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Notes from Underground

Summary

Part II, Chapter I

Summary Part II, Chapter I

Analysis

The first chapter of “Apropos of the Wet Snow” reveals a good deal about the Underground Man’s experience with and attitude toward literature, particularly the Romantic literature written in and before the 1840s. We learn that the Underground Man has been an avid reader all his life, and that reading is one of the few pursuits and situations with which he feels comfortable. The Underground Man admires “literary language” and wishes that he inhabited a society where that kind of language was part of daily interactions.

The Underground Man’s relationship with literature, however, is highly ambiguous. He is ashamed of the “romanticism” that leads him to want to befriend his coworkers. Though he seems to admire the Russian brand of Romanticism, he also describes it as somewhat hypocritical and absurd. Dostoevsky himself disapproved of the degree to which Russian intellectuals of his time adopted western European culture and ideals. As the Underground Man explains in his description of Russian Romantics, the “translunary” qualities of French and German Romanticism do not translate to the Russian version of Romanticism, which is too practical and honest. Though the Underground Man is conscious enough to understand this difference, he does not necessarily understand that many of the qualities that he admires in literature—and that he subsequently attempts to transfer to his own life—are European and untranslatable. He knows that the soldiers from the tavern will not accept a duel and will laugh at his use of “literary language,” but he attributes this to their lack of intelligence and sensitivity.

Dostoevsky believed that European culture had been artificially imposed upon Russian culture. The Underground Man believes that he should live by European cultural rules, so he attempts to apply them to life in Russia—a project that Dostoevsky believes can only lead to frustration and failure. Though European culture is alien to Russia, it has replaced Russian culture in places like St. Petersburg. The city is an artificial place—the Underground Man calls it “intentional and abstract” —with no natural culture of its own, supporting an artificial, untranslatable culture that can only alienate its inhabitants.

The Underground Man’s interaction with the soldier, however pathetic it may appear, has its roots in Romantic European ideas of justice and revenge. The Underground Man wants to walk with the officer as an equal, but when he tries to put this progressive idea into practice, he fails. The confrontation with the officer is a parody of a similar passage in Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? Dostoevsky implies that literature, however rational, cannot supply its readers with a model for living. The Underground Man’s desire for the officer to throw him out of the window indicates the degree to which the Underground Man is starved for any social interaction. He is so alienated that he craves any interaction, regardless of whether that interaction is positive or negative. The Underground Man’s failure to achieve a satisfying interaction with the officer is typical of his inability to ever achieve human contact on conventional terms. His behavior with the officer is just as he describes it in “Underground”: he wants to act, but resists the urge and spends months obsessing over the offense before finally exacting a limited, anticlimactic, and pathetic revenge.