Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 266
The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a quasi-autobiographical novel originally published serially in the journal Vremya in 1860-1862. It reflects Dostoevsky's own experiences in a Siberian prison camp as the result of his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle in the 1840s, a group that Nicholas I considered potentially revolutionary. The title reflects the fact that Dostoevsky himself had been sentenced to death, although the sentence was later commuted to imprisonment.
The story has a narrative frame in which a nameless narrator arrives in a small town in Siberia where he meets Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, an ex-convict who is employed as a French tutor. The narrator's positive description of Siberia contrasts with what we later discover to be grim underside of Siberian life, namely the prison camp in which Goryanchikov was interred.
The main body of the novel is framed as a memoir found by the narrator after Goryanchikov dies. The memoir details life in prison including the brutality of the guards, the ways in which socioeconomic status becomes inverted in a prison setting, and the eventual extremes of nobility and cruelty found among the inmates. It also shows how Goryanchikov himself evolves as a person, becoming more peaceful and inner-directed in response to difficult external circumstances.
An especially important element of the novel is the way in which Goryanchikov discovers great artistic talent, intelligence, and authenticity among the convicts. This is something that shows the nobility at the heart of Russia. It can be found in the outcasts and outsiders and was missing from the aristocratic culture in which Goryanchikov had lived earlier.
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