The Underground Man—anonymous narrator and anti-hero of the novella. He is a civil servant with an inferiority complex. He is situated in 19th century St. Petersburg. He is full of contradictions. In his first person narrative he pretends that he thinks of himself as brilliant and capable, yet in the events described he is anything but that.
Simonov—A former schoolmate of the narrator. He is the only social contact for the narrator. Though he seems innocuous, the underground man is suspicious of him.
Zverkov—A former schoolmate of Simonov (and by extension, the narrator). He is an officer in the army and is popular. The underground man hated Zverkov during their school days. He was really jealous—and charges Zverkov with being gross. Zverkov has money which the underground man lacks.
Trudolyubov—Another former schoolmate of the narrator and a distant relation to Zverkov. He is not actively mean to the narrator, yet he admires “success” and views the narrative as a “failure.”
Apollon—The narrator’s elderly servant. He is also a tailor. The narrator keeps failing to pay his servant because he spends his money on other things. He also is in a “master-slave” dynamic with the servant.
Anton Antonych Setochkin—He is the narrator’s boss in the department of the ministry. He is the closest thing the underground man has as a friend. He occasionally lends the narrator money. Occasionally, the narrator visits him at his home on Tuesdays.
The Officer—A military officer who treats the narrator rudely in an incident at the tavern and is thus transposed as an object of general hatred by the narrator. He is everything the narrator is not: strong, confident, well off, and socially accepted.
Liza—A young prostitute who was sold to a brothel by her father. She has to pay off that debt. She acts detached from events around her and after having sex with the narrator, he fills her with thoughts about marriage and another life. She comes to his place a few days later only to be rebuffed by the narrator.
The plot is divided in half. In the first part (or note) depicts the narrator around the age of 40. This is largely a philosophical rant. Like Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, resentment is the main character. The narrator hates the era of his life and his circumstances. He rants against both the society and his position within it. He longs for power, but is impotent.
The second note is entitled: “Apropos of the West Snow.” This note has a story attached. It begins as a flashback to his twenties when he was supposed to be making it in the world. But instead, he is a failure. He is not attuned to the mores of his country. While walking in the park he unsure whether to yield to a soldier, who is a stranger. Nothing is as it seems.
Then there is the failure of the dinner which he crashes with some of his former schoolmates (who don’t really like him). He thinks he is entitled. But he drinks too much (more than he can afford) and makes himself ridiculous.
Then he is drawn into a brothel and talks to the new prostitute, Liza. She was sold by her father and she cannot be free until she pays her father’s fee. The narrator spouts platitudes to her to make her want to leave her profession. He gives her his address on a small piece of paper. She comes by in a few days and then she takes pity on him as she sees the poverty in which he lives. He gets angry and she leaves. Ironically, she might have been just the person who could have been his salvation while he could have been hers.
The underground man cannot act. He even wants to continue writing his notes, but even fails to do that. In the eyes of any society he is a loser. But whose fault is it? Therein lies the interpretation of the tale.
Themes: Freewill and determinism is the predominant theme. Determinism seems to win, but why? Is it merely social? How much responsibility do we have for getting rid of our resentment and exerting our power to act? This puts a Nietzsche twist to the tale, which I think fits. Here “power” is not power over others but power to execute freewill and to see things clearly. These are necessary for authentic living, but they are lacking in the narrator.
Assessment: The central character is either pitiable or despicable—maybe a little of each. He is full of self-pity yet he does not act when he has the chance (via Liza) to extricate from his lonely, solipsistic existence. The novella is a form that allows the author a single focus—much like a lyrical poem. In this way Dostoevsky has accomplished his task.
Attempt: 4.0/ Accomplished: 4.0