Notes from a Dead House
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
PLOT SUMMARY: Notes from a Dead House begins with a narrator introducing Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, an ex-convict who killed his wife and was sentenced to hard labor in a Siberian prison camp after turning himself in. The rest of the novel is presented by Dostoevsky as first-person notes from Goryanchikov’s time in prison. Dostoevsky describes Goryanchikov’s time in prison in detail throughout his novel and focuses primarily on observations that he makes during his first months in a hard labor camp in Siberia. The prison camp is described in detail, and from the very beginning is juxtaposed with “God’s
world” outside the walls.
Through Goryanchikov, Dostoevsky offers many observations on the social elements of prison life. Dostoevsky details how prison life deprives prisoners of privacy and dignity, forcing them into filthy and confined conditions. “Could I ever have imagined how terrible and tormenting it would be that, in all the ten years of my term, not once, not for a single minute, would I be alone?” (Dostoevsky 11). He claims that it is the forced nature of penal labor, rather than the physical difficulty of it, that makes it so punishing. He also recounts stories of how fellow convicts attempt to find freedom in the confines of prison life. One such way is through acquiring money by such means as smuggling alcohol. This money can later be spent as the prisoners’ desire, giving them a sense of freedom. Goryanchikov describes himself consistently as being treated as an outsider by the other convicts, rejected socially because he is a nobleman. Despite this claim, he manages to build relationships with other prisoners, and recounts many of their stories and observations of their behavior throughout the novel.
ANALYSIS: Dostoevsky offers an account of prison life that is profoundly humanizing, both by highlighting the individuality of his fellow convicts and remarking on how structural factors shape human behavior. In the many presentations of individual convict’s narratives, Dostoevsky highlights their unique struggles and presents them as relatable individuals. Moreover, Dostoevsky views human character and morality as being fundamentally shaped by the conditions individuals inhabit. Violence and degradation will erode morality and produce criminality, while in contrast, “humane treatment may make a human being even of someone in whom the image of God has faded long ago” (Dostoevsky, 112). This quote shows Dostoevsky’s conviction that individuals can become moral and redeem themselves of their criminality.
Dostoevsky also makes strong political statements and condemns many aspects of incarceration. Specifically speaking of corporal punishment, Dostoevsky argues that it is a “plague of society” and annihilates all possibility of human decency. He sees the indiscriminate use of violence in Siberian prison camps as exemplifying this plague, and thus producing a continual cycle of violence and degradation. Moreover, Dostoevsky offers sharp commentary on the purpose of prison, arguing that it is not one of reformation or transformation, but punishment and deprivation. Rather than transforming prisoners, he argues that incarceration produces their criminality by placing them in conditions which will turn even decent men into immoral beings. In this way, Dostoevsky’s arguments align strongly with Foucault’s theorization of incarceration as being fundamentally incompatible with moral transformation.
“Every man, whoever he may be and however humiliated, still requires, even if instinctively, even if unconsciously, respect for his human dignity. The prisoner himself knows that he is a prisoner, an outcast, and he knows his place before his superior; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being. And since he is in fact a human being, it follows that he must be treated as a human being” (111).
“Of course, prisons and the system of forced labor do not correct the criminal; they only punish him and ensure society against the evildoer’s further attempts on its peace and quiet. In the criminal himself, prison and the most intense forced labor develop only hatred, a thirst for forbidden pleasures, and a terrible light-mindedness" (15).
“In short, the right of corporal punishment, granted to one man over another, is one of the plagues of society, one of the most powerful means of annihilating in it any germ, any attempt at civility, and full grounds for its inevitable and ineluctable corruption” (197).
BIOGRAPHY: Known for “the profundity, complexity, and significance of his spiritual experience," Fyodor Dostoevsky has been praised as one of the most influential Russian novelists in history (Mirsky, 279). Some of his most renowned works include Notes
from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, ThePossessed, and The Brothers Karamazov (Morson). Born on October 30, 1821, Dostoevsky was the second of seven children. He grew up in an apartment attached to the Marinsky Hospital in Moscow, where his father worked as a doctor for charity cases (Šajkovic, 47-48). Both of Dostoevsky’s parents died early in his life, with his mother passing away in 1837, followed by his father in 1839 (Mirsky, 51). Dostoevsky entered the Military Engineering Academy in 1938, and served in the Engineering Department of the Ministry of War before quitting to pursue his literary interests. However, his literary career was cut short after he was arrested for involvement in the Petrashevsky group, a group which “met to discuss idealistic and socialistic
philosophy; they drank tea, discussed Fourier's theories, read literary works, protested against serfdom, and so on” (Mirsky, 60). At his trial, Dostoevsky was sentenced to eight years of penal servitude in Siberia, which the judge commuted to four years followed by two years of service as a private soldier.
Dostoevsky’s time in prison formed his perspective on the world and his literary work. In this time, he reflected that he had nothing to read but the bible and did not spend a single moment alone. One formative moment of Dostoevsky’s prison time was a staged execution designed to convince him and his fellow convicts that they were being subjected to the death penalty. During his prison sentence, Dostoevsky developed epilepsy—a condition that would follow him throughout his life. Following his sentence, Dostoevsky petitioned his way back from exile, returned to Moscow, regained his title of nobility, and had the ban on his publications lifted (Šajkovic). Dostoevsky then dedicated his life to literature, writing novels and journals and making frequent trips throughout Europe for the remainder of his life. On January 28, 1881, Dostoevsky passed away after suffering a burst artery in his lungs.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from a Dead House. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 2015.
Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginning to 1900. Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Šajkovic, Miriam T. F.M. Dostoevsky: His Image of Man. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.
Morson, Gary. “Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fyodor-Dostoyevsky.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton University Press, 2012.
In this extensive biography of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank situates Dostoevsky’s works in their personal, historic, and ideological contexts.
Johae, Antony. “Prison Treatment in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead and Crime and Punishment." The Explicator, vol. 70, no. 4, 2012, pp. 268-271.
Johae describes Dostoevsky’s development as a writer between his two works, Notes from the House of the Dead and Crime and Punishment. He focuses specifically on how the two represent elements of Dostoevsky’s time in prison.
Rosenshield, Gary. “Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead: The Problem of Pain.” Slavic And East European Journal, vol. 58, no. 1, 2014, pp. 33-56.
Gary Rosenshield analyzes the presentation of pain, especially due to corporal punishment, in Doestoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead.