09 July 2010

Book Review: House of the Dead

Title:  The House of the Dead
Author:  Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translator: Constance Garnett
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Release Date: 25 April 2004
Original Release Date: 1862
Date Finished: 3 July 2010

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, Reading ResolutionsHogwarts Reading Challenge,

Who is Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky was a Russian writer who lived between 1821 and 1881.  His claim to fame revolves around his novels which delve into the psychology of those on the fringe of society.  Early on he focused on the lower classes.  In his first novel, an epistolary called Poor Folk, Dostoevsky wrote about the harsh conditions facing the poor. While he continued to write about the more disenfranchised or "unfortunate of society", his most famous works, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, explore the morality of murder.

Dostoevsky's interest in and knowledge of the minds of murderers may be the result of the time he spent in a Siberian prison.  In 1847, he joined the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of intellectuals who discussed Western philosophy and literature.  While this sounds fine and dandy, the group opposed aristocracy, which was a surefire way to piss of the tsarist Russian government.  In 1849, many members of the Circle were arrested, including Dostoevsky, and he was sentenced to four years in prison and another four years in the army.

The Short and Sweet of It
The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical accounting of his time in the Siberian prison.  While many of the stories, experiences, and even the people are true-to-life, Dostoevsky created a fictional narrator, Alexandr Petrovich, who is serving ten years for murdering his wife. By creating a fictional character, Dostoevsky was able to insert biting political and social commentary into his writing; quite the brave thing to do after he had already been imprisoned for disagreeing with the government.  Reading like a well-lived man recounting memories, The House of the Dead is a beauteous philosophical ramble that will stay with me for a long time.

A Bit of a Ramble
There is beauty in language, and I must admit that sometimes I forget this as I read less literary books.  Let me be clear, I love a wide variety of books, and I feel no shame in reading works which are written in simple terms with standard cadence, no shame in the guilty pleasures.  And yet, when I pick up a book like this, a classic novel that creates a unique rhythm and high-style to the language, I am moved.  In this instance, that is in part due to the translation; after all, I'm not reading this in Russian. But I find that classic works have a greater likelihood of complex prose than modern novels. Literature became standardized for the masses, and the language of literature became more normalized, more like everyday speech. Sometimes I miss the nuanced language of the classics, the artful and articulate weaving of words, that can be lacking in popular contemporary novels.

Outside of the language, The House of the Dead also places a feast of philosophical dishes before readers:
the relationship between character and freedom, the necessity of purpose, the difficulties in assessing and punishing crimes, the importance of choice, appearance versus reality, the gap between the classes, the strength of hope, and the list goes on and on.

He reflects through anecdotes, not abstract thought, relating specific events, causes and effects, that happened before his eyes.  These are not the musings of an intellectual constructing theories while reclining in his armchair or beside a flowing stream. These are the reasoned observations of one who is living it, and yet partially removed by his difference from the masses. Dostoevsky entered prison a gentleman, a leisured thinker, and found himself surrounded by criminals of the lower class.  His inclusion in the life of the prison did not transcend the class difference, and so Dostoevsky and the narrator he constructed for the novel are at once participant and observer.

I find myself rambling here, mixing the book and reality in much the same way Dostoevsky has, but in my defense, I can not review in a normal fashion.  The plot is nonexistent, the characters many and sporadic, the themes varied, etc. While the story is told chronologically from Petrovich's first day in prison through to his last, there is no real conflict. What Dostoevsky has done is create a portrait, a multidimensional complex image of life in prison.  He moves from event to event from person to person, offering a snapshot of individual instances and inmates, that when combined, form a comprehensive whole that is rather powerful.

I could relate for you the myriad scenes and quotes that captured my mind, the stories that moved me or challenged me, for there were many.  But instead I am going to implore you to pick this book up, to read for yourself the stories of the eccentric, unique, and oddly charming convicts that peppered Dostoevsky / Petrovich's life while he was in prison.

For an absolutely fantastic review of this book, check out The Lectern.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

Jandy's Reading Room; Read it online at Google Books; Check out the rest of the Russian Imperial Tour at The Classics Circuit.

Question:  What other books should I read that offer a complex portrait rather than a focused story?


  1. I'm probably not the best person to answer that question because I have read so very few classics. I think I allow myself to be intimidated by books like this, which is dumb. I keep telling myself I need to take one year just to read them. But I did read Father and Sons by Ivan Turgenev and found it to be of little plot and alot of character study. And I loved it, what do you know?

  2. I am very scared of Dostoevsky.

  3. This sounds awesome! I've read C&P and THE IDIOT, but haven't tried this one. Sounds like I better add it to the list!

