The House of the Dead

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Now take a man of heart, of cultivated mind, and of delicate conscience. What he feels kills him more certainly than the material punishment. The judgment which he himself pronounces on his crime is more pitiless than that of the most severe tribunal, the most Draconian law. He lives by the side of another convict, who has not once reflected on the murder he is expiating, during the whole time of his sojourn in the convict prison. He, perhaps, even considers himself innocent. Are there not, also, poor devils who commit crimes in order to be sent to hard labour, and thus to escape the liberty which is much more painful than confinement? A man's life is miserable, he has never, perhaps, been able to satisfy his hunger. He is worked to death in order to enrich his master. In the convict prison his work will be less severe, less crushing. He will eat as much as he wants, better than he could ever have hoped to eat, had he remained free.

Aleksandr, the narrator based loosely on Dostoyevsky, himself, ruminates on the different types of prisoners in the Siberian labor camp. In the quote above, he distinguishes between prisoners like himself, from a higher class of society, who are likely to feel acute guilt over their crimes, and those from the lower classes. He indicts Russian society as a whole when he says lower class people are sometimes treated better in the labor camps than while free, because, at least in prison, they are well fed. Aleksandr will also note that the men can find friendships in the camp that they might not find in ordinary life. Strangely, incarceration seems to be an opportunity for those maligned individuals left at the margins of Russian society.

Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease. The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man or woman to the level of a beast.

However, incarceration is also an environment capable of breeding bestial and sadistic behavior. Hierarchies of power between guards, prisoners, and guards and prisoners reveal the dehumanizing violence that so often emerges when one person is given too much authority over another or set of others. Indeed, Aleksandr warns of the damaging effects of such power on those who wield it; indeed, power corrupts, and it leaves the prison guards severely marred. But it is not only the guards who are harmed; no, the prisoners are irrevocably altered by their incarceration:

I once saw a convict who had been twenty years in prison and was being released take leave of his fellow prisoners. There were men who remembered his first coming into prison, when he was young, careless, heedless of his crime and his punishment. He went out a grey-headed, elderly man, with a sad sullen face. He walked in silence through our six barrack-rooms. As he entered each room he prayed to the ikons, and then bowing low to his fellow prisoners he asked them not to remember evil against him.

While some prisoners have been reduced to little more than beasts by their imprisonment, other prisoners have coped in remarkable ways with their situation. Just because some survived with their moral sense and sanity, Aleksandr in no way permits the depravity and savagery of life in such prisons. He calls incarceration and the violence that follows an “ulcer,” explaining:

In short, the right given to one man to inflict corporal punishment on another is one of the ulcers of society, one of the most powerful destructive agents of every germ and every budding attempt at civilization, the fundamental cause of its certain and irretrievable destruction.

In the above quote, Aleksandr is frank and unsparing, indicting a dehumanizing system that uses violence as a main means of control. He is eyewitness to the way the very severe corporal punishment in the camp coarsens human life.

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