Critical Context

Though not exemplifying the “fantastic realism” of his more famous later novels, The House of the Dead anticipates strongly Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1913). In its unorthodox narrative structure, its insistent concern with freedom, and its rejection of the Western or European elements creeping into Russian culture, this more realistic, objective novel paves the way for its subjective, fantastic successor.

The House of the Dead certainly demonstrates Dostoevski’s switch from earlier, more conventional novels such as Bednye lyudi (1846; Poor Folk, 1887) and from his vaguely radical political leanings toward the mature style of the great novels—Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887), Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913), and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912)— and toward the political and religious conservatism of his later years. Though The House of the Dead contains little on the subject of religion, it illuminates a Christianity which accepts the worth of all people, no matter what their social station or history. In a famous letter sent to a friend in 1854, Dostoevski insisted that his prison experience had convinced him of the absolute, transcendent truth of Christ.

This novel perhaps most firmly marks Dostoevski’s return to the Russian literary scene after an enforced absence of twelve years. While less bold and polished in its ideas and form than the major novels or Notes from the Underground, it remains important biographically, historically, and thematically to the serious student of Dostoevski.