Notes from Underground

by: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part I, Chapters II–IV

In Chapter II, the Underground Man essentially divides the world into two groups. The first group contains people who are both “disingenuous” and “active.” These people are not necessarily stupid, but they are at most half as “conscious” as the Underground Man. Because they are unable to analyze every decision they make, they are able to make these decisions painlessly. They do not analyze obstacles any more than they analyze their own motives, so when they come to an obstacle they stop in their tracks without any concern. The second group that the Underground Man envisions contains educated, conscious people like him. These individuals spend all their time contemplating their own degradation.

This distinction between the two groups foreshadows the existentialist philosophy of writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, who considered Notes from Underground the first existentialist novel. Sartre believed that every human being is totally free and completely responsible for every choice he makes. In Sartre’s work, those characters who become aware of the terrible responsibility that accompanies every choice they make often are unable to bring themselves to do anything. Like the narrow-minded men in the first of the Underground Man’s two groups, the only people who act with total confidence in Sartre’s works are those who are not conscious of their freedom and responsibility. Nonetheless, Sartre believes that the conscious man must act, however little the idea appeals to him.

It may seem odd that the Underground Man aligns the laws of science and mathematics with the less intelligent men, as we usually think of those disciplines as requiring education and intelligence. However, for the Underground Man, a conscious man is someone who questions and analyzes everything, even the validity of so-called natural laws. Someone who has blind faith in everything, even in logic and reason, fits the Underground Man’s definition of an unconscious man. This definition allows the Underground Man to include some of the most prominent intellectuals of the era in his criticism, and paves the way for his upcoming critique of the “rational” theorists in Chapter VII.

Of course, the Underground Man considers his consciousness a curse even as he takes pride in it. This masochistic idea becomes literal when he discusses the pleasure that a cultured man can find in a toothache. Though the Underground Man is ashamed of this pleasure, as he is ashamed of anything he finds enjoyable or worthy of pride, he believes it is the only kind of pleasure available to the truly developed man in the nineteenth century. This moment is one of several instances in the novel when Dostoevsky’s message likely differs from the Underground Man’s: we see the toothache as an example of the absurdity that arises when intelligence and sensitivity are unaccompanied by action.