Notes from the Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Student Question

In Notes From The Underground, why does the Underground Man treat Liza the way he does?

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In Notes from the Underground, the Underground Man treats Liza so poorly because she is a threat to his self-identify and to his belief system. The Underground Man views himself and all of humanity as hopelessly cruel, depraved, and savage. Liza's naivete, love, and beauty threaten to reveal the Underground Man's worldview as a carefully constructed illusion on which he has wasted his life.

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In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella, Notes from the Underground, the narrator (the Underground Man) treats Liza so poorly because she intensifies his self-loathing. Her physical and spiritual beauty stand in stark contrast to his feelings of ugliness.

Throughout the novella, the narrator excoriates himself for being unattractive and self-destructive, yet he remains falsely proud in his refusal to improve himself in any way. He finds it much easier and more comfortable to condemn himself and all of society as irrational animals, incapable of overcoming their impulses. As a defense mechanism, he treats others just as badly as he treats himself in order to avoid any honest self-appraisal. He describes his life at the age of twenty-four as “gloomy, ill-regulated, and as solitary as that of a savage. I made friends with no one.” The Underground Man’s fatalistic worldview is on full display when he states, “Every decent man of our age must be a coward and a slave. That is his normal condition.” Therefore he views others, including Liza, as irredeemable slaves to selfish desire and incapable of goodness. He feels unworthy of love and thus everybody else is unworthy, too.

If the Underground Man was to treat Liza kindly (as being worthy of love and compassion), he would be forced to see himself as someone whose despicability is a choice and not an inevitability. Liza causes him uncomfortable introspection:

It’s horrid that she should see … how I live. Yesterday I seemed such a hero to her, while now, h’m! It’s horrid, though, that I have let myself go so, the room looks like a beggar’s … And my American leather sofa with the stuffing sticking out. And my dressing gown, which will not cover me, such tatters. (Chapter VIII)

In much the same way Liza forces the Underground Man to confront his flaws, she is also forcing him to re-evaluate his view of the world. His reaction is self-defense, to banish her before his tightly held beliefs are stripped away. Due to his self-imposed isolation and complete misanthropy, his beliefs are all that he has left for comfort.

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