The House of the Dead Characters
The main characters in The House of the Dead include the nameless narrator, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, and Sushilov.
- The nameless narrator is a man who recovered the writings of a former convict he had met while teaching in a remote Siberian village.
- Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov is the author of the papers the narrator recovers. A well-educated former nobleman, he spent ten years in a labor camp after being convicted of murdering his wife.
- Sushilov is a kind and humble prison inmate who willingly became Aleksandr’s servant.
Last Updated on November 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668
The Nameless Narrator
The original narrator is responsible for recovering the papers of the once-incarcerated Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov. After encountering the former convict while he lived in a rural Siberian village teaching private lessons on foreign languages, the nameless narrator seeks to interview Aleksandr. The narrator is deeply curious with a relatively poor sense of personal and social boundaries, and he hounds Aleksandr, who refuses to socialize with him.
Upon learning of Aleksandr’s death, the nameless narrator recovers the man’s papers from his former landlady and decides to read through them, focusing first on those works which deal with Aleksandr’s time in prison. The subsequent narrative is the transcript of these writings.
Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov
Aleksandr is a former convict whose posthumous narration of his experience in a Siberian forced labor camp reveals startling insight into the nature of incarceration. A nobleman who has fallen from grace for the murder of his wife, Aleksandr is a complex and well-educated man. His observations are true to life and faithfully describe the inmates as they were. Aleksandr is a deeply philosophical man, and he spends much of his time incarcerated musing on the rhythms and patterns of prison life, trying to decode the social dynamics which inform the relationships of prisoners to each other, to guards, and to their circumstances.
This primary narrator is a semi-autobiographical fill-in for Dostoevsky, who served four years in a katorga, a penal colony for political prisoners in Siberia or Eastern Russia. Imprisoned for his subversive socialist values, Dostoevsky experienced the grueling truth of life in a labor camp firsthand. Aleksandr is a stand-in for the author’s gaze, and his perspectives on the morality of the penal system reflect the author’s own. Indeed, Aleksandr is little more than an outlet for Dostoevsky to display his condemnation of Russia’s carceral system and its dehumanizing methodology.
Sushilov is a humble and unassuming man who attaches himself to the wealthy Aleksandr and willingly acts as his servant in exchange for a pittance. The prisoners look down on Sushilov because it is widely known that he “changed places” with another inmate; that is, he switched sentences with another inmate. However, he drove a poor bargain and gained only a red shirt and a silver coin in exchange for a much heavier sentence. The poor man is selfless and kind, but the prisoners pity him and do not exploit his simple nature.
Aley is an admirable character. Unlike most other prisoners, Aley does not deserve his imprisonment, as he did not wish to break the law, although he was compelled to by devotion to his family. An attractive young man, Aley is warm and charismatic, and he and Aleksandr soon become fast friends.
Akim is a simple, naive man who is rather unversed in the ways of the world. He helps Aleksandr navigate the early days of his imprisonment but is little help otherwise. Akim feels very strongly about the importance of honesty, so much so that he turned himself in to the police.
Aristov is an informer and blackmailer who continued to practice his trade while imprisoned. A physically imposing man with few morals, Aristov is quick to anger and even quicker to violence. He is motivated by uncouth pleasures and is willing to exploit any in his path in the pursuit of his desires.
Orlov is a particularly terrifying character, and he stands out as the worst of those imprisoned alongside Aleksandr. He is defiant and has hardened himself to pain. His arrogance almost leads to his death.
Isaiah is the only Jewish prisoner in the labor camp. He is well-liked and owed money by many people, so he is protected by his fellow prisoners.
The Major is a strict and especially cruel officer responsible for running the prison. He treats the prisoners poorly and is eventually forced to resign from his post with dishonor, likely for his style of inhumane treatment.