The House of the Dead - by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

What is the subject of this novel? It is something which Dostoevsky understood firsthand since the story portrays life in a Siberian penal colony (not unlike the Omsk penal colony where he served time for four years):

The House of the Dead is a stark account of Dostoyevsky's own experience of penal servitude in Siberia. In graphic detail he describes the suffering of the convicts - their squalor and degradation, their terror and resignation, from the rampages of a psychopath to the brief serenity of Christmas Day.

Amid the horror of labor in the sub-zero work camp, we hear the stories of the prisoners, and live through the freezing isolation and pain of day after day of misery. We see a young intellectual forced to live, eat and sleep with men from a background of cruelty, coarseness and brutality.

Who is the young intellectual who finds himself in the midst of a Siberian nightmare? It is, of course, Dostoevsky himself:

Accused of political subversion as a young man, Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years of hard labor at a Siberian prison camp — a horrifying experience from which, years later, he developed this semi-autobiographical memoir of a man condemned to penal servitude for murdering his wife.

Describing in relentless detail the physical and mental suffering of the convicts, this haunting and remarkable work ranks among Dostoevsky’s greatest masterpieces.

Yet the story is not just one of horror.  Amidst the wretched life of a Siberian convict, a prisoner experiencing the worst of life can also find redemption:

In January 1850 Dostoyevsky was sent to a remote Siberian prison camp for his part in a political conspiracy. The four years he spent there, startlingly re-created in The House of the Dead, were the most agonizing of his life.

In this fictionalized account he recounts his soul-destroying incarceration through the cool, detached tones of his narrator, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov: the daily battle for survival, the wooden plank beds, the cabbage soup swimming with cockroaches, his strange ‘family’ of boastful, ugly, cruel convicts.

Yet The House of the Dead is far more than a work of documentary realism: it is also a powerful novel of redemption, describing one man’s spiritual and moral death and the miracle of his gradual reawakening.

Click on the image, of The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for a better view.

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy Google Books website.


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