Skip over navigation

Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Important Quotations Explained

Part II, Chapter X

Key Facts

1.
“Ha, ha, ha! Next you’ll be finding pleasure in a toothache!” you will exclaim, laughing.
“And why not? There is also pleasure in a toothache,” I will answer.

This passage, which begins Chapter IV of the “Underground” section, illustrates the extent of the Underground Man’s masochism. In the previous chapter, he has described in great detail the ways in which he takes pleasure in his own humiliation, enjoying the extremity of his indecision and powerlessness. The “you” in the quotation is the Underground Man’s imagined audience, to which the entire novel is addressed. This audience represents the perspective of the rational man, who would certainly scoff at the perverse idea that someone could enjoy something that brings him pain. The statement that the Underground Man will next be finding pleasure in a toothache is sarcastic, a dismissal of the absurdity of the situation. No one in their right mind could take pleasure in a toothache.

Always ready to take an idea to its extreme, and eager to disprove any unshakable assumptions his audience might have about reason and nature, the Underground Man brings the perversity of his idea to the next level: there is indeed pleasure in a toothache. He goes on to describe the aesthetic value of the moans of someone suffering from a toothache. His moans are “conscious” moans, the moans of a “developed” man who has been exposed to European civilization and understands that true art has no purpose besides itself. The developed man will construct elaborate, symphonic moans and groans that will give him the satisfaction of irritating his friends and family.

The reference to European civilization relates the idea of the toothache to the question of the value of European culture’s influence on Russia. Indeed, the Underground Man’s pleasure in his toothache is an indication not only of his masochism and his desire to perplex his audience, but of the artificiality of his existence. His enjoyment of the toothache becomes a parody of his enjoyment of other “developed” pleasures, encouraged by European literature and philosophy. Dostoevsky was extremely critical of the way in which this Europeanized, “developed” way of thinking alienated Russian intellectuals from the real culture and people of Russia, who worked with the soil as members of a community. The refinements that the Underground Man exaggerates in this passage are both a result of and a contributing factor to his isolation from society.

2.
Oh, gentlemen, perhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I’ve never been able to start or finish anything.

The Underground Man makes this statement in Chapter V of “Underground,” after having described the causes and conditions of his inertia. Just prior to this point in the novel, he has asserted that his intelligence is the cause of his inertia; now he suggests that his inertia is evidence of his intelligence. This reversal demonstrates the Underground Man’s belief that intelligence, or consciousness, must cause inertia and indecision in the modern era. According to the Underground Man, a man must be completely confident that he is doing the right thing before he can take action. He needs a “primary” cause, something solid by which he can justify what he does. A stupid man can imagine that he has found a primary cause, but an intelligent man knows that this primary cause is really a secondary cause, which is related to all kinds of different concepts and problems that would take an eternity to sort out. A narrow-minded man thinks that the reason he wants revenge on someone else is for the sake of justice; an intelligent man is aware that he is not motivated by justice at all. The intelligent man fails to find a satisfactory reason for the action he wants to perform, and, in fact, is impossible to find one. For the intelligent man, even the laws of nature and reason are suspect. Therefore, no intelligent man should ever be able to make up his mind to start or finish anything—no matter how simple. The intelligent man will constantly be aware that he has no concrete reason to take action, or will at least be aware that he has no understanding of the reason to take action.

