The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Part 1: Chapter 4 Summary

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Aleksandr reflects on the way that the people who work in the prison think about the convicts. They have, he says, an exaggerated fear of them, one that the convict’s nature does not justify. A convicted criminal is not likely to commit violence. Someone awaiting trial, however, will sometimes commit violence simply to delay their trial. To defer a flogging, a prisoner may go to the hospital, where sympathetic doctors treat him better than any other worker in the prison. Eventually he must be discharged, however, and the frightened men will often drink a great deal of vodka, hoping that the feared flogging will be less painful. The exception is a convict named Orlov, who fears nothing. He is a cold-blooded murderer who remains confident that he will escape and reclaim his life, even after he is almost killed by flogging.

Aleksandr then discusses the way that the men’s behavior changes when the barracks door is locked at night. They turn to work or play, making themselves at home. In great detail, Aleksandr describes how gambling works in the prison, including the system for trying to keep the guards from finding out. Then he describes some of his fellow prisoners, first saying more about Akim Akimych and why he does not like the precise, pedantic man.

At more length, he speaks of a few mountain tribesmen, Muslims from western Asia. One of them, Nurra, is called “lion” because of his friendly, cheerful attitude. He is religiously devout and peaceable. Three others, from a different area, are brothers. During his time in the prison, Aleksandr becomes close with Aley, who is much the youngest of the three. The young man is pure-hearted and affectionate. After bonding with him over Aley’s longing for home, Aleksandr offers to teach the young man to read and write in Russian, which Aley gladly agrees to. As he reminisces in writing, Aleksandr is haunted by the question of where and how Aley is now.

Moving on to talk about the Polish prisoners, Aleksandr’s fellow noblemen, Aleksandr first reflects on why it is harder to be a nobleman in the prison than one of the commoners. A nobleman is trapped in an environment that does not fit his nature, forced to abandon parts of himself. These Polish men, however, did not make friends with Aleksandr. Of all the prisoners, they only liked the one Jewish man, whom the Polish men and Aleksandr both seem to find amusing. The narration briefly lists the identities of the other prisoners in Aleksandr’s barracks before describing his attempt to sleep on that painful first day.

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Part 1: Chapter 5 Summary