Notes from Underground
Part II, Chapter X
As the final chapter opens, the Underground Man is running frantically around his room and looking at Liza through a crack between the screens in the wall. Liza realizes that the Underground Man’s desire for her does not come from love, but from a desire to humiliate and dominate her. She realizes that he hates her and envies her.
The Underground Man explains why he is incapable of love. He says that, for him, love consists only of the right to tyrannize someone else. He cannot understand unselfish love, and he has failed to understand that Liza has come to see him because of love rather than because of his elaborate, “pathetic” speeches. At this point, though, the Underground Man only wants “peace”—the pressure of “living life” and interacting with others is becoming too much for him.
Liza gets up to leave. The Underground Man forces some money into her hand in a last, malicious attempt to humiliate her. He claims in his narration that the urge to humiliate her did not come from his heart; he did it only because it seemed appropriately literary, and after he did it he was ashamed.
The Underground Man calls after Liza immediately after she leaves, but she does not respond. He hears the door slam as she leaves the building. A minute later, he finds the money he gave her crumpled on the table, realizing that she threw it away before she left the apartment. The Underground Man is shocked that Liza could be capable of such a noble action. He runs after her into the falling snow, but she is gone. The Underground Man is distraught and wants to beg her forgiveness. He declares that he will never remember this moment with indifference. A moment later, though, he convinces himself that Liza will be purified and elevated by the hatred and forgiveness that his insult will inspire in her. At the same time, he is conscious of the literary merit of his own thoughts, and feels ashamed that he is focusing on that literary merit rather than on Liza’s welfare.
Back in the present, the flashback finished, the Underground Man decides that “all this comes out somehow none too well in my recollection.” He decides that perhaps he will end his notes at this point. He wonders if he should have written them at all, for they are not “literature, but corrective punishment.” His antisocial life in the underground is “not interesting,” especially since he is not a hero, but rather an antihero whose dread of “living life” is all too familiar to the reader. The Underground Man accuses his readers of having all of the problems that he has, but refusing to carry them through to their logical conclusion. Perhaps, he suggests, he is more “living” than his more active readers.
Suggesting that modern men, ashamed of the fleshly reality of their lives, retreat more and more into abstract ideas, the Underground Man decides not to write any more notes. A note Dostoevsky writes at the end tells us that the Underground Man could not keep this resolution to stop writing, and instead continued to write compulsively. Dostoevsky writes that this point in the notes seems like a good place to stop, however, so the novel ends here.
Many critics consider the moment when Liza slams the door to be the climax of the second half of Notes from Underground. Liza is perhaps the only hope for the Underground Man’s redemption, as she is perceptive and patient enough to see through his proud, hostile façade to understand his mental anguish. In short, she is kind enough to care about him. In this last chapter, when Liza casts away the money, we—and the Underground Man—understand that she is also noble, moral, and as proud as the Underground Man himself.
The discovery of the crumpled bill is an important moment for the Underground Man. His self-absorption and lack of positive experiences with others have not prepared him for the possibility that other people could perform noble gestures such as Liza’s. She has a genuine sense of the “beautiful and lofty” herself, though it is couched in modesty, shyness, and simplicity. Liza could have emerged from the pages of any sentimental novel or poem. Somehow, the Underground Man’s artificial pastiche of literary conventions in the brothel has found him a real-life romantic heroine. The slamming door, however, signals Liza’s irrevocable disappearance from his life, and its sound resounds throughout the building. The Underground Man has been shut underground for good, with no more chances of escape.
When Liza has gone, the Underground Man immediately begins to rationalize her departure. Unsurprisingly, although he is totally unable to handle the responsibility of a relationship with her while she is present, in retrospect he imagines that he has been an important event in her life. He believes that the initial hatred and eventual forgiveness she will feel toward him will purify and elevate her. In reality, Liza could perhaps have purified and elevated the Underground Man, but he cannot allow himself to recognize the regret he feels. Even though he declares that he will never recall the moment with indifference, we see that he has already begun to try to lessen its emotional importance. When he focuses on the literary merits of his thoughts about Liza, he reproaches himself for his egoism—but that very egoism is the only tool he has to distract himself from the significance of Liza’s departure. The Underground Man’s distrust of his own emotional responses comes partially from his general skepticism about the good of human beings. This distrust also allows him to endure his existence underground: if he believes that his emotions are artificial, then he can discount them.
The Underground Man’s statement that he will “never . . . recall this moment with indifference” is also important to the structure of Notes from Underground. Some commentators have found the novel’s two-part structure strange, as the second part comes chronologically before the first. We have already seen how this structure works to illuminate and explain the Underground Man’s character, using concrete examples from the second part to illustrate abstract statements from the first part. This quotation from the end of the second part unifies the two “fragments,” as the twenty-four-year-old Underground Man seems to be speaking almost directly to the forty-year-old Underground Man who is narrating his story. By the end of the novel, we see that the Underground Man is still unable to recall the moment of Liza’s departure with indifference. We understand why he has chosen this particular memory for his strange memoir: it is the moment at which it becomes certain that the twenty-four-year-old Underground Man will become the forty-year-old Underground Man, totally isolated and alienated in his “underground.” We also understand why he feels that it is time to end his notes for good. He has lived through a crucial moment in his life, and he feels no better for having lived through it. He only recognizes the significance of his loss.
The Underground Man ends his notes with an accusation aimed at us, his audience. He tells us that we are all like him in a way, but that we lack the courage to take our lives to the extreme to which he has taken his. We probably do not want to believe this statement, and we certainly would not consider ourselves better off if we lived the same life as the Underground Man. Dostoevsky, however, is using the Underground Man to show us how modern urban life does alienate us from ourselves and other people. Most contemporary readers of Notes from Underground refused to recognize themselves in the Underground Man. They preferred to consider him an interesting psychological study of a highly abnormal person rather than a casualty of societal problems to which they, too, were exposed. However, the Underground Man’s theories and behavior resonate in much of modern literature, from Dostoevsky’s later novels to Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others. As the western world has absorbed Notes from Underground into its cultural heritage, its literature seems to have decided that there are many more people living underground than we might have guessed.
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