Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov

Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov (peh-TROH-vihch gohr-YAN-chih-kov), the narrator of the main body of the work, a former convict and nobleman. He has a philosopher’s curiosity about the characters of people, sometimes speaking in the voice of a social reformer but more often simply awed and fascinated by the human soul itself. His incarceration has changed his life, but he writes a dispassionate memoir. He has found in the prison his ideal observatory, examining there the many strange specimens to be found among the souls of men. Goryanchikov supposedly was put in prison for murdering his young wife out of jealousy, but it soon becomes clear that Goryanchikov is, as the author himself was, a political prisoner. It also becomes clear (as the details of the author’s own incarceration reveal) that the narrator is an autobiographical figure.


Sushilov (sew-SHIH-lov), a prisoner who works as Goryanchikov’s servant, a literal glutton for punishment. He is pitiable, humble, and even downtrodden, although none of the prisoners has trampled on him. Without being asked, he binds himself to Goryanchikov and takes on every dull and ignoble personal duty that prison life allows. For his efforts, he receives the inconsequential money that Goryanchikov can, intermittently, pay him and the privilege of serving this (only nominally, given his incarceration) superior person. For these privileges, he is painfully, ridiculously grateful. It is known around the prison that Sushilov had “changed places”; that is, he was paid to exchange his identity and lighter sentence for that of another prisoner. This practice was not unheard of in the Russian prison system of the time. Sushilov’s exchange is notorious among the prisoners, however, because he exchanged simple banishment for an indefinite period of hard labor in a military prison, for the price of one silver ruble and a red shirt. Sushilov is incorruptible. His is a pure nature, an example of how humble and utterly selfless humans can be.


(The entire section is 887 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Through Goryanchikov, Dostoevski dramatizes his gradually changing attitude toward the Russian common man during his own four years in prison. At first repulsed by the prisoners, the wellborn young man comes to value their integrity and courage, endurance, and remarkable adaptability. Finally, he can admire the stoic acceptance of Akim Akimovich and the defiant courage of Orlov, as well as appreciate the kindness and charity of others inside and outside the prison walls. While he objectively depicts the prisoners’ coarseness and laments their failure to repent of their crimes, even murder, he ultimately prefers these violent, passionate men to the effete, Europeanized gentility into which he was born.

His empathy for the commoners springs from his highly prizing freedom. The Special Class prisoners, with their doubly harsh, indefinite sentences, especially draw his attention and compassion. Their fate prompts him to speculate about injustice, freedom, and man’s nature and condition and to criticize the penal system, especially its failure to fit the punishment to the crime. The major serves as the focus of this criticism, but Dostoevski makes it very clear that the system itself tolerates, perhaps even encourages, such monsters.

In two justly praised set pieces—the pre-Christmas bath and the postholiday theatrical—Dostoevski demonstrates both his pity for the prisoners and his admiration for their talent and judgment, which he in many respects prefers to those of the sophisticated intellectual circles in which he traveled before his imprisonment in 1849 for illegal political activities. As Goryanchikov mentally takes leave of the prison the night before his release, he insists that “the whole truth must be told: these were no ordinary men. Perhaps, indeed, they were the most highly gifted and the strongest of all our people. But these powerful forces were condemned to perish uselessly, unnaturally, wrongfully, irrevocably. And whose is the blame?”


(Great Characters in Literature)

Mochulsky, K.V. Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 1967.

Simmons, Ernest J. Dostoevski: The Making of a Novelist, 1940.

Wasiolek, Edward. Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction, 1964.

Wellek, Rene, ed. Dostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962.

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. Dostoevsky: His Life and Art, 1957.