The narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House is Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman now serving a ten year sentence for the murder of his wife. This is a very thinly sketched fictional narrative for Dostoevsky, and the entire spousal murder never really convinces. It exists, as translator Richard Pevear explains, as “a mask for the censors: the notes of a man serving a sentence for a common-law crime were more likely to be passed for publication than the notes of a political criminal.”
In Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus author Laurence Kelly argues that 19th century Russia literature was one of the only avenues for social protest for the times, but that criticisms had to be obscured or layered with double-meaning–even then it was still dodgy. Dostoevsky had to tread very carefully with Notes From a Dead House. This was a book that couldn’t be seen to be social protest, and yet when describing the conditions and punishments, there’s a clear strand of questioning the underlying institutional and loose judicial philosophy at work. Yet even more than the underlying expose of daily life in a prison camp in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s target here is the examination of human nature: how human nature suffers from imprisonment, how we endure punishment, the nature of guilt & sin, and significantly how imprisonment causes some to revert to their basest selves while others overcome their venal passions. Notes from a Dead House is Dostoevsky’s seminal work and one which contains all the themes of his later novels. Interestingly Dostoevsky never finished Netocha Nezvanova, the novel he was working on when he was arrested, and this implies a ‘before and after’ mindset.
In April 1849, Dostoevsky was just 27 years old when he was arrested for ‘revolutionary activities’ and his involvement in the Petrashevksy Circle. He was charged with reading and circulating a letter written by literary critic Belinsky and also of “attempting to set up a clandestine printing press.” Tsar Nicholas I, considered the most reactionary ruler of Russia, did not tolerate anything he considered radical intellectualism, and his rule was marked by extreme censorship and a network or spies and informers. But back to Dostoevsky and his fellow Petrashevksy Circle members who were arrested, imprisoned and then suffered a staged mock execution before being shipped off for their various destinations. Dostoevsky was stripped of his status as a nobleman, given a sentence of eight years of exile and hard labor in a prison in Omsk, Siberia to be immediately followed by compulsory military service. The sentence was later commuted to four years and in 1854, Dostoevsky served as a private in Kazakhstan.
As translator Richard Pevear states, Notes from a Dead House “was the first published account of life in the Siberian hard-labor camps. It initiated the genre of the prison memoir.” But in addition to the book’s significance for that particular genre, the book also marked a shift in Dostoevsky as a writer. Dostoevsky formed Notes from a Dead House from notes gathered during his four years of imprisonment and rather than a novel, the book takes a more thematic approach with sections which cover the celebration of Christmas in the camp, a play performed by the prisoners and the elaborate distribution of alcohol amongst the inmates. Throughout the book, Dostoevsky, struggling with health issues, and recovering from the initial shock of being flung into the company of murderers, brigands and thieves, clearly shows an overriding fascination with human behaviour. There is no other way that Dostoevsky could possibly have written this book without the first hand exposure to a Siberian prison, for it’s here, amongst the prisoners, in this human crucible, that Dostoevsky is exposed to the psychology behind crime, punishment, sin and guilt.
more to follow…
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky