Speech as Freedom, Silence as Bondage: Gorjanchikov and Storytelling in Zapiski iz mertvogo doma

David J. Galloway, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Zapiski iz mertvogo doma, the fictional Aleksandr Petrovich Gorjanchikov's memoir of penal servitude, contains many narratives about the lives of prisoners who were incarcerated with him. These stories appear casually transmitted, formalized, told with full quotation marks suggesting authenticity, or merely apocryphal and legendary. These tales, most of which are initially told to Gorjanchikov by the convicts themselves, are separate documents within the main novel. Two stories in particular, "Rasskaz Baklushina" and "Akul'kin muzh" attract attention by violating the cultural norms of prison life; specifically, the injunction against telling stories of one's crime.

Storytelling is a principal subtext for Zapiski iz mertvogo doma, both in terms of Gorjanchikov's internal narrative and in the editor's introduction. The inability to tell a tale is similar to the anguish of being forced to work. As Gorjanchikov reveals, forced labor is not difficult because it is particularly challenging in the physical sense, but because it is forced and by performing it, the prisoner must submit to another's will. Likewise, being forbidden to tell one's story by the cultural norm (enforced by the other prisoners) is difficult to bear. In a social setting of so many stories waiting to be told, Gorjanchikov is an exception, a man who lacks his own story (considering the editor's explanation to be an extraliterary fact in this case) within the context of the prison. Robert Jackson has aptly observed that he "is at times almost forgotten in his fascinating descriptions of the convicts..." (54). It is fitting that a man so concerned with the stories of others should never say a word about his past. Aleksandr Petrovich Gorjanchikov not only narrates the tale, but he collects its various parts, and on many occasions only his relentless pursuit of the inmates' pasts allows such vivid portraits to be drawn.

Gorjanchikov appears throughout the novel as less a convict concerned with his personal crime than an ethnographer, dutifully recording the byt of the Siberian prison camp and concentrating on stories. This is in contrast with his presentation throughout the novel, which is of a sort of drone who watches while others go about their business. He usually records, but is very rarely the impetus for any action. Thus, his pursuit of stories is strange. Also, there is the fact that he is a nobleman, and nearly every story told to him is delivered by a member of the lower classes. Gorjanchikov, though obviously aware of the stricture, nevertheless displays a stunning ignorance of it. Instead, he takes every opportunity when speaking with the inmates to entire them to relate their tales, and invariably he targets the crime (usually a murder) by asking specifically about what caused the individual to be sentenced to Siberian imprisonment.

Many views of Dostoevskij's novel consider Gorjanchikov as a perfunctory narrative presence only thinly disguising Dostoevskij's own experience. While aspects of this view are accurate, dismissing Gorjanchikov obscures his actual, valuable role in the novel: he instigates storytelling, and as such he directly violates the cultural standard by encouraging convicts to tell their tales at almost every opportunity. His efforts, when seen as crucial to the theme of storytelling in the novel, illustrate Dostoevskij's preoccupation with the strata of the prison culture and issues of compliance with and violation of the behavioral code. Literal freedom and bondage find an alternate expression in the freedom to speak one's story versus the social prohibition against doing so.