Part I: Introduction and Chapter 1
Dostoevsky introduces Part I of Notes from Underground. He tell us that in this first portion, the protagonist will introduce himself and explain the causes that led to his appearance before us in this text. He then explains that the subseque nt extract, Apropos of the Wet Snow, will record the protagonist’s own notes.
The Underground Man starts off by telling us that he has liver disease, but refuses to go to a doctor out of spite. He realizes that he hurts only himself by doing this, but even so he remains obstinately opposed to seeking proper medical attention. He tells us that he is now forty years old, a former civil servant, rude and bitter. He then immediately retracts his statement, saying he was actually not rude at all. He scoffs at us, the readers of his Notes, insisting that he does not care what w e think of him.
The Underground Man goes on to explain why he became spiteful, saying that only fools go far in this world, and intelligent men like himself face failure inevitably. After assuring us that he is not writing for our amusement, he describes his current mis erable situation. He lives in his corner, where he has bunkered down since quitting the Civil Service upon receiving a large inheritance from a wealthy relative. He has a gruesome dim room with a maidservant he despises. The St. Petersburg weather ag gravates his health, but he does not care–it makes no difference to him whether he stays or goes. Finally, he invites himself to tell us more about himself, as any decent gentlemen likes to do.
The Underground Man’s spiteful refusal to see a doctor resounds throughout the text. The terms nihilistic and masochistic have often been applied to the Underground Man (heretofore referred to as the UM). Nihilism is a repudiation of societal values, and masochism is the deliberate infliction of pain on oneself, usually for pleasure. The UM’s hatred of society in general and his own powerlessness somehow combine to make it pleasurable for him to hurt himself , perhaps since he cannot harm soc iety as a whole–his helpless resentment of the external world leads him to attack himself, to shake up his inner world. The UM does not invariably turn against himself, however: we will also see him transfer this humiliation and shame onto others, play ing the role of humiliated and humiliate
St. Petersburg is also introduced in this chapter; although it may not be mentioned that much from here on in, it is important to view the city as a central character in the text (see the section on St. Petersburg for a discussion of the setting).
The UM’s self-consciousness, his constant analysis and revision of his own thoughts and words, is one of the most distinctive elements of the Notes. The UM is very aware, not only of our presence as readers (he constantly addresses us), but of our presence as judges. Thus, we must question the UM’s sincerity every time he insists that he is not here for our amusement, or that he doesn’t give a damn.
The alienation that the UM feels is central to many of Dostoevsky’s most famous characters, and is not an indication of insanity so much as a failure to deal with the impossibility of life in St. Petersburg. It is telling that the UM, like many of Dostoe vsky’s other characters, is a low-ranking Civil Servant. Dostoevsky says that in the nineteenth century, one must be a characterless person, with a job–like the UM’s–that erases one’s individuality and identity.