Friday, August 20, 2010

Dostoevsky's House of the Dead

I've been spending the week reading the 19th-century Russian novelist Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead for a seminar that I'm teaching in the fall.  Better known as the author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's "Notes from The House of the Dead" are generally thought to be a memoir of the time that he spent in a Siberian prison-camp.

One night in April 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for attending secret meetings of a literary and intellectual group known as "the Petrashevsky Circle."  Although the group was interested in discussing and promoting utopian socialist ideas that obviously ran counter to the politics of the Czarist regime, by almost all accounts the most radical action that they undertook was an attempt to establish an underground printing press.  

No one really seems to have thought of the group as a serious threat to the government of Nicholas I; however, because of the revolutionary climate in Europe at the time, there was widespread concern that the insurrections occuring there would prove contagious and so Nicholas was eager to make an example of this secret society.  After months of imprisonment, on the morning of December 22nd, Dostoevsky and the other members of the group were led to Semenovsky Square in St. Petersburg, where they were condemned to death.

What Dostoevsky and the others didn't know, was that the entire execution scene was staged: the first three members of the group were blindfolded and tied to stakes, but just as the order was about to be given to the firing squad, a messenger galloped in on horseback, proclaiming the mercy of the Czar.  Dostoevsky spent the longest three minutes of his life, no doubt, grappling with the thought that he was about to die, only to be given a reprieve.  He would later describe his experience in a story told by the protagonist of his novel The Idiot, and the scene itself was depicted in a drawing by Pokrovsky:

Dostoevsky's sentence was commuted from death to hard labor in a Siberian prison-camp, to be followed by service in the Russian military in Siberia.  He did not know whether he would ever be allowed to return from exile, and there was no guarantee that he would ever be allowed to write and publish again.  

Usually, when I teach Dostoevsky, I'm most interested in his novels, and although that is still the case this time around, I find that I'm also more interested in The House of the Dead than I was previously.  What stands out to me is the extent to which Dostoevsky is continually fascinated by human nature and its impulses, for good and for evil.  He relishes analyzing the (usually trivial) events that send otherwise seemingly "normal" or "well-balanced" individuals over the edge, resulting in obviously life-altering consequences.  

In particular, Dostoevsky seems fascinated by the fact that, in most cases, murders are committed impulsively, rather than intentionally.  Or, paradoxically, that even when they seem intentional, they are still largely impulsive.  The House of the Dead is filled with stories of men who kill "just because"--in that particular moment, at that particular time, something propels them to commit an act that, under different circumstances, they might not otherwise have considered, much less attempted.  

For Dostoevsky, this becomes a source of psychological fascination and, oddly enough, hope.  While other 19th century writers and intellectuals are strenuously arguing that environment and predisposition "make" killers, he will insist that, at any given moment, an individual is always presented with an infinite array of options.  Intention is never absolutely determined or determinable, because no one of us can ever fully "know" our own intentions in the moment-- and even if we think we do, we may retrospectively realize that what we thought we "knew" about ourselves at that time was not in fact what we were feeling or acting upon.

We can be just as impulsive in our good deeds as we are in our acts of cruelty.  For Dostoevsky, because human nature is never absolutely predictable, there is always hope of redemption.

As Dostoevsky writes, " view of even the most terrible murderers was to change in many respects.  One man who had never killed anyone could be more terrifying than another who had been sentenced for six murders.  It was hard to form even the most elementary impression of some crimes, so strange were the circumstances in which they had been committed" (139-140).

1 comment:

  1. Funny that I should come across your review today--I've recently put House of the Dead in my Amazon cart, as part of a recent interest in Russia and its history. I knew that Dostoevsky was interested in the psychology of good, evil, and redemption, but had never heard the above quote before. Interesting.


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