The traditional reading of Dostoevskij’s Notes from the House of the Dead as a straightforward redemption narrative needs reconsideration. Major scholars (Jackson in Art of Dostoevsky and Frank in Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865) hail the novel for its justification of peasant convicts by uncovering the inhuman conditions of the peasant life in Russia. This kind of justification, however, contradicts another insight that both critics emphasize about Dostoevskij – his belief that social injustice cannot excuse anyone from individual responsibility. Frank seems to have overlooked the contradiction, while Jackson, although he acknowledges it, does not resolve it. Both critics interpret the novel on the basis of selected biographical evidence, particularly Dostoevskij’s own words about his experience in prison and in exile. While resorting to biographical evidence can be fruitful, in the case of House of the Dead it has lead to an oversight of crucial textual features and to the overall decrease of critical distance.
A critical re-evaluation of the novel has already begun. In a recent article, Karla Oeler focused on the tension between the frame narrator’s preface and the main narrator’s “Scenes from the House of the Dead” and revealed the novel’s ambiguity on the question of whether social injustice can be redemptive. In contrast to other critics, Oeler draws on the text itself rather than on biographical evidence; similarly to them, however, she takes the main narrator Gorjančikov at his word. I suggest challenging the authority of Gorjančikov in order to explore the issue further.
Gorjančikov ’s presentation is one of the largely neglected features of the novel. Frank and Jackson see him as the voice of Dostoevskij himself, an objective and unintrusive narrator who relates what he sees “without illusions” (Jackson 68). I argue that there is much tension in Gorjančikov’s presentation of prison life. This tension arises from the clash between Gorjančikov’s belief that one is always responsible for one’s every action on the one hand and his desire to justify the peasant convicts on the other. In the text, the tension is manifest in Gorjančikov’s contradicting his own words, in his conscious or unconscious refusal to acknowledge his own insights into the peasant psychology, and in the kind of language he chooses as he generalizes about his experience. In the end, I suggest that Notes from the House of the Dead should be seen as an open narrative reflecting Dostoevskij’s own ambivalence on the subjects of crime and influence of the environment as opposed to individual responsibility.
Oeler, Karla. “The Dead Wives in the Dead House: Narrative Inconsistency and Genre Confusion in Dostoevskii’s Autobiographical Prison Novel.” Slavic Review 61.3 (2002): 519-34.