the house of the dead

by fyodor dostoevsky

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the house of the dead summary

the house of the dead is a semi-autobiographical novel by fyodor dostoevsky, originally published in installments between 1860 and 1862.

  • the novel’s unnamed narrator comes into possession of a collection of writings by aleksandr petrovich goryanchikov, a former nobleman who was sent to a labor camp for the murder of his wife.
  • in his papers, aleksandr describes daily life during his imprisonment, including his fellow inmates and the hard labor they were forced to perform.
  • after ten years, aleksandr almost regretted his release from prison but soon felt that he had been “resurrected.”

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last updated november 3, 2023.

fyodor dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel the house of the dead begins as an unnamed narrator lauds the merits of living in a rural town in siberia. in one such town, he recalls, he encountered aleksandr petrovich goryanchikov, a former convict who spent time in a labor camp for the murder of his wife. once a nobleman, the former convict now lives a mundane life. the narrator found his story fascinating, so he sought to interview him and discover the truth of prison life. aleksandr, however, proved uninterested in speaking with the man and rebuffed him. eventually, the narrator learns from aleksandr’s former landlady that the gruff man has passed on. she gives him a collection of papers and writings that aleksandr left behind, and the narrator begins to read through them. as he does, the narration shifts to aleksandr, speaking post-humously through the scattered papers now owned by the original narrator.

aleksandr, a character from a bourgeois background with similar sensitivities to dostoevsky, begins by explaining the early days of his incarceration. as a russian nobleman, the other prisoners, who were predominantly peasants or otherwise from impoverished classes, despised him. he struggles to find his place in the prison and acclimate to the harsh accommodations of prison life, as they are vastly different from the lavish luxury to which he is accustomed. from this introduction, aleksandr mediates on the nature of prison life. while the novel follows aleksandr’s ten-year incarceration, there is little else in the way of a cohesive plot. instead, the house of the dead hinges upon vivid and extremely detailed descriptions of daily life in the prison. aleksandr describes the brutality of the guards, the difficulty of forced labor, and the tragedy of dashed hopes for freedom. 

this narration is peppered with the stories of inmates whose crimes and idiosyncratic behaviors are incredibly compelling and rich and surely reflect aspects of dostoevsky's personal experience. these character sketches add depth to the tale of life in prison, explaining what flogging feels like, how the economic dynamics function, and why prisoners, even the most sedate and peaceful, eventually snap. at one point, aleksandr ends up in the prison hospital; he describes the experience as traumatizing. rather than helping him heal, his time in the hospital was torturous and grueling. through these scattered stories, aleksander fleshes out every aspect of life in the prison. he discusses the hard labor he was forced to perform, the rituals of inmate hierarchies, and the experience of prison holidays. 

the meandering memoir is littered with recollections tied together in a way that loosely resembles a narrative and ends upon aleksandr's release, a day he awaited with bated breath. however, after ten years, the man grew accustomed to life in prison and almost regrets his release. he comments on the waste that is incarceration, recalling the strength, vigor, and intelligence of the men left to stagnate inside its walls. aleksandr’s story ends as he leaves the prison, mourning those he must leave behind. however, his sorrow is brief, and he ebulliently reflects that he can finally live again and has been "resurrected" from the existence of living death he experienced those many years.

the house of the dead is a difficult book to accurately summarize, as it lacks a linear narrative and more closely resembles a documentary chronicling the spiritual journey of the narrator. as the novel’s subtitle, prison life in siberia, indicates, the work is a faithful portrait of life in a labor camp, which dostoevsky renders with care.

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