The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Part 1: Chapter 5 Summary

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During his first few days in the prison, Aleksandr reflects that he may someday become so used to the conditions that he will miss it when he leaves. He is frightened of many people but quickly appreciates those who are willing to be friendly. Because he has money, Aleksandr is able to buy food. He describes his relationship with Osip, the cook, who is friendly but not conversational. Another such person is Sushilov, who designates himself to be Aleksandr’s servant.

The tale of Sushilov is a sad one, Aleksandr says. For committing a minor crime, he was sentenced to work in a settlement in Siberia, not a prison. However, he fell victim to the practice of “swapping names,” in which a criminal with a more severe sentence persuades someone with a less severe sentence to pretend to be him. Usually the latter is paid a substantial sum to do so, but Sushilov is mocked by the others because he traded his name for a red shirt and a single silver coin. Though Sushilov serves Aleksandr for a long time, Aleksandr continues to find him enigmatic, as he does many of the others.

One of the people whose presence made it harder for him to understand prison life was a conscienceless convict whose name Aleksandr gives only as “A—v.” Before prison, A—v was already utterly amoral, but once convicted, he took that as an excuse to do whatever he wanted. A—v’s destructive behavior appalls Aleksandr, who initially comes to believe (incorrectly) that all the convicts are like him.

Returning to the conditions of his early days, Aleksandr describes how he came to have bedding instead of sleeping on a mere plank. Though he once had access to the grandest textiles as a nobleman, he now sleeps on material made of other convicts’ worn-out clothes.

Explaining why money is so important in the prison, Aleksandr illustrates how it gives the convicts an illusion of control over their lives. When they spend their money, they are temporarily able to do what they want, or at least to believe they are doing what they want to do. However, Aleksandr says, the sense of restraint can build up to a sudden destructive outburst in anyone, even after years of peaceful existence in the prison. It would be better to keep anyone from reaching this point, but, he asks, “How can this be done?”

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Part 1: Chapter 4 Summary

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Part 1: Chapter 6 Summary