Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From A Dead House

Prison memoirs, fictionalized or not, are now so numerous that they almost constitute a genre unto themselves, but Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical Notes From A Dead House, sometimes translated as The House Of The Dead, was one of the earliest and most successful examples. Published serially between 1860 and 1862, its genesis dates to Dostoevsky’s years of hard labor and exile in Omsk, Siberia, when he would record the sayings and expressions of his fellow prisoners on scraps of paper he later smuggled out of the prison. When he was finally rehabilitated in the eyes of the state and allowed to return to St. Petersburg, he was faced with a dilemma: he wished to articulate, as truthfully as he could, what he had witnessed within prison, but he did not wish to arouse the anger of the censors and the state bureaucracy, which had not ceased monitoring him since his release. His solution was to concoct a double for himself, with a disguised backstory: rather than a political prisoner, imprisoned for crimes against the state, Dostoevsky’s protagonist is Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a member of Dostoevsky’s privileged class convicted for murdering his wife. To the elite St. Petersburg literary circles, Dostoevsky’s intended audience, the ruse was well understood, but the censors, not to mention the larger public – many of whom took Notes From A Dead House to be his authentic memoirs – were deceived. For years afterwards, Dostoevsky would later report, perfect strangers would reproach him for having murdered his spouse.

Dostoevsky employs one further contrivance: a first-person narrator, distinct from his protagonist, who claims to have met Aleksandr Petrovich before his imprisonment, and later to have recovered his personal papers after Aleksandr’s death. The prison narration, that makes up the bulk of this book, is thus the recollections of a dead man, committed to paper but never meant for a wider public, and this fact lends to the book the quality of a secret shared, private information we have access to only through sheer good luck. Dostoevsky himself viewed his experience in these terms, and understood, even as he was living it, how unique a perspective he was being given. One might say that he was even able to transmute the pain of his sentence – being exiled from friends and family, imprisoned in one of the world’s most inhospitable places and condemned to five years hard labour – by this radical shift in perspective. In the last letter he sent to his brother Mikhail before his long journey to Siberia, Dostoevsky assured his brother that he need not concern himself with his spiritual wellbeing: “Brother! I swear that I will not lose hope and will keep my soul and heart pure. I will be reborn for the better. That’s all my hope, all my consolation.” Notes From A Dead House, I contend, makes good on that promise, by completing the transfiguration of this painful episode in his life into an insight he could communicate through his art. For, as Dostoevsky’s double says about his introduction to prison life, “Here you were in a special world, unlike anything else; it had its own special laws, its own clothing, its own morals and customs, an alive dead house, a life like nowhere else, and special people. It is this special corner that I am setting out to describe.”

Dostoevsky begins by confining us to the realm of mere physical observation and description, for when Aleksandr Petrovich first enters his prison, these are the details most evident to him. The barracks, in which 30 men share a bunk, is described in all its horrifying detail: the cramped spaces, entirely without privacy; the suffocating stench of sweat and body odour; the endless noise of clanking chains and swearing inmates. Summing it all up, Aleksandr concludes that “man survives it all! Man is a creature who gets used to everything, and that, I think, is the best definition of him.” But as he goes further into his ten-year sentence, and comes to understand the workings of the prison better, he becomes more and more fascinated by his fellow inmates, and endlessly observes their characters and temperaments. For example, he notes that however much they may dislike the loud, demanding, authoritarian prison guards, it is these they most respect, whereas the tamer, meeker guards, less apt to wield their authority, are frequently treated with great disrespect. The prisoners likewise display incongruous temperaments that our narrator only gradually comes to understand. For example:

A prisoner is obedient and submissive up to a certain point; but there is a limit that should not be overstepped. Incidentally, nothing could be more curious than these strange fits of impatience and rebelliousness. Often a man endures for several years, resigns himself, suffers the harshest punishments, and suddenly explodes over some small thing, a trifle, almost nothing. From one point of view, he could even be called mad; and so they do call him.

As Aleksandr Petrovich will come to understand, however, it is not madness that compels them to act this way, to assert themselves. He will likewise express an initial puzzlement at seeing the prisoners handle money. “Money […] was of terribly great importance and power in prison. I can say positively that a convict who had at least some money in hard labor suffered ten times less than one who did not have any, though the latter was also provided with everything by the prison, and what on earth should he have money for?” Money, however, is difficult to come by: it must be stolen, or else exchanged for a good or service that are costly and time-consuming to the prisoner to provide. Why, then, Petrovich wonders, do the prisoners squander it so easily? A convict will waste a month’s wages on a single evening of drunkenness – why? Eventually, after observing them for longer, he comes to his answer:

A prisoner is greedy for money to the point of convulsions, to a darkening of the mind, and if does indeed throw it away like wood chips when he carouses, he does it for something he considers on a higher level than money. What is higher than money for a prisoner? Freedom, or at least the dream of freedom. […] The whole meaning of the word “prisoner” is a man with no will; but in wasting money, he is acting by his own will.

Such a calculation, Dostoevsky insists, preempts logic or reason, for no price can be put on the feeling – however briefly held – of power and responsibility for one’s own life. And in the face of a system, like the prison, that crushes such freedoms by design, man will rebel and act out with every means at his disposal.

Upon its publication, Notes From A Dead House caused a sensation. Among its audience who wished to be exposed to the injustices of the penal system, the book’s descriptions of the prison conditions, of the physical beatings endured by the inmates at the hands of the guards, provoked outrage. But only a much smaller, more perceptive audience were able to grasp one of Dostoevsky’s more subtle critiques, for this criticism was levelled not at the tsar or his penal institutions, but at the very class of people eagerly reading the literary journals. This criticism was Dostoevsky’s subtle insistence that these literateurs, these wealthy men of Russia’s educated classes, were advocating on behalf of a Russian peasantry they did not know or understand. And at multiple points throughout the narrative, he will insist that these peasant prisoners possess a dignity and a strength that cannot be condescended to, nor would they tolerate a relationship that reduced them to helpless victims, pawns to be maneuvered either by a tyrannical tsar or an enlightened upper class eager to unleash their elaborate social theories on them. In the broad range of Dostoevsky’s artistic career, Notes From A Dead House marks a decisive turning point, and contains, in embryonic form, the insights that he would develop in full in his later masterpieces.