marriage, and he encourages her to leave the brothel, describing the “pure bliss” of married life. He tells Liza that if she continues being a prostitute she will lose everything. . . health, youth, beauty, and hope,” and will wind up dead with no one to remember her. Liza cries, and the underground man gives her his address.
The next day, the underground man writes a letter to Simonov, apologizing for his behavior. He worries that Liza will come and visit his house and see how revolting he really is. Liza doesn’t come for a few days, to the underground man’s relief. He describes his servant Apollon, who is arrogant and disobedient. One day, he tries to withhold Apollon’s wages and force him to beg for his money, but Apollon simply stares at the underground man until he breaks down and demands that Apollon show him respect before getting paid. As the two are fighting, Liza arrives. The underground man feels ashamed in front of Liza and bursts into tears. He tells her that he has no pity for her and wants her to leave him alone. Liza embraces him, and he cries hysterically. After recovering, the underground man feels incapable of returning any love or affection to her, and wants her to leave him by himself in “peace and quiet.” As Liza finally prepares to leave, the underground man slips some money into her hand “out of spite.” Liza refuses the money and leaves immediately. He starts to run after her and imagines how he could “fall down before her, sob with remorse, kiss her feet, and beg her forgiveness,” but then stops and lets her go. He tells his readers that he hasn’t seen Liza since, and says that he feels ashamed to have written his notes. He angrily says that all human are “estranged from life,” and “cripples.” He says that he represents the truth about mankind, claiming, “in my life I’ve only taken to an extreme that which you haven’t even dared to take halfway.” He says he doesn’t want to write anymore. An author’s note concludes the novella, telling the reader that the underground man wrote more notes, but that this seems like a good place to stop.