Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

This is perhaps the most autobiographical account Dostoyevsky gives us of his four-year prison sentence in a remote Siberian labor camp. Although he condenses and shapes the sentence for literary reasons (much like Thoreau condensed his two-year experiment on Walden Pond to one year for metaphorical reasons), Dostoyevsky nevertheless offers a harrowing exploration of how prison life affects the psychological make-up of the prisoner.

Using the frame story of a found manuscript, the story proper is written from the first-person POV of Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a member of the Russian upper class who must submit to the same prison conditions as his more common countrymen. Drawn directly from Dostoyevsky's own experiences, we meet Aleksandr's fellow prisoners as they drink, fight, celebrate the holidays, etc. More importantly, we witness changes in Aleksandr's world vision as a result of his imprisonment.

It doesn't really follow a narrative structure, reading more like an episodic series of sketches of prison life over the course of a year. What's pretty cool about the book, however, is the glimpse it offers of early Dostoyevsky trying to work within the tableau of psychological examination. For anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, The House of the Dead is like a series of practice exercises of something which Dostoyevsky will later prove a master: the psychological study of the criminal mind.

Overall, a pretty cool read.

1 comment:

James said...

You've highlighted an interesting feature of Dostoyevsky's writing. Just as he studied the criminal mind in this work, he portrayed the innocent hero in The Idiot and the impact of modern Western European thought in The Demons. Each of his fictions seem to build on themes culminating in his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov.