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Notes from Underground

Summary

Part II, Chapter X

Summary Part II, Chapter X

Analysis

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.