Notes from Underground
Part II, Chapter III
The Underground Man arrives at Simonov’s apartment to find Simonov with two other former schoolmates. They are discussing plans for a farewell dinner for Zverkov, another former schoolmate who is now an officer in the army. The Underground Man remembers Zverkov as one of his least favorite classmates. He was handsome, confident, wealthy, and popular. The Underground Man considered Zverkov vulgar, and hated Zverkov’s boasting about his future successes with women and in duels.
Zverkov has had success in the army and with women ever since he left school, and he no longer greets the Underground Man on the street. Simonov’s two guests are both admirers of Zverkov: Ferfichkin, an “enemy” of the Underground Man from school who often borrows money from Zverkov; and Trudolyubov, whom the Underground Man considers honest but too focused on success. Although all three men essentially ignore the Underground Man from the moment he enters the room, he insists on being included in the farewell dinner, feeling that an offer to contribute money for the meal will make the other men respect him. Simonov hesitates, irritated with the Underground Man, but ultimately allows him to join the dinner. When the other men leave, Simonov invents an excuse and says that he must run off. The Underground Man awkwardly leaves the apartment.
After leaving, the Underground Man regrets everything he has just done. He knows that he is not wanted at the dinner, he hates Zverkov, and he does not have enough money to pay for the meal. However, he knows that he will still go to the dinner: the more inappropriate it is for him to go, the more likely it is that he will go. He decides to spend the money that he owes Apollon, his servant, on dinner.
That night, the Underground Man remembers his time at school. He was an orphan, and distant relatives sent him to a school where the other students derided him because he was different from them. He hated the other children, who were narrow-minded, worshiped only success, and mocked “everything that was just.” Their faces grew more stupid with every year spent at school. Hoping to avoid their mockery, the Underground Man became one of the best students at the school. He impressed the others with his knowledge of books and the respect he gained from his teachers. He made one friend among his classmates, but he treated the friend tyrannically. When the friend’s will was broken, the Underground Man pushed him away. After he left school the Underground Man broke all ties with his former life. He even abandoned the “special service” for which he had been trained, in order to pursue a humbler career.
The Underground Man spends the next day dreading and preparing for the dinner. He imagines it will somehow prove to be a turning point in his life. He examines his shabby wardrobe and discovers a spot on his trousers that will make him look undignified in the eyes of his dinner companions. He imagines the other men’s disdain in elaborate detail, despairing that his predicament will be so banal and “non-literary.” Still, the Underground Man wants to prove to the others that he is not a coward. He entertains fantasies in which he wins over all of his former classmates with his wit and intelligence. At the same time, he maintains that none of his worries are important at all. He passes the day in nervous agony until his “wretched little wall clock hisse[s] five,” at which point he spends his last fifty kopecks on a coach to take him to dinner.
In the Underground Man’s description of Zverkov we see the model for his later discussions of the active but stupid man. The Underground Man has no respect for Zverkov, believing him to be arrogant and dull-witted, but he is aware that Zverkov’s confidence has won him many accomplishments, as well as friends and admirers. The Underground Man fantasizes about Zverkov admiring the Underground Man’s brilliance and sensitivity and offering himself in friendship, and he reveals an intense desire to be liked and accepted by the men he disdains most. This desire is colored by the Underground Man’s egoism—he can only imagine being admired, not simply accepted or liked—and his lack of experiences outside of books. As always, the Underground Man’s fantasy takes a highly “literary” form, involving dramatic and literary conventions.
The account of the Underground Man’s time at school helps to explain his bitterness. An orphan who was always too sensitive and antisocial to win much love or affection at school, the Underground Man has gone through life unloved. His relationship with his one friend at school shows us that, even as a young person, he had no idea how to conduct a real relationship. He does not understand love or faith, only domination and submission. He craves power because all his life he has had to stand by in impotent rage and submit to the will of stronger and more powerful people.
Two manifestations of the Underground Man’s masochism appear in this chapter. We learn that the Underground Man quit his lucrative and prestigious career in civil service simply out of spite, just as he now refuses to go to the doctor out of spite. Moreover, the Underground Man decides to go to the dinner for Zverkov even though he clearly is not wanted, partially because of an inexplicable desire to plunge himself into uncomfortable situations. The Underground Man imagines that these situations are the only way for him to experience real life. Indeed, as we have noticed, his only emotional interchanges with others involve anger, hate, and discomfort. He believes these uncomfortable sensations to be strongly tied to any kind of social behavior.
The Underground Man continues to be obsessed with external appearances, just as he was when he plotted his revenge on the officer. The Underground Man frets because of the shabby condition of his clothes, particularly his stained pair of trousers, imagining that the four friends at the restaurant will look down on him because of his slovenly appearance. Though this concern is not wholly unfounded, it reveals that the Underground Man sees the world—not just the readers of his memoirs—as a panel of judges. For the Underground Man, external appearances and the meanings they conceal are often one and the same. At the end of the chapter, the wall clock “hisse[s]” five o’clock. The Underground Man’s use of such a negative word to describe the sounds of a clock indicates that he projects his discontent onto the world around him. These word choices remind us that we should be careful about accepting any information the Underground Man gives us—he likely observes all people and objects with the same distorted hatred he applies to the wall clock.
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