Translation: H. Sutherland Edwards, 1911 (revised 1962) (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Everyman, 1962
Review number: 1291
Russia has long been known for the harshness of its justice system, and its literature includes several notable depictions of cruel prisons, including much of the work of Solzhenitsyn. A long time before the gulags of Stalin, Dostoyevsky produced The House of the Dead, a work which proved to be the turning point of his career. Before this appeared, just before his fortieth birthday, he had produced several fairly minor works very much in the shadow of Gogol, either parodying or imitating the older writer. After it, he had found his own style, much more realistic and with a new interest in psychology; and he went on to produce some of the most famous and influential novels in any language, from Crime and Punishment to The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoyevsky was sent to prison in Siberia in 1849, after being identified as the ringleader of a group of Socialists. (His punishment was particularly cruel psychologically, as he was sentenced to be executed then reprieved deliberately at the last moment.) Although his sentence was four years hard labour, it was another few years before he was permitted to return to a more or less normal life, and some more again before he was able to write about it. Even then, he toned things down for public consumption; after some of the more horrific or unjust scenes, he took pains to point out that "This practise has now been stopped" (or a similar phrase), and he was less graphic in his descriptions than in a letter to his brother. He also adopted a fairly transparent device, using as a narrator a fictitious prisoner, whose papers were supposedly obtained by Dostoyevsky after his death. Solzhenitsyn would do something similar in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about a century later. He, however, was not so successful in persuading the authorities to turn a blind eye. (As an aside, it has for some time amazed me how transparent fictions like this could pass the censor in the nineteenth century - there are many examples from Italian opera; either those whose job it was to keep control of literature and drama were remarkably naive and stupid, or they were willing to collude as long as appearances were kept up.)
There are some truly unpleasant practices exposed in The House of the Dead, most notably in the descriptions of barbaric corporal punishment and the appalling conditions in the prison hospital. Both these scenes seem more shocking to readers today, when ideas of hygeine are more readily accepted and extreme cruelty rejected. Throughout most of the book, the main impression that the reader gets is that most prisoners stoically accept their lot, and the biggest problems being the psychological ones caused the futility of the life they are forced to lead and their loss of liberty. These seem to me to both be projections by Dostoyevsky onto the majority of prisoners (who continually refuse to accept the narrator as a companion, because of the noble birth he shares with Dostoyevsky) - they must have been part of the normal life of a Russian peasant, tied to the land of the men who (at the time the of Dostoyevsky's imprisonment) owned them. Valid or not, his ideas about the psychology of men under extreme pressure and the nature of good and evil formed the seeds of the central characters in his novels. To today's readers, Raskolnikov and the others may seem rather melodramatic and overdrawn, but they certainly have depth and vitality which goes beyond almost all his contemporaries. Their personalities are rooted in their situations, and change as their circumstances change, something which is true of few other literary creations, of any era. Among other nineteenth century writers, the only one I can think of who did this as consistently as Dostoyevsky is George Eliot.
Dostoyevsky's work is far more melodramatic, more extreme, than Eliot, of course, and part of that is presumably also rooted in the experiences he had in prison. The injustices of the life led there must have helped shape his ideas about good and evil, and moral culpability, which play such an important part in his important novels. This is easy to see, even though we cannot really know how closely his own experiences match the incidents related in The House of the Dead. This means that the book is the starting point for any serious reading of Dostoyevsky.