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The protagonist of the book is the unhappy, nameless narrator, who is a forty-year-old man living in St. Petersburg, Russia. Living in self-imposed isolation, he calls himself "the underground man" and describes himself as a "deliberate collection of all the traits for an anti-hero."
The narrator's antagonist is himself - his negative thinking and his self-destructive nature.
Liza's appearance at the narrator's door is the climax of the book. In a fit of emotion, he had given her his address and offered to help her. He quickly regretted what he had done and feared that Liza would actually call upon him. He dreaded having to face her in his pathetic poverty and wondered what he would do when she knocked on his door. When she comes to his house, the narrator handles the situation poorly.
The novel ends in tragedy, for at the end of the book, the narrator is more miserable than ever, having missed his only chance for a relationship with another human being. When Liza calls upon the narrator to seek his help, he treats her with anger and scorn, mocking her naiveté in believing his offers of help. He then has sex with her, gives her some money, and forces her to leave as an utterly broken and miserable woman. After Liza departs, the narrator is continually hounded by misery and regret over the vile way in which he has treated the girl. When he writes the book many years later, he is still hounded by the horrible memory of how he treated Liza.
SHORT PLOT / CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The underground man, who is the unnamed narrator of the book, begins his story with self-confession, describing himself as a sick and spiteful man. He blames his misery and inability to become someone worthwhile on the fact that he suffers from excessive consciousness. He also confesses that he has lived a barren and negative existence for so long that he now takes pleasure in pain, torment, and humiliation.
The narrator claims that he has sought self-definition, but failed in his search. He has longed for human relationships, even reaching out to some of his old classmates, but had none. He has sought stimulation, but has been unable to find any. As a result, he spends his time reading books and fantasizing about his existence.
The narrator is full of criticism of others. Since he is incapable of taking action himself, he mocks those that do, saying they possess limited intelligence. He also rants and raves against people who operate by means of logic, reason, and common sense.
Several times in the book, the narrator does try to reach out to others. He contacts one of his old classmates, Simonov, and actually visits him several times. It is during one of his visits that he learns of a farewell dinner being planned for Zverkov, another old schoolmate. He forces them to invite him, and at the dinner, he is mocked by all present. Feeling humiliated, he insults everyone present at the dinner. At the end of the evening, the narrator is left behind as the rest of the men proceed to a brothel. Filled with thoughts of revenge, the narrator follows them and finds Liza, a young and despairing prostitute. He begins by tormenting her, but then gives her his address and tells her to come to him for help.
The narrator quickly regrets his foolishness in having given Liza his address and fears that she may actually call upon him. When she does come to him, he humiliates and rejects her, driving her away an utterly broken woman. After she is gone, he feels sad and miserable about how he has treated Liza; he justifies his actions by stating that he could never care about anyone. As he writes the book, the narrator is still haunted by his behavior towards Liza, for he has missed his one opportunity to do good or have a relationship with another human being.
The major theme in the book is the misery caused when a person feels alienated and isolated from the world. The central character of the book, the underground man, has divorced himself from society, from reality, and even at times from himself. Since he has never felt love or found acceptance, he has become inhuman, inspiring mockery or hatred in everyone he encounters. Because he lives in the big, impersonal city of St. Petersburg, it is easy for him to hide away from life, living in an underground world of fantasy and misery.
The minor theme of the book is the power of mankind to inflict destruction and despair. The underground man inflicts pain on Liza when he offers to help her and then rejects her; after having sex with her when she comes to his house, he sends her away a crushed and broken woman. The narrator also inflicts pain and destruction on himself. Ironically, the pain of his self-destruction makes him feel alive.
The mood of the entire book is dark and gloomy. The narrator, who suffers from a sense of alienation and isolation, portrays the misery he inflicts on himself and others throughout the story.