Notes from the Underground - Part I: Chapters I and II Summary & Analysis

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The book begins with a note from Dostoevsky himself saying that the notes and the writer are fictional. He does, however, say that the person writing the notes must exist in the society of his day simply because of the circumstances of society itself. He then says that the person is of the "recent past", and that the text of this book is an attempt to bring out the reasons for his actions and to make it clear why he was "bound to appear in our midst". From this point, the "author", or "writer", of this text is that fictional character claimed by Dostoevsky.

The author begins with the statement that he's sick, spiteful and unattractive, and that his "liver hurts". He says it might be something other than his liver but he refuses to see a doctor out of spite, though he's not certain who is being injured by that show of spite. The author was once in the civil service and says that he was mean simply because he was honest. Because he couldn't take a bribe, he allowed himself to be mean. On the occasion when someone showed a kindness—"some tea with a bit of sugar"—he'd calm down and later be angry with himself for it. After weaving this entire tale of meanness, the author says that he lied "out of sheer spite". The author admits that he had no real power—that he was merely "frightening sparrows to no purpose". He'd gnash his teeth and go on a tirade to a particular petitioner, but in the end he had no real authority.

In fact, the author says that he simply didn't have what it takes to become malicious. He says that he couldn't become mean or a hero or even lazy because a culture, learned man of the nineteenth century is "characterless". He holds the opinion that a man of strong character is limited. He then points out that he's not writing to amuse but will now move to the one topic everyone loves to talk about—himself.

The author writes that his life could be easier if he lived as the "men of action". He says then that some may think that he's just bragging, but that no one would brag on their own diseases or shortcomings. This writer notes that he often commits "vile" deeds, and that as he's trudging back to his own squalid apartment, he goes over those deeds in his mind. His question to his fellow man is whether others feel the same sense of pleasure over those vile deeds that he feels. The point, according to the author, is that you will not change yourself because you just can't do anything about it. The author notes that it's probably not clear at this point but that he's going to explain it all in good time.

The writer is absolutely not laying the blame off on anyone else. He says that he'll realize that he's in deep despair and then, if someone should slap him for his vile deed, he'll know full well that he is at fault for all of it. But, he says that he is at fault "through no fault of your own", because he is smarter than those around him—embarrassingly so. He says that it still rankles, even though the laws of nature are governing all the movements and actions.

It's interesting to note that the author says that a man of character is limited. He seems to be implying that a man who is of high morals, for example, is limited in his actions because he can't do something immoral. However, the author himself is limited because he is driven to take actions—and to avoid actions—that are not in keeping with his "characterless" nature. He'll put himself in situations that are only going to hurt him and others simply because he isn't able to take a stand. He'll put himself in debt just because of a perceived slight that the other person never even notices.

The author says that the pleasure he gets from the "vile" deeds is the knowledge that he's sunk to his lowest level. That's interesting because he seems to sink to another lowest level again and again. In this book alone, he'll describe several of these "vile" deeds of which he seems proud. And despite the fact that he's proud of his own vile deeds, he admits that his ego is as touchy as "a hunchback or a midget". The author then begins a discussion of the "laws of nature". This will lead into a discussion of free will.

This section contains 779 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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