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The protagonist and central character of the book is the nameless narrator who resides in the "underground." He is a forty-year-old man who works in an office in St. Petersburg Russia for a man named Anton. He has lived in isolation and alienation for some twenty years, ever since he went to work for the government.
The narrator admits that he is a bitter, stubborn, and spiteful man. He explains that he was orphaned as a child and sent away to school by his relatives, who did not love him. At school, he became a loner, hated and taunted by his classmates. Because he had no friends, he spent his time reading and thinking, activities he has pursued throughout his life.
As an adult, the narrator has no ability to relate to another human being. He blames the isolation of his underground existence on the fact that he is very intelligent and acutely conscious, traits that render him unable to take action. He resents those people who take control of their lives and carry through with their goals. He claims that they are able to act because they have limited intelligence.
The narrator passes much of his free time in daydreams. When he tires of imagining things, he actually emerges from his underground isolation to pursue a series of debaucheries. After his escapades, he always feels degraded and quickly returns to his world of fantasy.
Although the underground man claims he has no need for human contact, throughout the book he proves that he does. Even though he is not friends with his boss, Anton, he often goes to visit him on Tuesdays, when he holds an open house. During the visits, he is always ignored. The narrator also sometimes goes to visit Simonov, an old classmate; but Simonov does not care for the narrator and often treats him with disdain. During one visit, the narrator learns that there is to be a farewell for another classmate, Zverkov. He invites himself to the party, even though the others discourage him. At the dinner, he is treated poorly and reacts by being even ruder himself. When the other guests adjourn to go to a brother, he insists upon joining them.
It is at the brothel that the narrator meets Liza, a quiet, young girl who has been forced into prostitution by her uncaring parents. Even though he does not admit it to himself and treats her shabbily, he feels some emotion for Liza. He gives her his address and tells her to come and see him if she needs help. As soon as he leaves her, he regrets having given her his address and worries for days that she will arrive on his doorstep.
After unnecessarily worrying about Liza for weeks, the narrator begins to fantasize about her. He imagines falling in love with her and asking her to live with him. In turn, she worships him. Then one day the real Liza appears on his doorstep. The narrator is horrified that she sees him living in poverty and dressed in ragged clothes. Now that the fantasy is replaced with reality, he can only strike out at the girl with tyranny and cruelty. He belittles her for coming and for letting him and others have power over her. When she finally leaves, he presses money into her hand as an insult.
Liza, however, has the last word. She leaves the crumpled money on the narrator's table. When he spies it, he goes out in search of Liza, but never finds her or sees her again. He says he has written her story after more than fifteen years in order to purge himself of the memories of her and to punish himself for mistreating the only person who ever showed real kindness and compassion to him.
At the end of the book, the narrator reminds his imaginary audience that he is an antihero, possessing no goodness or likable traits. He even states that he does not have "what it takes to live a real life." Now that his book is complete, he can return to his miserable and alienated underground existence.
PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Notes from Underground is told to an imaginary audience; it is written in first person and in a confessional mode. The book is divided into two distinctive parts, both told by an unnamed narrator who calls himself the "underground man." In Part I, there is virtually no action; instead, the narrator seeks to intellectually explain and justify his underground thoughts and existence. In Part II, the narrator gives a detailed flashback to his earlier life, concentrating on his encounter with a prostitute named Liza and the events that led up to their two meetings. In essence, the first part of the book talks about the general issues of the day in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the second part relates a "sentimental tale" about how the narrator has mistreated a pitiful, young prostitute who cares about him. The two parts totally complement one another.
Since Dostoevsky calls the book "Notes," it is not surprising that the story is loosely held together in content and time. Since all of Part II is a flashback to a time fifteen to twenty-five years earlier, the tale is not chronological in order. There is also a great difference between the content of the two parts; the first section is largely expository, relating the narrator's thoughts about his underground existence. The second part has a loose narrative story line, but it does nor fully develop the classic structure of rising action, climax, and falling action. The book, however, is tightly held together by the constant presence of the protagonist, who serves as the first-person narrator of the story. It is also unified by place, for the entire story takes place in and around the narrator's home in St. Petersburg, Russia. The only exception in the location is during the flashback, when the narrator talks about being orphaned and sent away to school.
The arrangement of the book is very effective. In the first part, the narrator explains his personality and gives his thoughts on living underground. In the second part, he describes some significant events in his life, and the reader can see how his thinking in Part I has influenced his actions in Part II. By the end of the book, the imaginary audience created by the narrator, as well as the reader of the book, is totally convinced that the narrator is a disturbed, spiteful, and alienated antihero.
THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
The major theme of the book is the pain and misery of living "underground" in a psychological state of isolation. The unnamed narrator states that he has chosen to live an alienated existence, for he suffers from acute consciousness and disagrees with the scientific approach to living that is in existence in his time in St. Petersburg. In truth, the narrator has no idea how to relate to other humans, for he was orphaned at an early age and sent away to a school where he was treated with mockery and disdain.
The narrator's underground existence is very bleak. He does not enjoy his office job and has no relationship with his co-workers. Even though he occasionally goes to the open houses held by his boss on Tuesdays, he is always ignored there. Usually, however, the narrator spends his free time in reading, thinking, and daydreaming. When he tires of these pursuits, he emerges from the underground to seek various debaucheries, which make him feel unclean and evil. When the narrator returns to his miserable and alienated "underground" existence, he is even more spiteful and unhappy than before. Unfortunately, since he is not a man of action, due to his heightened intellectual level, he can do nothing to permanently break out the underground. Since he knows that he has no escape, the narrator has convinced himself that he finds pleasure in his pain and misery.