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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 296

The House of the Dead is a somewhat autobiographical novel by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book is based on the four years he spent doing forced labor in a military prison in Siberia and the people he met there.

At the beginning of the story there is a nameless...

(The entire section contains 1526 words.)

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The House of the Dead is a somewhat autobiographical novel by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book is based on the four years he spent doing forced labor in a military prison in Siberia and the people he met there.

At the beginning of the story there is a nameless narrator who really just stumbles upon the main story of the book. This man meets Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, who essentially becomes the narrator as the story turns to focus on his prison memoirs.

Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov is an ex-convict, who spent ten years in prison for the crime of killing his own wife. Through his observations, we see what life in prison is like. He also happens to be of noble birth.

Sushilov is a prisoner who attaches himself to Goryanchikov and essentially becomes his servant. He is very humble and unassuming.

Aley is a very warm and charismatic prisoner who becomes friends with Goryanchikov.

Akim Akimovich is a naive prisoner who believes so fully in honesty that he turned himself in to the police for his crime.

Aristov is a prison informer with no morals and no composure.

Orlov is a defiant prisoner and hardened criminal who is so overly sure of himself and his strength that he eventually pushes himself to his own death.

Petrov is the polite and mysterious prisoner who befriends Goryanchikov and is feared by other prisoners.

Isaiah Fomich is the only Jewish prisoner in this town. He is well-liked and owed money by many people, and so he is protected by his fellow prisoners and the Jews in the town of the prison.

Miretsky is a prisoner and Polish nobleman who feels very disconnected from the other prisoners.

The Major is a strict and cruel officer who runs the prison.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887

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.


Aley (AH-lay), a young Tartar prisoner, a youth of inner and outer beauty. Affectionate, warm, and capable of great tenderness of feeling, it is only his strong feeling for duty that has brought him to the prison. His paternalistic elder brothers had, without announcing their purpose, commanded that he join them in a raiding party. Asking no questions (such was his filial devotion), Aley obeyed, ending up, like them, in prison. The narrator is heartened to find a young man of such natural superiority in the prison and is cheered by his straightforward acts of friendship. Aley is also clever, curious, and quick to learn. Goryanchikov is confident that the quality of Aley’s character will be proof against corruption in any circumstance. Later, writing his memoirs and remembering Aley, he does not worry about him. He only wonders, wistfully, where he is.

Akim Akimovich

Akim Akimovich (ah-KIHM ah-KIH-moh-vihch), a prisoner who assists Goryanchikov in his first days in the prison. He is naïve, illiterate, extraordinarily moralistic, captious, exacting, and quarrelsome, with a highly Teutonic punctilio. He is phenomenally honest; he will intervene in any injustice, regardless of whether it is a concern of his. He is simple to the last degree; he tries seriously, for example, to argue the prisoners out of their habitual stealing. At the time of his arrest, he had been the commander of a fortress in the Caucasus and had caught a neighboring princeling in an act of treachery. Having brought him to the fortress, Akimovich read him a detailed lecture on how a friendly prince ought to conduct himself in the future and, in conclusion, shot him. Fully aware of the irregularity of his action, he reported it at once to the authorities and was tried, convicted, and sent to prison. Many years later, still considering himself the injured party, he is unable to understand that he did anything he should not have.


Aristov (ah-RIH-stov), the prison’s foremost informer. He had been an informer and a blackmailer before his time in prison and had sold the lives of ten men to ensure the immediate gratification of his thirst for the coarsest and vilest pleasures. He had become so addicted to these pleasures that, though an intelligent man, he had taken foolish chances and was sent to prison. The narrator calls him a lump of flesh with teeth and a stomach who, for the smallest gross pleasure, is capable of the most cold-blooded violence; he is an example of the lengths to which the purely physical side of a human can go, unrestrained by any internal standard or discipline.


Orlov, a criminal among criminals. He is an uncommonly evil evildoer, a cold-blooded murderer of old men and children, a man of terrifying strength of will and proudly conscious of that strength. He is contrasted with fleshy and torpid criminals, such as Aristov. In Orlov, one sees only boundless energy, thirst for action, thirst for vengeance, and thirst for the attainment of his goals. He has a strange arrogance, frank and without presumption, as if there were no authority on earth to which he would submit. Orlov has been sentenced to flogging, and this punishment he hurries along, shortening an interim period of recuperation to get on with his plan to escape. Here, however, he overestimates himself, and he dies from his punishment.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304

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?”


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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.

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Critical Essays