3.
Who wants to want according to a little table?

The Underground Man asks this question of his imagined audience in Chapter VIII of “Underground,” after his audience has explained to him that his argument about the primacy of the human will is flawed. His audience has brought up the idea that scientific rules and formulas can explain the origins of and reasons for human desires. By this argument, if there is a scientific formula for human happiness, that same formula would also explain man’s desire to exercise free will, and would explain the reason for the existence of free will in the first place. Therefore, it is absurd to assert that a scientific formula for human happiness limits the rights of man to exercise free will. The Underground Man’s response to this argument is paradoxical. If science can explain why human beings desire anything, it can certainly explain why human beings would or would not desire “to want according to a little table.” The Underground Man’s assertion, however, is incontestable. No matter how much science manages to explain about the nature of human desires, it cannot change the fact that those desires exist. Furthermore, no matter how strong the evidence that human beings do “want according to a little table”—that is, according to a set of rational, predictable formulas—most humans treasure the idea that their desires are independent and unique. Hence, they would not appreciate the idea that their desires are completely predictable. The contrast between the image of a tiny, well-regulated, boring little multiplication table and the great urgency and power of the word “want” is very effective in proving the Underground Man’s point. No matter how the numbers add up, describing human desires in terms of a “little table” seems like the worst kind of oversimplification, and makes even the most sensible people want to rebel against reason and go running headlong into a stone wall.

4.
Here it is, here it is at last, the encounter with reality. . . . All is lost now!

The Underground Man says these words to himself at the beginning of Chapter V of “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” as he is running down the stairs in pursuit of his former schoolmates. The others have left Zverkov’s farewell dinner—at which the Underground Man has utterly humiliated himself and alienated them—to go to a brothel together. The Underground Man has resolved to follow them, either to receive an apology or to exact his revenge. He is elated for a number of reasons. For one, he feels that his strange brand of masochism has finally brought him to the lowest possible position, and being in this position has made some kind of confrontation inevitable. For someone as indecisive as the Underground Man, the thought of inevitability is reassuring. He is certain that the situation will resolve itself in some way, ending in either triumph or defeat. Either end will involve an “encounter with reality”: the Underground Man will finally be forced to participate in “life,” to interact with other human beings in a meaningful way. The Underground Man craves this kind of interaction, and every time he is faced with “some external event, no matter how small,” he thinks it is going to break the monotonous, lonely pattern of his life. This event promises to be monumental: a duel, or a fistfight, or the adoring and apologetic friendship of a former enemy. It is telling that the Underground Man should think of this “encounter with reality” in terms of violence. Anger, revenge, and bitterness seem to be the only realistic ways in which he can conceive of interacting with others. Consequently, he imagines duels and arguments as the only way he can participate in the social world. The Underground Man’s association of reality with violence and anger, pride and humiliation, foreshadows the failure of his relationship with Liza. He has no tools for friendship that do not involve aggression.

5.
I sensed vaguely that she was going to pay dearly for it all. . . .

In this quotation, from Chapter IX of “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” the Underground Man remembers his reaction to Liza’s arrival at his apartment. He has been shrieking with rage at his servant, Apollon, and is dressed in a ragged bathrobe. When Liza enters the apartment, the Underground Man “die[s] of shame” and runs into his room in a panic. When he returns, he tries to appear dignified, but continues to feel extreme embarrassment. He is infuriated by Liza’s patient, expectant stare, as he feels pressure to do something impressive to equal his speech in the brothel. The Underground Man’s humiliation is increased by the fact that in the brothel, when he was convincing Liza of the error of her ways, he felt enormous power over her. He felt he could manipulate her emotions, influence her choices about her own life, and control how she felt about herself and about him. He imagined that she admired and respected him. These feelings were particularly valuable to the Underground Man after his humiliation at Zverkov’s farewell dinner. Now he has lost his temper in front of Apollon, the one person over whom he feels he should have some control. The Underground Man therefore feels particularly powerless, imagining he has lost all respect and dignity in Liza’s eyes. He holds her responsible for the fact that she has seen him in this miserable situation. Her presence has made him aware of the shabbiness of his bathroom, his apartment, his behavior with Apollon—the shabbiness of his entire existence. In this way, the Underground Man transfers the responsibility for all of his unhappiness to Liza’s shoulders. Just as he can turn his hatred of others toward himself, he can turn his hatred of himself toward others, especially when they are weaker, poorer, and of less respectable than he.

More Help

Previous Next
Who's really Underground

by Rzoab_cbhia_nrsy, February 24, 2014

I kept thinking to myself, "this reminds me of Blah," or "that is definitely Bleh", but now I think it's just me.

Follow Us