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Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part II, Chapter VI–VII

Part II, Chapters IV–V

Part II, Chapter VIII

Summary: Chapter VI

The Underground Man wakes up after having slept with the young prostitute. He hears a clock wheezing, and he takes in the details of the dirty, narrow room where he has been sleeping. He remembers the events of the previous day as if they had happened a long time ago, and slowly he begins to feel anguished. Next to him, the prostitute opens her eyes and looks at him with indifferent curiosity. The Underground Man realizes that he has never spoken to her, and he suddenly feels disgusted with the idea of sex without any kind of love. They stare at each other, and the Underground Man becomes uncomfortable.

To break the silence, the Underground Man asks the prostitute’s name, and she tells him that it is Liza. He continues to ask her about her background, but she seems unwilling to elaborate. Suddenly, he begins to tell her the story of a prostitute who died in a basement and whose former clients drank to her memory in a tavern. He then launches into a long, moralizing speech about the shamefulness of prostitution as a profession.

This lecture clearly moves Liza. The Underground Man becomes fascinated by the idea that he can elicit emotion in her. He feels that doing so indicates that he has some power over her. At the same time, he is genuinely interested in her, and feels emotionally unstable himself. He waxes sentimental about the value of family, describing the love he would feel for his daughter if he had one. When Liza implies that her own family may have sold her into prostitution, the Underground Man launches into a long speech about the value of marriage and the happiness it can bring. At the end of his speech, he tells Liza how much he loves little children, painting a glowing picture of a young mother and father with a plump, rosy baby. The Underground Man imagines that this picture will convince Liza to stop being a prostitute, but after he finishes his speech, he worries that she will laugh at him.

When Liza begins to speak, the Underground Man encourages her tenderly, but she tells him that his speech sounds like it was taken from a book. He is offended. In retrospect, he convinces himself that Liza’s mockery was only a form of self-defense, and that she was genuinely moved by his speech. But at the moment he has not yet come to this revelation, and a “wicked feeling” comes over him.

Summary: Chapter VII

The Underground Man defends himself against Liza’s statement that his speech sounds like it was borrowed from a book. To the contrary, he says, the speech rose up in his soul in response to the baseness of Liza’s situation. He feels vile for being with her because she is a prostitute. However, if she lived a purer life in a better place, he says, he might fall in love with her and accord her the respect that is denied a prostitute. He tries to convey to her how shameful and sordid her situation is. As a prostitute, she is throwing away her youth, her virtue, and her health. He continues his speech in brutal fashion, describing in detail Liza’s inevitable death from consumption, predicting how ill-treated and friendless she will be in her illness, and how little respect she will get in death, as no one will mourn her.

The Underground Man gets so carried away in his speech that it takes him a while to realize that Liza is in complete despair, sobbing convulsively into her pillow. Suddenly horrified, he starts to get ready to leave. When he lights a candle, however, Liza gets up with a “half-crazed smile” and looks at him. He takes her hands and gives her his address, telling her to come to him. She promises to come, and he says goodbye to her.

Before the Underground Man can leave, however, Liza blushes and runs off to get something that she wants to show him. She returns joyfully with a love letter that she has received from a medical student whom she met at a dance. The student, who does not know she is a prostitute, professes his love in the letter with genuine emotion and respect. The Underground Man realizes that the letter is Liza’s greatest treasure: she wants to show him that she has known honest, sincere love, and that she is not simply a degraded prostitute. The Underground Man leaves without saying anything, and walks home exhausted and perplexed. However, the “nasty truth” is starting to become clear.

Analysis: Chapters VI–VII

The Underground Man’s speeches in these chapters provide another example of his inability to communicate—or to even conceive of any emotion other than bitterness—without using literature as a reference. Liza is quite right to say that the Underground Man’s speech sounds as though it comes from a book. After his initial attempts to make casual conversation fail, the Underground Man falls back upon a popular nineteenth-century literary convention—the idea of the redeemed prostitute. Scenes in which a noble, almost fatherly male figure convinces a young, beautiful prostitute of the error of her ways abound in European writing. Indeed, the epigraph to “Apropos of the Wet Snow” is a selection from the Russian liberal poet Nikolai Nekrasov, written from the perspective of a man who has rescued a prostitute’s “fallen soul” from “error’s darkness” with “a word both sure and ardent.” In the poem, the prostitute eventually becomes the man’s wife. The scene in Notes from Underground draws much of its language and imagery from this tradition, and it is almost certainly a parody of a very similar scene in Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done?

Interestingly, the Underground Man does not, for once, recognize the literary tradition behind his mission. He feels that he is manipulating Liza with his sentimental language, and he both enjoys and feels ashamed of the feeling of power this manipulation gives him. He does not, however, appear to recognize the sources of his story as readily as he recognizes other literary influences to which he refers early in the novel. Instead, the Underground Man tells us in retrospect, he genuinely felt the things he was saying, even as he was aware that he was manipulating Liza. He feels for Liza and longs for genuine human contact, but his speech has little to do with his personal experience. He says that he loves children, but if so, he only loves them in theory. He has probably never witnessed a domestic scene like the one he describes, nor has he known anyone outside of novels in any kind of satisfying romantic relationship.

When the Underground Man describes the lonely life that he believes Liza will lead and her solitary death, he could be describing his own life. He has fewer friends than Liza does, and we sense that it is likely no one will ever mourn his death, not even in a tavern over a few beers. It is telling, too, that his initial description of the prostitute’s death involves a coffin being removed from a basement. A more accurate translation for the title of Notes from Underground might be “Memoirs from a Cellar.”

The Underground Man may not be consciously aware of the similarities between the marginalized life of a prostitute and his own alienation from the world, but these similarities may account for his intense desire to prove that he is morally and intellectually superior to Liza. However, the greatest difference between them is that the Underground Man, however much he occasionally waxes sentimental, cannot cope with displays of genuine emotion. As he has suggested before, he has little or no experience with “real life,” and his confrontations with it send him running back to the underground for safety. After delivering his long and impassioned speech, delighted that his words seemed to be affecting Liza, the Underground Man is horrified by her passionate sobbing. He has some contempt for Liza’s love letter, yet he pities her for the fact that she feels she needs to prove to him that she is worthy of noble love. The Underground Man’s contempt could easily be read as jealousy—there is no one to love him, and he has no treasured tokens to prove that he is lovable at all.

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Who's really Underground

by Rzoab_cbhia_nrsy, February 24, 2014

I kept thinking to myself, "this reminds me of Blah," or "that is definitely Bleh", but now I think it's just me.

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