The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Part 1: Introduction–Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Introduction

The narrator describes the attractions of living in a small Siberian town. In such a town, the narrator once met a man named Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former convict who had been imprisoned for murdering his wife out of jealousy. At the time of their meeting, Aleksandr Petrovich is making a living by giving private foreign language lessons in the town. After observing him further, the narrator becomes increasingly curious about him and goes to visit him, but the former convict refuses to socialize with him. Then the narrator learns that Aleksandr has died. Aleksandr’s former landlady gives the narrator some material written by the former convict, including a large exercise book filled with a recounting of his time in prison. The narrator decides that he is going to share some chapters from this story.

Chapter 1

Aleksandr, now the narrator because we are reading the story written in the notebook, describes the appearance of the prison and its layout. At night, the men have to return to their barracks, which are noisy and uncomfortable. The prison, he says, is a place where one must learn patience.

The narration lays out the three categories of convicts in the prison, classified according to their background and the type of crimes they committed. The men have all kinds of crimes in their past, but it is rare for them to tell the stories of those crimes. Describing what the men have in common, Aleksandr says they almost all keep to the same prideful, sullen, unshakable mode of behavior. Vanity is important above all else. The men do not regret their crimes or acknowledge responsibility.

Certain men among them are stronger, and Aleksandr tells the story of one who was to be whipped, who had been so many times before, but this time one could tell he was going to resist. At the last minute, he was reprieved. This, Aleksandr says, is an example of how some men will endure for years and then finally explode, unable to restrain themselves any longer. Prison, he argues, does not reform anyone, but merely punishes them and withers their souls. Yet some crimes must be punished with prison, such as the hideous murder that one of his fellow prisoners committed, brutally killing his own father.

The men resent their labor for the prison itself, but they also do their own work at night, producing all kinds of goods which they trade in. They make money, which they typically spend on smuggled vodka. Sometimes, their money and tools are confiscated, but the secret economy continues nonetheless. They also steal from one another. Their other way of making money is the alms that people sometimes give them.

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Part 1: Chapter 2 Summary