The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Part 2: Chapter 5 Summary

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Spring comes and with it a great restlessness in the men as they dream of escape. A few, Aleksandr says, do manage to escape from the Siberian prisons. Some of these men become vagrants, living a difficult but free life. Most, however, are recaptured and receive a longer sentence. Because of this, men who have not yet been sentenced or have not been in prison for long are more likely to escape. By contrast, those who have been there for years view those years as a kind of investment that will pay off when they finish their sentences.

The prisoners observe Lent but in a very different fashion than Aleksandr is used to, which leads him to reflect further on his suffering as a nobleman in the prison. In order to take communion, they visit the village church in shifts. For Easter itself, a priest comes to the prison for the service, and the men are able to relax for a day.

Aleksandr explains the tasks the men do in summer, which are more physically demanding than the winter tasks. Bricklaying is the most challenging, but Aleksandr enjoys hauling the bricks because it helps him to build his physical strength. Tiring himself out is also a benefit of those tasks, allowing him to sleep well, which is difficult in summer.

Energized by the summer weather, the men are also more quarrelsome at this time. A rumor spreads that the major is going to be fired. Adding an exciting tidbit, one man tells them that a great inspector is coming to see the prison. They hope that this general will fire the major, and plan to make a complaint about him.

As it turns out, there really is a high-ranking general coming to inspect the prison. The major causes the men to tidy the place and institutes greater discipline. When one prisoner stabs another during this time, the major is excited. (Aleksandr explains that the stabbing happened because the stabber was convicted for a crime that the man he stabbed had actually committed.) The major provides the stabbed man with care and assigns a harsh punishment to the attacker, seeming content with the opportunity to do this.

During the days just before the general’s visit, the men themselves are made to tidy up their appearances. Rehearsals for the visit are also held. In the end, the visit is perfunctory and uneventful. The general is so grand, however, that the idea of making a complaint to him seems impossible once he actually visits.

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Part 2: Chapter 6 Summary