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.
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.