A note from the author introduces a fictional character known as the underground man, who the author says is “representative of the current generation,” and whose rambling notes will form the novella that is to follow. The underground man begins by telling the reader that he is a sick, spiteful, unattractive man. He says that he doesn’t know what he is sick with, but he refuses to be treated by doctors out of spite. He has been living underground for twenty years, but used to work in the civil service, where he was rude to anyone who came to his desk. He tells his readers that he is “neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect,” and says that no one of intelligence in the 19th century can be a man of action or character.
The underground man says that he is not to blame for being a bad person, but that his “overly acute consciousness” prevents him from taking action. He says that “being overly conscious is a disease.” He tells the reader that there are times when he wishes someone would slap him in the face, and says that he would neither be able to forgive someone who slapped him nor take revenge on him. Whereas less intelligent people act impulsively to get revenge, someone of “overly acute consciousness” has too many doubts and questions to take action. The underground man compares himself to a mouse that retreats “ignominiously back into its mousehole.” He says that men of action simply accept the laws of nature, science, and mathematics, thinking it impossible to protest that “two times two makes four.” By contrast, the underground man hates such facts.