Themes

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 758

The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical account of Dostoevsky's experiences as a political prisoner in a remote Siberian penal colony. The book shares a number of themes with other examples of prison literature, inevitably so given the confined space in which the action takes place. Nevertheless, the characteristic...

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The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical account of Dostoevsky's experiences as a political prisoner in a remote Siberian penal colony. The book shares a number of themes with other examples of prison literature, inevitably so given the confined space in which the action takes place. Nevertheless, the characteristic subtlety and psychological depth with which Dostoevsky treats these themes ensures that The House of the Dead stands apart from the genre.

One feature of Dostoevsky's writing here is the almost clinically objective style with which he details the unfolding events. The phrase "It is a fact that..." crops up quite often throughout the narrative. The account that Dostoevsky provides is resolutely factual, avoiding all trace of melodrama. This understated approach allows Dostoevsky to tell his story in a such way as to give us the best of both words—factual accuracy and artistic truth.

From this approach emerges the theme of appearance vs reality. It's instructive in this regard that the first three chapters of the book are entitled "First Impressions 1, 2 and 3." Initially, we're inducted into a world of appearances, how things seem to the narrator. Yet in the surreal, nightmarish world of the prison colony, nothing is ever quite what it seems, as we subsequently discover:

Reality is infinitely various when compared to the deductions of abstract thought, even those that are most cunning, and it will not tolerate rigid, hard-and-fast distinctions. Reality strives for diversification.

Prison life has its own rules, conventions, and strange rhythms. It is at once a microcosm of the social world outside and yet also a world entirely of its own:

Even though I looked at everything with keen and avid attention, I could not discern much of what lay under my very nose.

The narrator is applying the standards of the "radiant free world" to prison, yet it serves only to mystify rather than clarify. The narrator never truly understands prison life and all its unusual customs, but he does at least gain a deeper comprehension of this dark and degrading environment into which he's been thrust. The fact that the narrator never truly becomes—psychologically, at least—a hardened criminal, leaves untouched that freedom nestling deep within his soul.

The theme of freedom is presented here as relating to inner freedom, a freedom of the personality and of the soul, a freedom compromised but never destroyed by incarceration. The narrator occupies a different social class to most of the other prisoners, and this sets him apart. Although it makes daily life much more difficult, it nonetheless allows him to preserve his inner freedom, the integrity of his soul from the encroachments of the value system of the criminal classes.

At the same time, the narrator develops a sense of unity with the other inmates, a feeling that, for all their faults, they are still God's children. The narrator doesn't judge; he doesn't want us to judge, either. Instead, he allows the convicts to tell their own story, making us see that they are still very much human. And we must learn from them too, learn from the innate folk wisdom possessed by the common people:

One has only to remove the outer, superficial husk and look at the kernel within attentively, closely and without prejudice, and one will see in the common people things one had no inkling of. There is not much that our men of learning can teach the common people. I would even say the reverse: it is they who should take a few lessons from the common people.

Learning from the people, the Russian peasantry who formed the vast majority of the population, was a common political theme at the time when Dostoevsky wrote his story. It says something about the social hierarchy of Tsarist Russia that one of the few ways that members of the intelligentsia can truly empathize with the common people is by sharing their experiences of prison. Nevertheless, by doing so, they throw off the artificial constraints imposed upon them in the so-called free world and become reacquainted with their humanity.

It is in this sense that the narrator's experience of prison is educational, with his fellow inmates as teachers. On his final day in prison, when his shackles are finally removed, the narrator is not just a free man; he has become reborn, resurrected as a human being. Humanity, despite all the myriad challenges and terrors of prison life, has ultimately won through. And that, more than any other, is the most abiding theme of The House of the Dead.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331

The House of the Dead was originally published in Vremia (The Time), a magazine Dostoevski was editing: The serial publication perhaps encouraged the narrative’s loose structure. Dostoevski takes advantage of it to enter into numerous “digressions” which are as significant as Goryanchikov’s own story, though a contemporary reader may find them distracting, even as monotonous as prison life itself. The writer remains remarkably detached as he describes the horrors of prison life, though clearly Dostoevski himself was profoundly affected by it. When the tone does become more emotional, the reader senses more readily the importance of the topic.

As the discussions of plot and character indicate, much of Dostoevski’s meaning is conveyed through his character sketches. The centrality of freedom to human dignity, the inherent strength and integrity of the Russian common man, the terrible injustices wrought by the penal system, the importance of Christianity as a response to a nightmarish existence—all these ideas are embodied in figures such as Akim Akimovich, Sushilov, the major, and, finally, Goryanchikov as he develops through the narrative. While only sketchily developed, the narrator of the frame story also contributes to the main story’s meaning. His sympathetic but uncomprehending interest in Goryanchikov and his superficial, “progressive” outlook underscore Dostoevski’s criticism of liberal, “Western” notions intruding into Russian culture.

The narrative outlines a descent into hell and a “resurrection” or return to the world. At points, such as the bath scene and the description of Christmas, the author’s Dantesque intent becomes clear. Yet with no Vergil to guide him and no imposed structure, such as the circles of the Inferno, Goryanchikov must rely upon repetition of the central themes. With a censor to get around, the former radical Dostoevski must rely on the reader to infer the author’s anger at the prison system; the book itself never explicitly calls for penal reform. Rather, it focuses upon the system’s horrors and the prisoners’ remarkable physical and spiritual resilience.

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