Book Review: The House Of The Dead, Or Prison Life In Siberia

The House Of The Dead, Or Prison Life In Siberia, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

It is a truism, even perhaps a cliche, that people should write about what they know.  And before Dostoevsky was a celebrated Russian writer whose novels continue to draw a great deal of praise and acclaim, he was a jailbird in Siberia for political offenses.  So it is little surprise that the world of prison literature [1] is enriched by this very semi-autobiographical novel of a Russian nobleman who had spent ten years in prison.  I cannot say that I found this book pleasant to read, necessarily, but I did find it to be a compelling piece of literature that demonstrates the author’s awareness of the folly of prison as a way of reforming those who have been convicted of crimes and also as a look into the psyche of the Russian people as a sensitive and observant person.  It is the human look at prisons from the point of view of an insider that makes this a worthwhile novel and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.  It is great literature, to be sure, but not the sort of read that one undertakes casually or without preparing oneself to see at least some of the degradation inflicted on people as a result of their own mistakes and the cruelty of the state.

The novel as a whole, as I read it, is about 360 pages or so worth of material.  A short introduction points out the context of Dostoevsky’s own experience in prison in Siberia that provided the inspiration for the novel, and then the novel begins with a frame story in which the narrator pretends to have found the writings of a misanthropic Siberian colonist and former prisoner that he then passes along, but the story within the story, as it were, is far more compelling and far more auto-biographical.  One sees the way in which prisoners collapse when deprived of hope for freedom, the way that certain prisoners suffer more degradation as a result of class or ethnicity based snobbery (or reverse snobbery) among the prison population, one sees the corruption of prison life and the way that it is sustained by criminal sub rosa activity like alcohol smuggling and bribery and so on.  Most of the novel focuses on the first year or so of the narrator’s time in prison where he shows himself to be generally kindly as well as somewhat frail and sickly, as well as the end of the author’s time in prison where he looks forward to freedom.  Indeed, the novel itself ends on a blissful paean to freedom when the chains of iron that had bound him have finally been removed.

There are a few elements of this novel that are definitely worthy of commentary and further investigation by the interested reader.  For one, the book itself shows a certain casual anti-Semitism with its somewhat jaundiced look at Judaism and the privileges Jews had for their worship in prison.  Likewise, the book deals with the complicated question of nationalism in writing, as the author frequently comments on the characteristics of various ethnicities within the Russian Empire and is particularly harsh towards the Poles within the novel.  The narrator (presumably speaking for the author here) also things it worthwhile for scholars to undertake a more thorough study of amateur theatricals and the unpublished manuscript plays that circulate through the Siberian prison and military population.  This seems as if it would be a worthwhile angle of research for someone whose Russian knowledge was strong and who had an interest in obscure drama.  If this novel is not Dostoevsky’s best known, it is certainly an excellent and thought-provoking effort that shows the author to have been a Russian of his time.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Book Review: The House Of The Dead, Or Prison Life In Siberia

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    One of his books that I really liked was Notes from the Underground. I identified with what the narrator was saying. The narrator was very brooding and resentful, so it is not exactly a cheery book. Still, I liked it.

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