(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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 entire section is 1535 words.)