Between 1850 and 1854, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) spent four long, punishing years in a Siberian prison-stockade. During this time he lived cheek-by-jowl with a motley collection of prisoners from the Russian peasantry, a few convicts from among the Russian educated class or “gentry”, and one other member of the Petrashevsky group of liberals and radicals. These prison-years in Siberia, as Dostoevsky himself stressed later, were of decisive importance in his life and resulted in what he called the “transformation of his conviction”.1 The experience garnered in these years changed Dostoevsky from an opponent to a supporter of Czarism, and finally consolidated his faith in Christ and in the Christian God who transcended the bounds of reason. A clear understanding of what happened to Dostoevsky during these crucial years would, accordingly, would go a long way to explain many of the baffling and still enigmatic features of the creative universe of his great novels.2
This novel was published in 1860 during a brief thaw in the strict censorship of the time. The House of the Dead at first positions itself as a novel, with an elaborate editorial framing device designed to mollify the censor and other critics. The work is presented as a manuscript left among the papers of a former prisoner. Behind the ‘I’ of Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, imprisoned for 10 years for murdering his wife, (he serves as a narrator in the novel) hides the ‘I’ of Dostoevsky, imprisoned for 4 years for a political crime. This initial narrative masking creates up a certain freedom, allowing Dostoevsky to describe objectively and in detail the life of the prison without making it appear as a political act, or an overt attack on the system itself. The novelistic mask soon slips; however, as it emerges that, unlike a novel, there is no plot, no ‘setting’ and no ‘characters’.
The autobiographical and documentary now come to the fore. The writing is characterized by a clinical objectivity. Phrases such as, It is a fact that…. abound. We are given detailed descriptions of the social structure of the prison, the economics of the prison, the squalid living conditions, the daily routine, the excessive brutality of the punishments, the grueling labor, utterly relentless and crushing boredom, and the lice-ridden latrine-stinking overcrowding. Like modern oral historiography, we are given some of the convict’s stories, from their own mouths, with little or no ‘authorial’ interference or comment. The emphasis is on facts. The (melo)drama and theatricality of Dostoevsky’s previous work is entirely absent, even in the stories told by the convicts of their crimes, and in the descriptions of the punishments meted out to them for infractions of prison regulations, and the outbreaks of sudden violence that characterize prison life. Everything is understated and downplayed, and left to speak for itself. There is none of the angry hectoring of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), for example, or the biting sarcasm of Victor Hugo (1802-1885), those other great reforming zealots of the 19th century who were such huge influences on early Dostoevsky.
At the same time, the book addresses a number of philosophical problems:
1. The inequality of punishment for the same crime
2. The gap between appearance and reality and how to interpret reality
3. The effect on the character of judicial brutality, both on those who administer it, and those who suffer under it
4. The nature of freedom
5. The nature of philanthropy
6. The importance of hope
These themes run like threads throughout the narrative but appear with more frequency and intensity towards the end of the second half, where we can understand them more because we have, like the narrator, spent more time in the prison, and are able to understand it better.3
This novel mirrors several of the horrifying experiences he witnessed while in prison. He recalls the guards’ brutality and relish in performing unspeakably cruel acts, the crimes that the convicted criminals committed, and the fact that tousled amongst these great brutes were good and decent individuals.4 However, he also displays admiration for the convicts’ abilities to commit murders without the slightest change in conscience. It was a stark contrast of him and his high sensitivity levels. It was during his time in prison that he first began experiencing his epileptic seizures. House of the Dead led Dostoevsky to include the theme of murder in his later works, a theme not found in any of his works preceding House of the Dead.5
The theme of murder was prevalent in The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment. It seems rather obvious that his time in prison had a major influence on these three masterpieces. In fact, in Brothers Karamazov, the reader is able to enter into the life of Karamazov family and experience the dynamics of this family; however, this novel is largely a murder mystery. In The Idiot, Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin ends up killing the woman he claimed that he loved. The main event in Crime and Punishment is the murder of a pawnbroker by Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. The rest of the novel shows his descent into madness.
To his contemporary readers, Dostoyevsky appeared as a writer primarily interested in the terrible aspects of human existence. However, later critics have recognized that the novelist sought to plumb the depths of the psyche, in order to reveal the full range of the human experience, from the basest desires to the most elevated spiritual yearnings. Above all, he illustrated the universal human struggle to understand God and self. Dostoyevsky was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, “a being who loved, in spite of everything, adored life, even while he knew the dank, dark places.”6
Not every person who has been incarcerated became known as geniuses, but this is certainly true in Dostoevsky’s case. He was a member of the intellectual community in St. Petersburg prior to his imprisonment and went on to become known as one of the greatest Russian authors of all time.
1) The Russian word originally translated as “transformation” is pererozhdenie which carries the religious implication of rebirth or regeneration.
2) Dostoevsky: The House of the Dead by Joseph Frank in The Swanee Review, Vol. 2, 1966, p. 25.
3) “Notes from House of the Dead by Dostoevsky” http://thelectern.blogspot.com/2009/02/impression-made-by-reality-is-always.html
4) "Fyodor Dostoyevsky." Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2011. http://www.britannica.com/ (accessed 5/9/12)
5) Dostoevsky, Fyodor Memoirs from House of the Dead (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. xii. First English translation in 1956.
6) “Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)” http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/dostoevskybio.html#_thehouseofthedead (accessed 5/10/12)