  4. The book and its subject matter sound fascinating, but I'm always afraid I'm not smart enough to read books like that.

  5. Trish what an impressive review. I've shied away from Russian authors because I am so ignorant of their pronunciations and because of that I cannot seem to connect with the characters. (I find myself always changing how I pronounce them in my head). A pretty lame excuse, though, isn't it?

  6. I really love this book and this guy. Not to many people know this about me but I have a Ph.D in History and am forever pouring over non-fiction historical tomes or ancient lit, and classics. I really love the dramatization to his actual sentence.

  7. This reminds me that I need to get cracking on The Brothers Karamazov! One Dostoevsky at a time, although this does sound interesting.

  8. Sandy - Trust me, this isn't a scary difficult read; it's really accessible!

    Amanda - I was too, but seriously his writing is very accessible.

    Bibliolatrist - I really enjoyed it, obviously, so I would definitely recommend picking it up...especially if you already like Dostoevsky.

    Kathy - This books was very accessible (man I've said that a lot in these comments). And I've no doubt you are plenty smart!

    Christina - Totally lame excuse! Now go out and get some Dostoevsky!

    Pam - This was my first Dostoevsky, but you can bet I'll be picking up others. Do you ever blog about the history/classics/etc.?

    Jill - I really should join that read-a-long! I was scared of Dostoevsky but now I'm sort of crushing on him.

  9. I haven't read any of his stuff because I generally have a rocky relationship with the Russians, but this one sounds perfectly worth the effort. Great review, Trisha!

  10. Andi - It really was an excellent read in my opinion. So beautifully written and thought-provoking.

  11. This sounds really interesting. I'm still a tad too intimidated to try it, but maybe some day :)

    Also, I might just have a suggestion... there is this book, you may have heard of it, called Stone in a Landslide... ;)

  12. I am impressed that you have read Dostoevsky. I have picked up Crime & Punishment, and Brothers Karamazov several times but have not finished them because there are so many names to remember. I need to make a cheat sheet!

    I do understand what you mean about the more complex and almost lyrical prose of the classics. There are reasons that so much today is labeled "chick lit" or "cozy mystery". A good, solid literary novel has such beauty and intelligence in the language that it makes it an intellectual delight to read.

  13. I'm so glad you enjoyed this so much! You have really encouraged me to pick up Dostoevsky. This is why I love the Classics Circuit - it constantly encourages me to read things I thought would go over my head.

    As for the language thing, I think it has to do with how we use language in general in the late 20th and early 21st century. It has become so much more informal - it's natural that fiction would reflect this. Also, there's so much more being published today that it's only natural that books with simpler prose exists alongside more lyrical books. But the amount of beautifully written novels hasn't decreased, I don't think. I do see what you're saying, but I think it's dangerous to forget that in the 19th century novels WERE a popular form of mass entertainment. So I don't think the mass appeal of fiction and the simplification of its language go hand in hand necessarily.

  14. Amy - Ha! That just went on my list after reading the review on your site. Definitely fate!

    Rebecca - Exactly! And it's not that I don't love the easy reads, but there is something majestic about the more complex use of language.

    Ana - It really was a great read. As for language, I completely agree with what you've said. I actually just finished a book that makes me eat my words (and I think I say so in the review). I think that before reading this I had just been stuck in a rut of mediocre writing combined with simplistic language.

  15. Great review -- I especially liked the way you summarized the philosophical ideas this book offers. This sounds like something I'd probably love. I also want to re-read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers K.

  16. See..now everything you said about why you love classics is EXACTLY WHY I don't like them. I fear that I'm a lazy modern reader. Yet I keep trying. I'm just now starting The Brothers Karamazov so we'll see how it goes. I started last night and got a headache from the names.

  17. Stephanie - Thanks! I haven't read anything else by Dostoevsky, but I certainly plan to.

    Jenners - I should get in on this BK read-a-long, but I have so much else I'm supposed to be reading!

  18. I am reading my first Dostoevsky right now and already loving it. I can't wait to read more of his books.

  19. Stephanie - Yay! I can't wait to pick up another Dostoevsky; unfortunately I have so many books on my TBR piles, it may be years until I get back around to him.

  20. I absolutely love Crime and Punishment for many of the same reasons you share: the beautiful language, the complex portraits of people. I think that has a nice plot too, but I'm a fan of subtle plots. I'm kind of afraid of other Dostoevsky novels because I am afraid that they won't live up -- this sounds like it sure does! Thanks.

  21. Rebecca - I have Crime and Punishment sitting on my shelves; it's been there for years, but I've been scared to pick it up. I definitely will be now.


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