The Underground Man begins his narration of events that occurred when he was twenty-four years old. Even at that young age, he is already depressed and antisocial. At work, he never looks anyone in the eye, and he imagines that they look at him with disgust. He vacillates between despising everyone he knows because they are dull-witted and feeling intensely inferior to them. He always feels alienated, conscious of how different he is from everyone else. Occasionally, he grows suddenly indifferent to his problems, becomes briefly chummy with his coworkers, and attributes his usual “intolerance and fastidiousness” to Romanticism.
In a digression from this retrospective narrative, the Underground Man discusses the nature of Russian Romanticism, which he claims is not “translunary” like German or French Romanticism. Russian Romanticism is “to see everything, and to see often incomparably more clearly than our very most positive minds do.” Generally, the Russian form of Romanticism is open-minded and practical, concerned with the preservation of “the beautiful and lofty” but also with an eye for self-preservation. The Russian Romantic does not seem to let his Romanticism get in the way of his career: he “wouldn’t lift a finger for his ideal” yet believes in this ideal steadfastly. He is at once “loftily honest” and a “scoundrel.”
After this explanation, the Underground Man returns to his earlier narrative. At the age of twenty-four, he needs external stimulation to stifle his inner turmoil, and the only external stimulation he can bear is reading. Sometimes he feels the need for “contradictions, contrasts,” and he engages in timid, shameful debaucheries. Afraid of being seen, he frequents shadowy, disreputable places.
One night, after seeing someone thrown out a tavern window in a fight, he desires a fight himself. These attempts are thwarted, however. Rather than fight with the Underground Man, an officer he meets casually shoves him aside. The Underground Man does not protest, even though he is not afraid of the physical damage that the officer could inflict on him. Rather, he lacks the “moral courage” to challenge the officer. The Underground Man, as a romantic, would use “literary language” with the officer, and he understands that the people in the tavern would humiliate him for doing so.
Rather than challenge the officer, the Underground Man becomes obsessed with the idea of revenge. He stalks the officer and gathers casual information about him. However, whenever the Underground Man sees the officer walking in the park, he gives way, so that the officer does not even notice his presence. Finally, the Underground Man decides that his revenge will come in refusing to give way to the officer, because then the officer will have to acknowledge his existence.
The Underground Man spends a long time preparing for this confrontation, resorting to borrowing money to purchase quality clothing—a hat, gloves, a shirt, and a fur collar—so that he will look like the officer’s social equal. Even dressed in his fine clothes, however, the Underground Man cannot bring himself to bump into the officer. One day, he finally succeeds in walking straight into the officer, but the officer does not even seem to notice. At first, the Underground Man exults that he has placed himself on equal footing with the officer and preserved his own dignity. Three days later, however, he feels the same shame he feels after every debauch. The Underground Man wonders what became of the officer: “Whom does he crush now?”
The first chapter of “Apropos of the Wet Snow” reveals a good deal about the Underground Man’s experience with and attitude toward literature, particularly the Romantic literature written in and before the 1840s. We learn that the Underground Man has been an avid reader all his life, and that reading is one of the few pursuits and situations with which he feels comfortable. The Underground Man admires “literary language” and wishes that he inhabited a society where that kind of language was part of daily interactions.
The Underground Man’s relationship with literature, however, is highly ambiguous. He is ashamed of the “romanticism” that leads him to want to befriend his coworkers. Though he seems to admire the Russian brand of Romanticism, he also describes it as somewhat hypocritical and absurd. Dostoevsky himself disapproved of the degree to which Russian intellectuals of his time adopted western European culture and ideals. As the Underground Man explains in his description of Russian Romantics, the “translunary” qualities of French and German Romanticism do not translate to the Russian version of Romanticism, which is too practical and honest. Though the Underground Man is conscious enough to understand this difference, he does not necessarily understand that many of the qualities that he admires in literature—and that he subsequently attempts to transfer to his own life—are European and untranslatable. He knows that the soldiers from the tavern will not accept a duel and will laugh at his use of “literary language,” but he attributes this to their lack of intelligence and sensitivity.
Dostoevsky believed that European culture had been artificially imposed upon Russian culture. The Underground Man believes that he should live by European cultural rules, so he attempts to apply them to life in Russia—a project that Dostoevsky believes can only lead to frustration and failure. Though European culture is alien to Russia, it has replaced Russian culture in places like St. Petersburg. The city is an artificial place—the Underground Man calls it “intentional and abstract” —with no natural culture of its own, supporting an artificial, untranslatable culture that can only alienate its inhabitants.
The Underground Man’s interaction with the soldier, however pathetic it may appear, has its roots in Romantic European ideas of justice and revenge. The Underground Man wants to walk with the officer as an equal, but when he tries to put this progressive idea into practice, he fails. The confrontation with the officer is a parody of a similar passage in Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? Dostoevsky implies that literature, however rational, cannot supply its readers with a model for living. The Underground Man’s desire for the officer to throw him out of the window indicates the degree to which the Underground Man is starved for any social interaction. He is so alienated that he craves any interaction, regardless of whether that interaction is positive or negative. The Underground Man’s failure to achieve a satisfying interaction with the officer is typical of his inability to ever achieve human contact on conventional terms. His behavior with the officer is just as he describes it in “Underground”: he wants to act, but resists the urge and spends months obsessing over the offense before finally exacting a limited, anticlimactic, and pathetic revenge.