Redemption or Moral Reform? Dostoevskij’s Notes from the House of the Dead and the Contemporary Discourse on Penology

Anna Kaladiouk, University of California, Davis

Many readings of Dostoevskij’s Notes from the House of the Dead which discuss the question of redemption, approach it as a moral and existentialist problem. Some critics consider the Christian theme of man’s restoration from the fallen state to be the central theme of the novel (Robert Louis Jackson) and suggest that redemption there takes the shape of an attained sense of unity with the Russian people (Gary Rosenshield). Other critics, in contrast, argue that the novel does not authorize redemptive readings. They believe that the frightening world of irrational and boundless destruction that Gorjančikov encounters in the House of the Dead releases him, at the end of the novel, just as crushed spiritually and emotionally as it receives him in the beginning. (Victor Šklovskij, Edward Wasiolek)

My paper takes up a similar set of concerns from a historical perspective. It discusses Dostoevskij’s vision of redemption alongside the contemporary discourse on crime, prisons and moral rehabilitation of criminals. Reading the Notes as a more or less hidden polemic with the contemporary discourse on penology, much of which was influenced by Western ideas, I argue that the notion of redemption as it emerges from the novel differs in important ways from the idea of moral reform of criminals (i.e., secular version of redemption) as we see it in the contemporary discourse on crime and punishment. Far from being an effect of disciplinary regimes, redemption/reformation in Dostoevskij has nothing to do with discipline, with routinization of the body, or with the structuring of time and socialization. Instead, redemption figures in the novel as a function of individual conscience and result of one’s conscious moral effort. I will suggest that this contrast derives from the fundamentally different models of self as they appear in the discourse on penology and in the writings of Dostoevskij. While the promise of penitentiary science depended on an idea of a pliable self which was susceptible to reformative intervention, the paradigm of self that we find in Dostoevskij is characterized by the presence of a fixed and stable core which the “penitentiary” model denied.

I will discuss Dostoevskij’s polemic with the contemporary discourse on penology on multiple levels, pointing both to the instances of overt critique and to the moments of more subtle resistance. As an example of Dostoevskij’s open criticism of current thinking about moral rehabilitation of criminals, I will consider the significance of his negative commentary on the reformative potential of the so-called Separate (or cellular) system of prison discipline. Other moments of resistance will be located on the level of narrative structure. I will suggest, for example, that insofar as the novel proceeds through a series of digressions, repetitions, and flashbacks, it disrupts linearity, progression, continuity and sequence, qualities that are not only typical of the realist novel, but also of penitentiary sentence.