By Chet Yarbrough
By Fyodor Dostoevsky
Narrated by Walter Covell
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing and psychological insight seduces admirers into reading or listening to his lesser known works. Seduction comes from wanting to know the source of Dostoevsky’s human insight and literary genius.
Dostoevsky spent time in a Siberian prison, was scheduled for execution by firing squad, received a last-minute reprieve, suffered from a gambling addiction, and lived to write two of the greatest masterpieces of all time, “Crime and Punishment” and “Brothers Karamazov”. Long before Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind, Dostoevsky understood and wrote about subconscious human motivation. (He also wrote a lesser known work, “The Idiot”, that rivals his masterpieces in character development.)
“The House of the Dead” reflects on Dostoevsky’s time in prison. In disjointed sketches of prisoners, one hears the voices of Raskolnikov, Sonya, Prince Myshkin, Svidrigalov, the Karamazovs (Fyodor, Dimitri, Alyosha, and Ivan), and Pavel Smerdyakov. “The House of the Dead” was published in 1862, “Crime and Punishment” in 1866, “The Idiot” in 1869, and “Brothers Karamazov” in 1880.
Dostoyevsky writes, in “The House of the Dead”, that prison populations are a microcosm of the world—with proportionate shares of bad and good people with equally evil and beatific instincts. He believes prison is only an institution of punishment; not of reform, with an inference that “what goes in comes out”. (Many today would agree that prison is only for punishment, but would add–what goes in comes out as a more skilled law-breaker, thief, or murderer; and worse, those going in, either good or bad, are more likely to come out as future criminals. That is a subject for another book.)
In “The House of the Dead”, a listener meets characters like Raskolnikov, before he confesses his guilt; i.e. people who think they are above the law and can murder or punish with impunity because they are gods unto themselves, and possess innate human superiority. In a prison environment, when human beings possess totalitarian power, or zero power (like a prisoner), they enter a state of nature; no crime becomes unthinkable or too great.
Dostoyevsky introduces inmates that believe life is lived for pleasure like the womanizer Svidrigalov in “Crime and Punishment”, the licentious son, Dimitri Karamazov, or the lascivious patriarch, Fyodor Karamazov in “Brothers Karamazov”. Some inmates became prisoners because they were undisciplined pleasure seekers, without moderation in life. They drank to excess, they seduced with abandon, and stole without remorse.
To these immoderate hedonists, money becomes the preeminent desire with a wish to live more comfortably or drink more vodka. In contrast, Dostoevsky tells the story of Sonya-like characters that live near the prison camp that are saintly in their devotion to prisoners.
Siberian prisons are also home to political radicals like Ivan Karamazov who, early in life, do not believe in God or the right of Czars to rule other’s lives. Dostoevsky tells the story of prisoners that use religious observance like baptism in the hope that they will escape punishment ordered by the court or the prison hierarchy. Ivan Karamazov uses such arguments to discount the necessity for religious observance. God cannot exist in Ivan’s mind, as revealed in his arguments with “The Grand Inquisitor”, because there is too much injustice in the world.
Ivan Karamazov takes responsibility for patricide in “The Brothers Karamazov” even though the murderer is his illegitimate brother. Dostoevsky recalls the story of a prisoner set free for having killed his father, when another confesses. Ivan’s ability to influence others to act, without coercion but with words, is reflected in prison relationships noted in “The House of the Dead”
Prison is also home to the innocent that are victimized by life because of their pacific nature. The innocents seek to please everyone. They are like Prince Myskin in “The Idiot”, or Alyosha in “The Brothers Karmazov”. These innocents are drawn to violent or dominant characters, either as supplicants or enablers. The Prince Myskins become servants to intellectuals in the prison. The Alyoshas are the intellectuals, the aristocrats, the educated, the wise men; in some respects the enablers, that are sought by the insecure for advice, guidance, knowledge, or forgiveness.
“The House of the Dead” is not a well written book but it is a useful primer on character development in literature. It shows that great writers develop over time and that their development is based on experience recollected, and disciplined observation in quietude; i.e. in prisons of their own making.