The narrator—referred to in this SparkNote as the Underground Man—introduces himself. He describes himself as sick, wicked, and unattractive, and notes that he has a problem with his liver. He refuses to treat this ailment out of spite, although he understands that keeping his problems from doctors does the doctors themselves no harm.
The Underground Man explains that, during his many years in civil service, he was wicked, but that he considers this wickedness a kind of compensation for the fact that he never accepted bribes. He almost immediately revises this claim, however, admitting that he never achieved genuine wickedness toward his customers, but only managed to be rude and intimidating as a kind of game.
We learn that the Underground Man has retired early from his civil service job after inheriting a modest sum of money. He only held onto his low-ranking job so that he would be able to afford food, not because he got any satisfaction from it. He notes that he is filled with conflicting impulses: wickedness, sentimentality, self-loathing, contempt for others. His intense consciousness of these opposing elements has paralyzed him. He has settled into his miserable corner of the world, incapable of wickedness and incapable of action, loathing himself even as he congratulates himself on his own intelligence and sensitivity. He adds that the weather in St. Petersburg is probably bad for his health, but that he will stay there anyway, out of spite.
In a note to Chapter I included in some editions as an introduction to the novel, Dostoevsky explains his intention in writing Notes from Underground. He tells us that the author of the work is fictional, but notes that the nature of society makes it inevitable that people like this fictional narrator exist. As to the structure of the novel, Dostoevsky explains that in the first “fragment,” entitled “Underground,” the Underground Man introduces himself and explains “why he appeared and had to appear among us.” The second half, entitled “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” consists of the Underground Man’s accounts of actual events in his life.
The first chapter of Notes from Underground gives us a precise sketch of the Underground Man’s character. By the end of the first paragraph, we get a sense of the issues that preoccupy the Underground Man. Contradictions and indecision are fundamental to his character. He says that his liver hurts, but then immediately tells us that he is not sure it is his liver. He knows he is sick, but he refuses to see a doctor out of spite, even though he knows that in pursuing this spiteful behavior he is only in hurting himself. He develops this idea of indecisive action later in the chapter, when he talks about the conflicts swarming inside him.
This inability to act stems from several important factors. First, the Underground Man is a nihilist, which means that he believes that traditional social values have no foundation in nature, and that human existence is essentially useless. The Underground Man despises the society in which he lives. Not only is the weather bad in St. Petersburg, but the culture of the city is built on bureaucracy and hypocrisy. Accepting bribes is common and widely tolerated. The Underground Man is filled with bitterness toward all aspects of society, but he is aware that he is powerless to act against it or within it. He cannot even manage to be a wicked civil servant. Instead, he takes his aggressions out on himself, refusing to see a doctor and remaining in an unhealthy climate out of spite. This behavior is the first evidence we have of the Underground Man’s masochism, his enjoyment of his own pain and humiliation. The Underground Man explores this idea in more depth later in the novel.
Another important factor that contributes to the Underground Man’s indecision is his intense self-consciousness. Though the Underground Man is frequently irrational, he is also extremely analytical and acutely conscious of every thought, urge, and feeling that crosses his mind. It is this heightened consciousness that makes him aware of all of the “opposite elements” inside him, so much so that he can never make a decision or act confidently on any of his desires.
The Underground Man is also highly conscious of what others think of him. He is intensely aware of our presence as readers. He addresses us frequently and directly, calling us “gentlemen,” and he constantly analyzes and revises his statements in the fear that we are judging him. Indeed, the Underground Man treats us like a panel of hostile judges, looking down upon his underground life from our comfortable position above ground, from the vantage point of the social world he has fled.
Because we are aware that the Underground Man is conscious of our presence, we must question the validity of any statements he makes about not writing for our benefit. The Underground Man is a prime example of what is known in literature as an unreliable narrator: because everything we learn from the Underground Man is filtered though the lens of his own nihilistic, anguished perspective, we can never be sure he is telling us the objective truth about anything. We must use what we learn about the Underground Man’s psychological state to fully understand his motives for telling us something, and to get a clear picture of the facts of his interactions with people.
Dostoevsky’s note highlights the fact that the Underground Man is an unreliable narrator. By telling us that the Underground Man is fictional, and by describing the social conditions that might have produced someone like the Underground Man, Dostoevsky distances himself from his narrator. Because Notes from Underground is written in first person, it is easy to imagine that Dostoevsky and the Underground Man share the same perspective. However, one of the hallmarks of all of Dostoevsky’s works is his ability to create distance between himself and his characters. One of the techniques he uses to accomplish this distance is humor. Indeed, in this novel, the Underground Man’s behavior is so absurd that it often verges on the comic. Though Dostoevsky may share many of the Underground Man’s opinions about society, he prefers to put those opinions in the mouth of someone rather unappealing and unconvincing. Dostoevsky feared that if he made his arguments too well, his readers would accept them without weighing their good and bad points.
The fact that the Underground Man is a civil servant is another important element. Many of Dostoevsky’s most famous characters are low-ranking civil servants who are lost in the society of nineteenth century St. Petersburg. The Underground Man is just an average man, neither a philosopher nor a professional writer. As such, he does not use any philosophical terms when discussing his ideas. Although in his youth he was a great admirer of “the literary,” by the time he is writing these notes, he has generally abandoned literary language, except in cases when he uses it ironically. Instead, the Underground Man uses everyday language with a kind of deliberate awkwardness.