The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Part 1: Chapter 3 Summary

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A drunken Gazin bursts into the kitchen where Aleksandr has been drinking tea. As narrator, Aleksandr begins to explain the conditions that allowed the convicts to obtain alcohol, starting with their ability to make and keep money. There is a digression to describe the gentle man called “granddad,” imprisoned for burning down a church, and how all the men entrust him with their money so it will not be stolen. Returning to his original topic, Aleksandr describes how the men saved up money and then spent it all at once. They bought new clothes, rich food, and most of all, vodka.

Aleksandr explains the process by which vodka gets into the prison. Initially, a prisoner called a “barman” decides to deal in vodka and starts smuggling it into the prison. Once he has money, he hires assistants to take on the risk of smuggling for him. After a detailed explanation of exactly how the smuggling is carried out, Aleksandr moves on to talk about the customers who buy vodka from the “barman.” A convict who has decided to binge will spend all his money on vodka, even pawning the new clothes he has just bought. Others decide to spend their money on feasts, or on women, or both.

The narration shifts to describe a soft-spoken young man, Sirotkin, who does not do his own work and behaves in a childlike fashion. At one point in Aleksandr’s imprisonment, he and Sirotkin are both in the hospital, and he asks Sirotkin what he had done to be classed among the most serious offenders. It turns out that Sirotkin was a military recruit who murdered his commanding officer because he found life under him unbearable. In the prison, Sirotkin was on friendly terms with Gazin, whose story Aleksandr now returns to.

Everyone in the prison is frightened of Gazin, who periodically becomes drunk and rageful. They find that the only way to deal with him is to give him a terrible beating, one that would kill another man. On the day when Gazin comes drunk into the kitchen, Aleksandr’s first day in the prison, he nearly murders Aleksandr for drinking tea, and the others do not interfere, because they hate noblemen so much. Gazin is distracted at the last minute, and Aleksandr is saved.

Aleksandr takes a sorrowful walk around the prison after dark. He is troubled because two people who committed the same crime will both be imprisoned for it, with similar punishments, even if one person has extenuating circumstances and the other simply commits the crime for fun. Some, too, commit crimes purposefully in order to be imprisoned, because the prison is more inviting than the life they lived on the outside.

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Part 1: Chapter 4 Summary