The House of the Dead (novel)
The House of the Dead (Russian: Записки из Мёртвого дома, Zapiski iz Myortvovo doma) is a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1861 in the journal Vremya by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which portrays the life of convicts in a Siberian prison camp. The novel has also been published under the titles Memoirs from the House of The Dead and Notes from the Dead House. The book is a loosely-knit collection of facts and events organised by "theme" rather than as a continuous story. Dostoyevsky himself spent four years in exile in such a camp following his conviction for involvement in the Petrashevsky Circle. This experience allowed him to describe with great authenticity the conditions of prison life and the characters of the convicts.
After his mock execution on 22 December 1849, Dostoevsky was spared his life in exchange for 4 years of imprisonment in one of Siberia’s labour camps. Though he often met with hostility from the other prisoners due to his status of “gentleman,” his views on life had changed and this precious gift, he did not take for granted. Ten years later, Dostoevsky returned to Russia to write, The House of the Dead. The novel incorporates several of the horrifying experiences he witnessed while in prison. He recalls the guards’ brutality and relish performing unspeakably cruel acts, the crimes that the convicted criminals committed, and the fact that blended amid these great brutes were good and decent individuals. However, he is also astonished at the convicts’ abilities to commit murders without the slightest change in conscience. It was a stark contrast with his own heightened sensitivity. During this time in prison he began experiencing the epileptic seizures that would plague for the rest of his life. House of the Dead led Dostoevsky to include the theme of murder in his later works, a theme not found in any of his works preceding House of the Dead.
The narrator, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, has been sentenced to penalty deportation to Siberia and ten years of hard labour for murdering his wife. Life in prison is particularly hard for Aleksandr Petrovich, since he is a "gentleman" and suffers the malice of the other prisoners, nearly all of whom belong to the peasantry. Gradually Goryanchikov overcomes his revulsion at his situation and his fellow convicts, undergoing a spiritual re-awakening that culminates with his release from the camp. It is a work of great humanity; Dostoyevsky portrays the inmates of the prison with sympathy for their plight, and also expresses admiration for their energy, ingenuity and talent. He concludes that the existence of the prison, with its absurd practices and savage corporal punishments is a tragic fact, both for the prisoners and for Russia.
Many of the characters in the novel were very similar to the real-life people that Dostoyevsky met while in prison. While many of the characters do mirror real-life people, he has also made it so that some of the characters appear more interesting than their real-life counterparts.
- Joseph Frank, Introduction to The House of the Dead and Poor Folk, Barnes and Noble, 2004
- "Fyodor Dostoyevsky." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011. Web. 23 Oct.2011
- Dostoevsky, Fedor. Memoirs From the House of the Dead. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. Print.
- Compare English translations of The House of the Dead
- Full text of The House of the Dead in the original Russian
- Full text of The House of the Dead in English at the Internet Archive
- The House of the Dead at Project Gutenberg