The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Part 1: Chapter 2 Summary

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Aleksandr explains that while his later days in the prison are foggy in his mind, his first impressions are still vivid. At first, he does not understand why the prison is so bad, since the labor does not seem too hard. Ultimately, however, he realizes that what makes the labor hard is that the men have no choice about doing it. Another difficult aspect of living in the prison is that the men are forced to live all together at all times, no matter how they feel about one another.

He describes his first morning in the prison and a confrontation between two men in the barracks. It seems that they are going to get into a fight, but what he discovers is that although there are many quarrels, the men hardly ever physically fight one another. They do, however, enjoy cursing one another at length in creative terms. When Aleksandr first arrives, the other convicts play many tricks on him, exploiting the fact that he is a nobleman with money. Noblemen, Aleksandr says, have a particularly difficult time in the prison because the others look down on them and hate them. There are a few other noblemen in the prison, some Polish and some Russian like Aleksandr. He tells of a Russian nobleman named Akim Akimych, who behaves oddly but is respected and feared by the others in the prison.

On one of Aleksandr’s first days in the prison, some women come in and flirt with some of the men. They turn out to be sex workers whom the convicts sometimes patronize, when they can afford to. Aleksandr leaves and goes to dinner, and he describes the scene. Some of the convicts are eating food paid for with their own money while others try to persuade them to share it. Drinking tea with a Polish nobleman, Aleksandr unintentionally attracts the attention of those who want to share the food, who ask for some of his tea. Then a boy selling kalatches (a type of pastry) comes in and tells them that one of the convicts, Gazin, has gotten drunk and started to fight people.

Wanting to understand the conditions of the prison, Aleksandr asks his Polish nobleman companion why the others seemed to resent his drinking tea. It is not the tea they resent, the Polish man tells him, but the nobility.

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Part 1: Chapter 3 Summary