Tag Archives: prison literature

Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part II

Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House  is a philosophical work. While it’s an intense, incredible read, it’s also, due to its basic thematic format, a surprisingly accessible–and by that I mean it’s not as extensive or as heavy as Dostoevsky’s multi plot later works: Demons or Crime and Punishment. One of the book’s themes is the impact of punishment on human nature, and since Dostoevsky spends some time detailing the crimes and circumstances which have sent men to the camp, this is also a document of social criticism.

So here’s one of my favourite scenes which talks about Orlov “the famous brigand,” a “runaway soldier.” There are many former soldiers mentioned by Dostoevsky as inmates of the prison and they’re there for various things ranging from hitting an officer to killing one. Anyway Orlov, a man whose fearsome reputation precedes him, sticks in Dostoevsky’s mind as seen through the thinly veiled disguise of his narrator Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman sentenced to the Siberian prison for 10 years for the murder of his wife. Orlov is about to be punished.

One summer day rumor spread through the prisoners’ wards that in the evening the famous brigand Orlov, a runaway soldier, was to be punished, and after the punishment he would be brought to the ward. Waiting for Orlov, the sick prisoners affirmed that he was to be cruelly punished. They were all in some agitation, and, I confess, I also awaited the famous brigand’s appearance with great curiosity. I had long been hearing wonders about him. He was an evildoer such as few are, who put his knife cold-bloodedly into old people and children–a man with a formidable strength of will and a proud consciousness of his strength. He pleaded guilty to many murders and was sentenced to run the gauntlet. It was already evening when he was brought. The ward was dark, and candles had been lit. Orlov was nearly unconscious, terribly pale, with thick- disheveled, pitch-black hair. His back was swollen and of a bloody blue color. The prisoners tended to him all night, changed the water for him, turned him from side to side, gave him medicine, as if they were caring for some near and dear one, or some benefactor. The very next day he came fully to his senses and paced up and down the ward a couple of times! That amazed me: he had been so weak and exhausted when he arrived in the hospital. He had made it at one go through half the total number of rods he was sentenced to. The doctor had stopped the punishment only when he saw that to continue it threatened the inevitable death of the criminal. Besides, Orlov was a small man and of weak constitution, and what’s more he had been worn out by being kept on trial for a long time.

The narrator is extremely curious about Orlov and contrasts him with another brigand:

I can say positively that I have never in my life met a man of stronger, more iron character than he. Once, in Tobolsk, I saw a celebrity of this kind, the former chief of a band of brigands. He was a wild beast in the fullest sense, and standing next to him and not yet knowing his name, you sensed instinctively that you had a frightful creature beside you. But for me the horrible thing in him was his spiritual torpor. The flesh had won out over all his inner qualities so much that from the first glance you could see by his face that the only thing left in him was one savage craving for physical gratification, sensuality, fleshy indulgence. I am sure that Korenev–the name of this brigand–would even have lost heart and trembled with fear in the face of punishment, though he was capable of killing without even batting an eye. Orlov was the complete opposite of him. This was manifestly a total victory over the flesh. You could see that the man had limitless control over himself, despised all tortures and punishments, and had no fear of anything in the world. You saw in him only an infinite energy, a thirst for activity, a thirst for revenge, a thirst for attaining a set goal.

Drive is of course one of the human characteristics under observation. Some men will kill without compunction for very little gain while others are provoked or stretched beyond endurance before a crime is committed.  Dostoevsky’s narrator (clearly a very thinly veiled Dostoevsky) makes his observations about these two brigands: both very frightening, violent individuals–but one is an example of the triumph of the spirit over the flesh. We see Dostoevsky marveling at Orlov, and finding much to admire in spite of the fact that Orlov is a murderer.

notes from a dead houseDostoevsky is clearly fascinated by the subject of murder & what drives a person to commit this extreme act, yet at the same time, he realizes that one murder cannot necessarily be compared to another, and this is illustrated by the story of Baklushin, one of the many unforgettable characters in the book. Baklushin’s crime was a crime of passion; he murders an annoying German who’s about to marry the woman Baklushin loves.  Another murderer, Gazin, “a terrible creature,” would torment and then knife children “with enjoyment.

