Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The House of the Dead was originally published in Vremia (The Time), a magazine Dostoevski was editing: The serial publication perhaps encouraged the narrative’s loose structure. Dostoevski takes advantage of it to enter into numerous “digressions” which are as significant as Goryanchikov’s own story, though a contemporary reader may find them distracting, even as monotonous as prison life itself. The writer remains remarkably detached as he describes the horrors of prison life, though clearly Dostoevski himself was profoundly affected by it. When the tone does become more emotional, the reader senses more readily the importance of the topic.

As the discussions of plot and character indicate, much of Dostoevski’s meaning is conveyed through his character sketches. The centrality of freedom to human dignity, the inherent strength and integrity of the Russian common man, the terrible injustices wrought by the penal system, the importance of Christianity as a response to a nightmarish existence—all these ideas are embodied in figures such as Akim Akimovich, Sushilov, the major, and, finally, Goryanchikov as he develops through the narrative. While only sketchily developed, the narrator of the frame story also contributes to the main story’s meaning. His sympathetic but uncomprehending interest in Goryanchikov and his superficial, “progressive” outlook underscore Dostoevski’s criticism of liberal, “Western” notions intruding into Russian culture.

The narrative outlines a descent into hell and a “resurrection” or return to the world. At points, such as the bath scene and the description of Christmas, the author’s Dantesque intent becomes clear. Yet with no Vergil to guide him and no imposed structure, such as the circles of the Inferno, Goryanchikov must rely upon repetition of the central themes. With a censor to get around, the former radical Dostoevski must rely on the reader to infer the author’s anger at the prison system; the book itself never explicitly calls for penal reform. Rather, it focuses upon the system’s horrors and the prisoners’ remarkable physical and spiritual resilience.