The Underground Man arrives at the Hotel de Paris twenty-five minutes after dinner is supposed to begin, but he is the first to arrive. Discovering that Simonov has ordered dinner for six o’clock rather then five o’clock, he waits awkwardly in the restaurant, imagining that he is disgraced in the eyes of the waiters. When Zverkov arrives with the other dinner guests, he treats the Underground Man condescendingly. The Underground Man is appalled that Zverkov might genuinely consider himself superior to him. The other guests treat the Underground Man with awkward politeness, although they make derisive comments about his income and appearance. The Underground Man explodes at them, insisting that he is not embarrassed and that he will be paying for his dinner himself. The others are annoyed, and Trudolyubov insinuates that the Underground Man is an unwanted guest.
Feeling “crushed and annihilated,” the Underground Man sits down and drinks sherry in silence as the others laugh and talk. He resents them and plans to leave. After a while, he delivers an offensive and pointless speech to Zverkov. Ferfichkin responds with a threat of violence, and the Underground Man challenges him to a duel. The others laugh, noting that the Underground Man is drunk. Once again, the Underground Man falls silent and tries to look indifferent and disinterested. Secretly, however, he wishes he could make peace with the other men.
The Underground Man watches the others drinking and making ridiculous conversation. He paces loudly back and forth in the dining room for three hours, but the other dinner guests ignore him. He considers how much he has humiliated himself, thinking about how the others do not understand how developed and sensitive he is. When they do address a comment to him, the Underground Man guffaws disdainfully.
At eleven o’clock the other men make a move to leave. The Underground Man begs Ferfichkin’s forgiveness, insisting that if they duel, he will give Ferfichkin the first shot and then fire into the air. The men answer him with contempt and leave together, planning to go to a brothel. The Underground Man insists that Simonov lend him six roubles so that he can accompany them. Simonov responds with scorn, but finally flings the money at the Underground Man and leaves. The Underground Man decides that if he cannot make the men beg for his friendship, he will slap Zverkov’s face.
Here it is, here it is at last, the encounter with reality.... All is lost now!
The Underground Man hires a peasant coachman to take him to the brothel where the others have gone, convinced that he can redeem himself by slapping Zverkov. In the coach, he imagines the events at the brothel: he will slap Zverkov and everyone will retaliate by beating him—even Olympia the prostitute, who once laughed in the Underground Man’s face. Eventually, Zverkov will have to duel with the Underground Man. The Underground Man accepts that he will lose his job, and tries to figure out how he will pay for pistols and find a second for his duel. He does not have any close friends who will act as second, but he thinks that anyone he asks will be honor-bound to accept. He urges the coachman to go faster, but he is plagued by doubt.
If Zverkov refuses to duel, the Underground Man will bite him and allow himself to be sent to Siberia in disgrace. Years later, he will return from Siberia and nobly forgive Zverkov for his dishonor. The Underground Man then realizes that he has stolen this fantasy from the plot of popular Romantic stories. In despair, he considers turning back, but decides it is his fate to go on. He hits the coachman in the neck with impatience. As the carriage continues through the falling snow, the Underground Man feels that slapping Zverkov has become inevitable.
When the Underground Man arrives at the brothel, where he has been before, he finds the drawing room empty. He realizes that the others have already gone off with various women. He paces the room, trying to decide what to do until a young prostitute with a kind, serious face appears in the room. She appeals to the Underground Man, who decides to sleep with her. He notices his bedraggled appearance in a mirror and decides that he does not care if she finds him repulsive. In fact, he would rather she did.
The Underground Man’s description of his wait at the restaurant mirrors his description of the hissing wall clock: just as he imagines that the inanimate clock is hostile, he imagines that the waiters performing their tasks are full of contempt for him, and he is ashamed. Every casual occurrence, from the late arrival of his dinner companions to the waiters setting the table, is loaded with negative meaning to the Underground Man. We must keep in mind this tendency of the Underground Man to exaggerate or misinterpret events through his own bitterness and insecurity. Whenever he makes a judgment about a person or a place, we must take his skewed perspective into account.
Beyond providing us with further examples of how the Underground Man views other people, Chapter IV is also the first in the novel to give us a relatively clear picture of how others might view the Underground Man. Having been privy to his thoughts and feelings for a long time, we have begun to understand what motivates him. We can follow his logic to some degree, even if that logic is flawed. We are accustomed to his ways of looking at the world and at himself. We even begin to share his point of view. Since he worries so much about what other people think of him, we imagine that the other characters in the novel really do think about his behavior as much as he thinks they do. These other characters, however, have no understanding of the Underground Man’s motives, and therefore his behavior appears bizarre to them. Their responses to his behavior are negative, but not necessarily because they are cruel or unfeeling people. For the most part, they are baffled by his rudeness.
The events of Chapter IV illustrate the Underground Man’s masochism and indecisiveness. The fact that he remains at the dinner, pacing hopelessly in front of the other dinner guests but refusing to speak to them, indicates that he does indeed get a strange pleasure out of the feeling that he has hit rock bottom. As he has described in the “Underground” section, the Underground Man cultivates his own humiliation, almost deliberately hrowing himself into the most painful, inextricable situation imaginable. As he has also explained, he can never make decisive choices because he is always too conscious of every possibility. He thinks that if he allows himself to get deep enough into trouble, he will arrive at a point of inevitability. Once he reaches this point, it will be essential that he slap Zverkov’s face. The Underground Man feels that at this point he might be able to find some kind of confidence or certainty.
Having reached a point of inevitability with his insulting speech to Zverkov, however, the Underground Man is still plagued by doubts. In Chapter V, he submits alternately to his romantic visions, his nihilistic realism, and his masochistic impulses. He imagines scenes of noble reconciliation with Zverkov, but he also realizes that these imagined scenes are ludicrous and have been lifted from literature. His visions of being beaten by everyone in the brothel are as much a masochistic fantasy as his visions of reconciliation are a Romantic one. At the same time, though, the Underground Man can understand the practical difficulties that dueling would present—for one thing, he does not have a single close friend to act as his second.
One of the major urges that drives the Underground Man to go to the brothel and confront Zverkov is the idea that he cannot avoid “life.” He has attended the dinner partially to feel that he is living “life,” and he believes that slapping Zverkov will be a “confrontation” with real life. The Underground Man seems to equate “life” with emotionally satisfying contact with other people—but the only emotions he can express are resentment, anger, and conflict. Believing that the underground protects him from life and therefore limits him, he feels that he can somehow escape his alienation through forced participation in life. In this light, his pursuit of Zverkov is genuinely a pursuit of freedom and dignity.
Chapter V also gives us a first glimpse at how the Underground Man directs his own self-loathing at others. Earlier in the novel, we see him resenting people who may have reason to disdain him or judge him. However, his timidity and indecision before these “active figures” have always prevented him from acting on his hatred. He has therefore always turned his anger or frustration on himself. In this chapter, we encounter people over whom the Underground Man can safely exert some power. The coachman and the prostitute are both members of the lower classes. Moreover, as the Underground Man is paying both of them for their services, he already exerts financial power over them. For someone like the Underground Man, who constantly feels impotent in his daily interactions with others, the ability to feel superior to another is somewhat intoxicating. With the coachman, the Underground Man can express his frustration with himself through physical violence—something he could never have done with the officer or Zverkov. Although the Underground Man is still somewhat intimidated by the young prostitute, wondering what she thinks of his appearance, he takes a certain pleasure in the fact that she will not enjoy her time with him but will not be able to do much about it.