Dostoevsky says that the Underground Man, though a fictional character, is representative of certain people who “not only may but must exist in our society, taking under consideration the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed.” The Underground Man is extremely alienated from the society in which he lives. He feels himself to be much more intelligent and “conscious” than any of the people he meets. However, he is aware that his consciousness often manifests itself as a skepticism that prevents him from having confidence in any of his actions. This skepticism cripples him and keeps him from participating in “life” as other people do. The Underground Man constantly analyzes and second-guesses every thought and feeling he has. He is therefore incapable of making decisions about anything.
Feeling himself to be inferior to more active, less intelligent people, the Underground Man goes through life full of shame and self-loathing. This feeling of inadequacy before others is enhanced by the fact that, as an orphan, he has never had normal, loving relationships with other people. Having no real life experiences upon which to base his hopes and expectations, he often relies on the conventions of novels and drama. The contrast between his expectations for life—which are based on literature—and the realities of the world he lives in is often great, and this divide alienates the Underground Man from society still further. The only emotional interactions he can have with others involve anger, bitterness, revenge, and humiliation. He can conceive of love only as the total domination of one person over another. In order to feel that he has participated in life in some way, he often instigates conflict with others and subjects himself to profound humiliation. This humiliation actually gives the Underground Man a sense of satisfaction and power, as he has brought about the humiliation himself. As long as he can exercise his will, he does not care if the outcome is positive or negative.
We meet the Underground Man when he is forty years old, having retired from his civil service job and secluded himself in a shabby apartment. By this point, he is a complete nihilist: he has no desire to interact with others, and he has total contempt for society and everyone who is part of it. In the second part of the novel, however, the Underground Man describes himself as he was sixteen years earlier, at the age of twenty-four. As a young man, the Underground Man is already misanthropic, proud, self-effacing, and bitter, but he also still clings to certain ideals. He is passionate about literature, craves human attention, and wants others to respect and admire him for his intelligence and passion. He is also occasionally subject to fits of idealism. In the course of the second part of the novel, however, we see how the Underground Man’s inability to interact with other people causes his attempts to form relationships and participate in life to end in disaster, and drives him deeper underground.
When Liza first appears in Notes from Underground, her function seems clear: she is the object of the Underground Man’s latest literary fantasy and power trip. He has absorbed the literary archetype of the redeemed prostitute and has cast himself as the hero who will rescue Liza. Later in the novel, however, her character becomes more complex. When we first meet her, she matches the stereotype of a young prostitute: bored, jaded, and somewhat naïve. When Liza is genuinely moved by the Underground Man’s speech, however, we realize that she may be even more innocent than expected. A young girl driven into prostitution by an uncaring family, she still idealizes romantic love and longs for respect and affection. She treasures the one declaration of love she has received, a note from a young medical student who does not know she is a prostitute. The Underground Man is touched by the fact that Liza so clearly treasures this letter, but his attitude toward her emotion is somewhat dismissive. We sense that Liza’s sentiment could come from a less-educated version of the Underground Man’s Romanticism and that her response to the Underground Man’s speeches is shallow. Liza wants to participate in the artificial world the Underground Man creates with his “sentimental” speeches, because she likes the idea of being a romantic heroine instead of an ordinary prostitute.
When Liza responds tenderly and understandingly to the abusive speeches the Underground Man makes at his apartment, however, we see that she is closer to a real heroine than we may have expected. She is perceptive enough to see through the Underground Man’s façade of cruelty and apathy, and she is good-hearted enough to try to give him comfort and love. When she finally realizes that the Underground Man is incapable of returning her love with anything but mockery and humiliation, she leaves with quiet strength and dignity. She throws away the wad of bills that the Underground Man gives her as “payment” for her visit, thwarting his attempt to treat her like a prostitute after she has come to him with help and love.
Zverkov is a prime example of the kind of man the Underground Man hates most, “l’homme de la nature et de la vérité.” Zverkov is an active and decisive man, preferring to pursue concrete goals rather than contemplate the value of those goals in modern society. He has been very successful, having advanced far in his career, seduced numerous women, and gained the admiration of his friends and acquaintances. In school, the Underground Man hated Zverkov for his stupidity and boastfulness, and resented him for his wealth, good looks, and popularity. The Underground Man explains that Zverkov was popular because he was “favored with the gifts of nature”—his social success was rather Darwinian. By the 1840s, Zverkov is much the same as he was in school, except a little fatter, probably because of his hearty enjoyment of food along with wine and women. The Underground Man feels that Zverkov treats him with condescension. The Underground Man is right, but Zverkov at least attempts to treat him politely. We see Zverkov, as we see all of the other characters in the novel, only through the eyes of the Underground Man. It is difficult, therefore, to get an objective view of Zverkov’s real personality. The Underground Man describes Zverkov as a coarse, mincing, piggish idiot, but we can also see that Zverkov is amiable and generous with his friends. His rudeness to the Underground Man can be explained at least partially by the Underground Man’s aggressive behavior.