The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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In Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead, what does work signify in the katorga camp?

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In Fyodor Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead, work takes on multiple deep meanings for the prisoners who labor in the katorga camp. Work is a hardship, to be sure. It is a punishment. It is torturous. It is miserable. It is backbreaking and unfair and horrible. But it also provides distraction and purpose and, surprisingly, a way to cope with life in the camp. Let's look at this in more detail.

The story centers around Goryanchikov, an upper-class man sentenced to the Siberian prison camp for murdering his wife. Goryanchikov is hardly used to the hard labor he must now perform. It is a punishment, to be sure, and one that takes a long period of adjustment. Yet Goryanchikov comes to realize that "Man is a creature who can get used to anything." Over time, the hard work of the prison camp becomes almost routine. It is not easy. In fact, it is torturous at times. Goryanchikov comes to learn the kinds of work he prefers, including shoveling snow, grinding gypsum, and turning the lathe. Yet he does what he must when he must, and this makes Goryanchikov strong and flexible. He has a purpose.

Strangely, work is sometimes more of a distraction and a relief than anything else. The prisoners feel this especially during holidays when they don't work. They are restless, and their pain surfaces as their memories of past holidays fill their minds. They recall that they are separated from loved ones and from society as a whole. To work would be something of a gift at this point, for it would distract them from these musings. Indeed, work tends to distract them from reflecting too much on their status as prisoners at just about any time. They work. They cope. They continue to live.

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