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Notes from Underground

Summary

Part II, Chapters IV–V

Summary Part II, Chapters IV–V

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.

Analysis: Chapters IV–V

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.