That evening, already in the dark, before they locked the barracks, I wandered near the fence, and a heavy sadness fell on my soul, and never again did I experience such sadness in all my prison life. It was hard to endure the first day of imprisonment, wherever it might be: in a prison, in a fortress, at hard labor. But I remember being occupied most of all by one thought, which afterwards constantly pursued me during all my life in prison– a partly insoluble thought, insoluble for me even now: about the inequality of punishment for the same crime. True, crimes cannot be compared with each other, even approximately. For instance, two criminals each killed a man; the circumstance of both cases are weighed, and both end up with the same punishment. Yet look at the difference between the crimes. One, for instance, put a knife into a man just like that, for nothing, for an onion; he came out on the high road, put a knife into a muzhik, and all the man had was an onion. “Look, man! You sent me out to rob: so I put a knife in a muzhik and all I found on him was an onion.” “Fool! An onion’s a kopeck! A hundred men–a hundred kopecks. There’s a rouble for you!” (A prison legend.) But another killed defending the honor of his bride, his sister, his daughter from the lust of a tyrant. One killed as a vagrant beset by a whole regiment of pursuers, defending his freedom, his life, often dying of hunger; another cuts little children’s throats for the pleasure of it, to feel their warm blood on his hands, to enjoy their fear, their last dove-like trembling under his knife. And what then? They both go to the same hard labor. True, there are variations in the length of the sentences. But these variations are relatively few; while the variations in one and the same crime are a numberless multitude. For each character there is a variation. But suppose it’s impossible to reconcile, to smooth over this difference, that it’s an insoluble problem–sort of like squaring the circle–let’s suppose so!

But murder isn’t the only crime under scrutiny here. The narrator notes how one man steals from him–even though he likes him–just because he can. There are others, according to Dostoevsky’s narrator who “are simply destitute by nature.” The narrator explains these “certain strange persons, placid and not at all lazy, who are destined by fate to remain eternally destitute.” In prison, these types pop up to offer their cheap services, and as they exist on the bottom rung of humanity, they are misused and underpaid. Another type noted by the narrator are those who “are born with one idea, which unconsciously moves them here and there all their lives; so they rush about all their lives until they find something they really want to do; then they are ready to risk their necks.” Illustrating that some crimes are committed under a unique set of circumstances, he notes that one man who killed his “superior for striking him,” will “lie down so unprotestingly under the rods … as if he acknowledged that he deserved it.”

The narrator also describes daily life in the prison along with its complicated economic system (from the moneylenders to the invalids) and the significance of alcohol. Prison life–a life that teaches patience–has its highs and its lows. Christmas is a particularly poignant time for the prisoners, and at one point, the prisoners put on a play. The importance of work is also scrutinized:

It occurred to me once that if they wanted to crush, to annihilate a man totally, to punish him with the most terrible punishment, so that the most dreadful murderer would shudder at this punishment and be frightened of it beforehand, they would only need to give the labor a character of complete, total useless and meaningless … if he were forced, for instance, to pour water from one tub into another and from the other into the first, to grind sand, to carry a pile of dirt from one place to another and back again–I think the prisoner would hand himself after a few days, or commit a thousand crimes, to die rather than endure such humiliation, shame, and torment.

The narrator observes the often irrational lengths men will go to “to put off the moment of punishment,” the kindness of the doctors, how the prisoners’ verbal altercations rarely escalate into violence, how some prisoners live for the next alcohol binge, and how “blood and power intoxicate.”  While Dostoevsky’s observations about human nature are incredibly detailed, he is never clinical; he never forgets that the prisoners–in spite of the many degradations of their living conditions–are beings whose humanity must be recognized.

Even the much hated major loves his poodle.

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part I

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.

notes from a dead houseIn 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

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