Notes from the House of the Dead
A New Translation.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2013
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Reviewed by Sara Olson Dean
The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne, imprisoned as a young man. In a moment of daring, working alone in the warden’s office, Andy locks the door and plays a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the PA system. Everyone in the prison can hear it, including the warden, who quickly begins the process of getting into his locked office. But while the music plays, the prisoners are transfixed. The film’s narrator, another convict, reflects, “I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
This scene came to mind as I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. Convict Alexander Petrovich Gorianchikov is serving a decade-long sentence in one of Russia’s penal colonies in Siberia. He recalls the Christmas program put on by his fellow convicts. “Picture the prison, the shackles, the captivity, the long, sad years stretching ahead, a life as monotonous as water dripping on a gray autumn day – and suddenly all these oppressed captives are allowed for one short hour to relax their souls (161).” And, a few hours later, “the convicts dispersed joyfully and contentedly… These poor men were allowed to live a little in their own way, to enjoy themselves like human beings, to live a brief hour outside their prison existence (168).” This moment poignantly stands out against the dismal backdrop of a dehumanizing prison.
Truly, the book earns its title. Through Gorianchikov’s eyes, we absorb his impressions of the barracks, the hospital, the work, the patterns of prison life. We meet fellow convicts, hear about their personalities, crimes, their arguments. Vivid descriptions and anecdotes invite us into a world in which the convict is tormented by boredom, forced cohabitation, robbery, fighting, loneliness, beatings, insanity… and all of this while shackled! Little wonder that Gorianchikov says, “I was increasingly tormented by a terrible, devouring anguish. ‘The house of the dead,’ I’d say to myself” (86). And yet, this book is no mere catalogue of prison’s hardships. Gorianchikov is a keen observer of human nature, and poses significant questions. What is the nature of prison? How does it shape the human soul? Whence does the possibility of resurrection arise?
Consider the bathhouse. A platoon of soldiers escorted the prisoners to the bathhouse to bathe in shifts. Gorianchikov:
when we opened the door into the bathroom itself, I thought we had entered hell… Steam blinds your eyes; there’s soot, dirt, and human flesh packed together so densely that there’s nowhere to put your feet. I was frightened and wanted to go back… This whole mass of men was shouting and howling to the accompaniment of a hundred chains dragging on the floor… It occurred to me that if all of us are ever in hell together, it’ll bear a very close resemblance to this place (125-7).
And yet, there is Petrov. Petrov helped Gorianchikov to navigate the bathhouse, to find a place to sit and wash. Or, rather, to sit and be washed. “Petrov announced that he was going to wash me from head to toe (127)” – and he did. Here, in the midst of hell, is a man washing not only the feet of his neighbor, but his whole broken, scarred, shackled body. And in this miserable scene, was I catching a glimpse of hell, or of salvation?
Gorianchikov is clear on one thing: life is found amidst death in acts of love and kindness. One prisoner helps another. Animals are loved and tended. Widows share their alms with the convicts; doctors treat them with kindness. These things do not entirely mitigate prison’s darkness, but they permit the human soul to survive with some semblance of hope. Consider these words:
A convict knows he’s a convict, an outcast… but no branding and no shackles can make him forget that he’s a human being. And since he really is a human being, it follows that he has to be treated humanely. God knows, humane treatment can humanize even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured… This is their salvation and their joy (116).