Monday, October 22, 2012

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The House of the Dead

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested in 1849 for  being a member of the Petrashevky Circle and sentenced to death.  Granted a last second reprieve (he was about to be executed when the order arrived at the place of execution) he was sentenced to serve time at the prison camp in Omsk, Siberia.  He was released in 1854 and was fortunate to be given permission to return to St. Petersburg.  Without this permission, he would have spent the rest of his life in a town in Siberia, the fate of his "narrator" in the novel.

Perhaps to distance himself as far as possible from the story, Dostoyevsky has adopted the convention of an "editor" who is given a manuscript written by Goryanchikov, a former inmate of a convict prison in Siberia.  This manuscript, of course, is a first person narrative, which gives  the reader the sense of immediacy and the feel of actually being present in the prison.  The only other prison story that I have read so far that made me feel I was there was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  I recommend reading them together for an fascinating comparison of the Siberian prison camp under the tzars and  under the commissars.  Frankly I prefer the tzars' prison, for as beastly as life was then, it was still far more humane than under the commissars.

The narrator,  Goryanchikov,  was not a political prisoner as was Dostoyevsky, but like Dostoyevsky he was a nobleman.  He was in prison for killing his wife out of jealousy.   We never learn much about the details for Goryanchikov seems to want to put his former life behind him and seldom thinks about it.  His narrative is about his life in prison, including his reactions to this new and horrifying way of living and the people he meets there.  While there is some parts that focus on the prison staff--guards, administrators, doctors-- most of the narrative concentrates on his fellow prisoners.

Goryanchikov discovered shortly after arriving that he was hated by the majority of the convicts for he was a nobleman.  It wasn't personal; it was class hatred that set him apart.  And, it lasted, he reports, for his entire stay in prison, although it did ease off somewhat near the end of his sentence.  Some of the convicts even wished him well as he finished his sentence and was released.

The structure of the work is mostly chronological and follows a very logical plan.  The first days are treated in considerable detail, with the first weeks, then months, and the first year are dealt with in some detail, while the following years are given in less detail.  Significant events are covered in the latter parts of the narrative, such as his stay in the hospital.  The narrator also spends more time reflecting on issues brought up by his  experiences in prison:  the ideal prison administrator, the different types of guards, the psychological effects of whippings and beatings, the various personalities of his fellow convicts.

This is psychologically well-grounded as we all are far more observant when we are put into a new situation, and details are far more noticeable for their novelty.  As we become familiar with the situation, the novelty dissipates, which now gives us the freedom to step back and gain a larger perspective about our environment.  Moreover, prison life tends to be monotonous with most variety being provided by the convicts themselves and their interactions with each other.  After awhile this furnishes the only novelty in prison as prisoners leave, are transferred, or die and new ones arrive. Occasionally, a new administrator appears or a new guard or staff member arrives, which results in some minor changes, but for the most part, it will be the convicts themselves who provide whatever variety there is.

I found it a fascinating account of a horrifying situation and can only marvel at the adaptability of humans who can survive here.

Highly recommended--and as I mentioned above, this should be read along with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.


  1. Fred,

    I haven't read this book before. Is it soul-crushingly depressing? Do you feel like you've been put through a wringer after you're done reading it?

  2. Cheryl,

    No, it is not "soul-crushingly depressing." It's almost journalistic in its tone, at least for Dostoyevsky anyway. Dostoyevsky's "The Double" and "Poor People" are far more depressing than this work.