The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a quasi-autobiographical novel published serially in Vremya, a literary journal, from 1860 to 1862. It reflects the author's first-hand 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 bleak reality that Dostoevsky had originally been sentenced to death, although officials commuted the sentence to long-term imprisonment in a psychologically-traumatizing mock execution. The book shares several themes with other examples of prison literature, inevitably so given the confined space in which the action takes place. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky's characteristic subtlety and psychological depth ensure that The House of the Dead stands apart from the genre.

The novel has an embedded narrative framework, meaning the larger story is housed within an initial and arguably less important story. In the beginning, the novel follows the arrival of the nameless first narrator to a small town in Siberia. There, he meets Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, an ex-convict employed as a French tutor. The nameless narrator’s commentary on the bucolic nature of the Siberian countryside, which he glowingly recommends to readers, is harshly juxtaposed with Aleksandr’s knowledge of the grim underside of life in Siberia. When Aleksandr dies, the narrator retrieves his papers; the narrative authority switches and Aleksandr begins to tell his story. The bleak contrast between the narrators and their understanding of their environment becomes immediately apparent, and readers understand that life in Siberia is complex and difficult to navigate. 

From this narrative shift, the main body of the novel turns into a memoir. Framed as the recorded recollections of Aleksandr’s time in prison, the memoir details the brutal and dehumanizing details of his sentence, including the violence of the guards, the complexity of socioeconomic status, and the strange sociocultural conventions that guide interactions between inmates. In discussing these facts, Aleksandr speaks of contemporary life more generally: he builds dialogues revealing the pain of class disparity, the prominence of poverty and suffering, and the traumatizing external facts of life in Russia at the time. Through Aleksandr—essentially a self-insert character for Dostoevsky—readers gain a sense of the social, economic, and cultural fragmentations occurring and understand the somewhat subversive sentiments that landed him in prison in the first place. 

Moreover, the story is a tale of evolution: Aleksandr gains a new sense of his position in prison and the world. This leads him to become more peaceful and internally directed in response to difficult external circumstances. He is an open-minded man who attempts to speak objectively and without judgment, traits that his time in prison seemingly honed. In part, his evolution should be attributed to his time with the inmates, who were nearly all of a lower social class than he. The experiences, crimes, and life histories of his fellow prisoners act as a compelling and didactic means of teaching Aleksandr and readers alike how to live with humble authenticity. Praising the peasantry or “the common man” was a contemporarily popular theme, and Dostoevsky leaned on it heavily. Aleksandr praises the artistic talent, intelligence, and authenticity often among the convicts, and he sees in these outcasts and outsiders the noble values he feels are lacking in modern Russia. 

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