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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 256

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a difficult book to summarize. It lacks a clear narrative and is more of a documentary and spiritual journey chronicling the experiences of a man sentenced to ten years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp for murdering his wife....

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The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a difficult book to summarize. It lacks a clear narrative and is more of a documentary and spiritual journey chronicling the experiences of a man sentenced to ten years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp for murdering his wife. Dostoyevsky actually spent time in a Siberian prison camp himself. This gives the reflections in House of the Dead a level of realism and depth that would likely be impossible otherwise.

The book is subtitled Prison Life in Siberia and this is, in essence, what it is a reflection on. While there is no straightforward story (in this sense, it's not really a novel) there are extremely detailed descriptions of daily life in the prison, the brutality of the guards, his prison-mates, and, through his narrator, a character from a bourgeois background with similar sensitivities to Dostoyevsky, the odd juxtaposition of a man from that class who finds himself in jail. At one point he ends up in the prison hospital and rather than helping him heal this experience ends up being more torturous than everyday life in prison. As mentioned, some of the character sketches and stories of fellow inmates are incredibly compelling and rich and surely reflect aspects of Dostoyevsky's personal experience.

In the very end of the book the narrator is freed from the prison, released from his chains. He ebulliently reflects that he can finally live again and has been "resurrected" from the existence of living death he experienced those many years.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535

The plot, a thinly veiled account of Fyodor Dostoevski’s four years in a Siberian military prison, has little of the usual narrative structure. Instead, the author presents a series of scenes of prison life, disguised as the memoirs of Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a wellborn young man who has served ten years at hard labor for killing his wife. In a sketchy frame story, an anonymous first-person narrator extols the many attractions of Siberian life, particularly in the small town where he met Goryanchikov, who was earning his living as a French tutor. The townspeople think the ex-prisoner a “terrible misanthrope,” perhaps even a crazy man. After Goryanchikov’s death, the narrator buys what remains of Goryanchikov’s papers from the tutor’s landlady. Among them is a bulky notebook, chiefly filled by prison memoirs: These the narrator offers for public judgment.

The main narrative begins as Goryanchikov arrives at the prison and depicts the grim fortress, containing about 250 prisoners from various classes of society, sent there for all sorts of crimes, criminal and political. After describing the stench, noise, and other terrible conditions of his barracks, he concludes, “Man is a creature who can get used to anything, and I believe that is the very best way of defining him.” Goryanchikov briefly catalogs the kinds of prisoners sent there, paying particular attention to the Special Class—prisoners with indefinite sentences even more harsh than their fellows’. In sum, Goryanchikov thinks himself in Hell, “the nethermost pit and the outer darkness.” The prisoners constantly fight, steal from one another—even Goryanchikov’s Bible is quickly taken—and are subject to the sadistic whims of the prison’s commandant, who has men flogged for the smallest offense. In this underworld, there is also underground activity: smuggling vodka, working to make money, even pawnbroking. Yet this first chapter ends on a curiously hopeful note: Goryanchikov recalls a small girl’s giving him a kopeck, “in Christ’s name.”

Goryanchikov next introduces characters who illustrate prison life, an existence for which nothing could have prepared him. Being of the gentility, for example, worked against him for nearly two years, the other convicts watching this gentleman’s sufferings with delight. Another Russian gentleman, Akim Akimovich, helps Goryanchikov understand their prejudice, which he has risen above by the strength of his character and his abilities as a craftsman. For the first two years, Goryanchikov finds himself “under the rule” of Akim Akimovich, who first warns him of the drunken major’s fits. After a long digression on prisoners smuggling vodka, Goryanchikov introduces Gazin, a Tartar of enormous strength who flies into murderous rages when drunk. On one of these, he accosts and nearly kills Goryanchikov, who ends his first full day in prison sadly considering the inequality of the prisoners’ punishments to their crimes, specifically the heavy flogging of prisoners for trivial offenses.

Lights out brings another description of two more aspects of prison life: the illegal plying of various crafts and the forbidden playing of cards. Goryanchikov also describes some of the other inmates of his barracks, focusing particularly upon Aley, a young Tartar, who exemplifies both the injustice of the penal system and the incredible ability of the human soul to survive it, relatively untouched and pure. Though a Muslim, Aley appreciates the word of Jesus. Goryanchikov contrasts him to another non-Christian,Isaiah Fomich Bumstein, a cunning Jew, the object of much fond amusement in the barracks. Continuing the character sketches, Goryanchikov sharply contrasts Sushilov and Aristov. Considered a fool, the former contents himself serving others, particularly Goryanchikov; the latter still practices what put him in prison: informing upon innocent people. A tool of the major, Aristov is atypical of the prisoners, among whom Goryanchikov eventually discovers a peculiar integrity, even honor. Goryanchikov sees that he himself has become one, legally and superficially, with these common people and meditates upon the importance of freedom, or its illusion, for the prisoners. It explains the sporadic binges during which they throw away all of their carefully hoarded money or the sudden violent outbursts from quiet men. He resolves neither to fear nor to pander to his fellows but to bear himself as simply and independently as possible. He closes the chapter describing his friendship with Sharik, a despised mongrel dog, whom he considers to be the only creature in the universe who loved him.

Sharik foreshadows Petrov, another creature who attaches himself to Goryanchikov. After noting the kinds of prison work he preferred—grinding gypsum, turning a lathe, shoveling snow—Goryanchikov singles out among his widening circle of acquaintances this man with whom he apparently has nothing in common. Others think him desperate and fearless, and Petrov readily admits to having stolen Goryanchikov’s Bible, yet Goryanchikov maintains a friendship with him, in part because of Petrov’s surprising intellectual curiosity.

The concluding chapters of part 1 cover the Christmas season. The prisoners are given a rare bath; paradoxically, the long-awaited event seems like a scene from Hell. On Christmas Eve and the feast day, the prisoners do little or no work. In their idleness, they painfully recall the holidays of their past, becoming unconsciously aware that observing this day brings them into contact with the rest of the world. Even in prison things are “the same as among real people.” After preparing for the feast and its religious observance, the men slowly turn disappointed, morose, quarrelsome. The grim post-holiday spirit lifts only on the third day after Christmas, when the prisoners put on a theatrical evening, described at some length—and with a critic’s eye—by Goryanchikov. He finds with surprise the normally hostile commoners deferring to him and salutes their ability to put aside their prejudices in search of his approval, claiming the gentility could learn from the common folk. He marvels at the skill of the musicians, asserts that the two principal actors are superior to those in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and meticulously describes the dramatic pieces, the audience’s response, and the air of pleasure which prevails among the prisoners. Indeed, their moral character seems temporarily changed by this brief break from prison routine. That night, Goryanchikov reflects upon these extraordinary days, his companions, and his environment. Momentarily overcome by terror, he consoles himself that he will not be there forever.

Part 2 opens with three chapters on the hospital, where Goryanchikov spent an unusual amount of time. Though marginally more comfortable, it contains suffering and death not seen in the barracks, particularly among those convicts, such as Orlov, who have run the gauntlet. He reflects upon the common prisoners’ reverence for the doctors, who temporarily shield them from such brutality. By contrast, he presents various officers who ordered or administered flogging, concluding that such punishment is “an ulcer on society” and that it destroys any civilization.

As summer approaches in Siberia, the men begin to long even more for freedom: The number of escape attempts dramatically increases in spring, as does Goryanchikov’s melancholy amid the general gladness and renewal in nature. The celebration of Easter is like that of Christmas, only sadder because the days are longer. More daylight also means more and heavier work, such as making bricks, the heaviest work of all. Yet Goryanchikov grows stronger by such work, and it takes him to the banks of the Irtysh River, from which he can see the “free, lonely steppes.”

The long days are enlivened only by events such as an impending inspector’s visit (which proves anticlimactic), the buying of a new horse (which prompts Goryanchikov to discuss other prison animals), and a prisoners’ grievance over the hard work and poor food (a protest that the common prisoners do not allow Goryanchikov to join). Primarily, however, Goryanchikov dreams of freedom and understands more fully the gulf between the common people and the gentility. He describes the other “gentleman exiles” and their relationship to the highest authorities, who sometimes temper the harshness inflicted by those beneath them. Goryanchikov’s birth and education occasionally obtain for him lighter duties, such as working as a clerk for the military. More tangible relief comes when the major is replaced for flogging an impudent ex-professor.

Describing the new prison regime, Goryanchikov recognizes that his loosely chronological summary of his first months in prison has touched upon all the important matters of his stay. To repeat these would only become monotonous and depressing. He even begins to distrust his own memory, except for his “passionate longing for resurrection, renewal, a new life.” Recollecting this longing for freedom leads to his final story, that of an abortive escape and the prisoners’ shifting response to it. The attempt occurs during Goryanchikov’s last year in prison, during which he realizes that he has many friends: The common people have at last accepted him. He gains new privileges, most important the right to read books and magazines which take him out of his torment. He also gains a new respect for the prisoners, whom he now regards as perhaps “the most highly gifted and strongest of all our people.” He has learned the value of freedom: When his fetters are at last removed, he calls it “a resurrection from the dead.”

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