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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 256

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a difficult book to summarize. It lacks a clear narrative and is more of a documentary and spiritual journey chronicling the experiences of a man sentenced to ten years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp for murdering his wife. Dostoyevsky actually spent time in a Siberian prison camp himself. This gives the reflections in House of the Dead a level of realism and depth that would likely be impossible otherwise.

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The book is subtitled Prison Life in Siberia and this is, in essence, what it is a reflection on. While there is no straightforward story (in this sense, it's not really a novel) there are extremely detailed descriptions of daily life in the prison, the brutality of the guards, his prison-mates, and, through his narrator, a character from a bourgeois background with similar sensitivities to Dostoyevsky, the odd juxtaposition of a man from that class who finds himself in jail. At one point he ends up in the prison hospital and rather than helping him heal this experience ends up being more torturous than everyday life in prison. As mentioned, some of the character sketches and stories of fellow inmates are incredibly compelling and rich and surely reflect aspects of Dostoyevsky's personal experience.

In the very end of the book the narrator is freed from the prison, released from his chains. He ebulliently reflects that he can finally live again and has been "resurrected" from the existence of living death he experienced those many years.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535

The plot, a thinly veiled account of Fyodor Dostoevski’s four years in a Siberian military prison, has little of the usual narrative structure. Instead, the author presents a series of scenes of prison life, disguised as the memoirs of Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a wellborn young man who has served ten years at hard labor for killing his wife. In a sketchy frame story, an anonymous first-person narrator extols the many attractions of Siberian life, particularly in the small town where he met Goryanchikov, who was earning his living as a French tutor. The townspeople think the ex-prisoner a “terrible misanthrope,” perhaps even a crazy man. After Goryanchikov’s death, the narrator buys what remains of Goryanchikov’s papers from the tutor’s landlady. Among them is a bulky notebook, chiefly filled by prison memoirs: These the narrator offers for public judgment.

The main narrative begins as Goryanchikov arrives at the prison and depicts the grim fortress, containing about 250 prisoners from various classes of society, sent there for all sorts of crimes, criminal and political. After describing the stench, noise, and other terrible conditions of his barracks, he concludes, “Man is a creature who can get used to anything, and I believe that is the very best way of defining him.” Goryanchikov briefly catalogs the kinds of prisoners sent there, paying particular attention to the Special Class—prisoners with indefinite sentences even more harsh than their fellows’. In sum, Goryanchikov thinks himself in Hell, “the nethermost pit and the outer darkness.” The prisoners constantly fight, steal from one another—even Goryanchikov’s Bible is quickly taken—and are subject to the sadistic whims of the prison’s commandant, who has men flogged for the smallest offense. In this underworld, there is also underground activity: smuggling vodka, working to make money, even pawnbroking. Yet this first chapter ends on a curiously hopeful note: Goryanchikov recalls a small girl’s giving him a kopeck, “in Christ’s name.”

Goryanchikov next introduces characters who illustrate prison life, an existence for which nothing could have prepared him. Being of...

(The entire section contains 1791 words.)

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