Read an Excerpt
From Joseph Frank's Introduction to House of the Dead and Poor Folk
If one were asked to select two books of Dostoevsky that represent the variety and range of his literary talent, no better choice could be made than the ones published in this volume. Dostoevsky is best known for his larger and later novels, such as Crime and Punishment and The Devils (also translated as The Possessed), and an influential critical tradition views him primarily as the unsurpassed chronicler of the moral-psychological dilemmas of the alienated, refractory urban intelligentsia. This aspect of his work has had the greatest influence on later writers, particularly as he became more widely read outside of Russia; but it represents much too limited a perspective on the full scope of his creations.
To be sure, there are elements of the later Dostoevsky in Poor Folk, with its vivid depiction of the St. Petersburg background and its first embryonic sketch of educated types; but its main character is not a member of the intelligentsia at all and anything but rebellious. He is a humble, socially and emotionally downtrodden clerk in the vast Russian bureaucracy of St. Petersburg, frightened to death at his temerity in questioning, even in thought, the supreme virtues of the God-ordained order in which he lives.
The House of the Dead, on the other hand, stands alone in the Dostoevsky corpus as an unprecedented depiction, the first in Russian literature, of the prison gulags of the vast czarist empire. Dostoevsky's initial readers were shocked by the conditions of life he described, but we have since learned from Solzhenitsyn that these gulags were relatively humane compared to their successors under the Bolsheviks. The book also contains a gallery of Russian peasant types and sketches of Russian peasant life that equal those of Turgenev and Tolstoy, both of whom admired the book (Tolstoy thought it the best work Dostoevsky had ever written). Such peasant types are depicted only fleetingly in the major novels; but they were by no means, as we see here, outside Dostoevsky's creative purview. These two books are thus miles apart in theme and artistic treatment. The first initiates Dostoevsky's exploration of guilt-ridden characters; the second demonstrates his ability as an objective reporter and observer of a new social milieu. But there is one thing they have in common: Both opened the path to fame (if not to fortune) for their author. Poor Folk brought him to the forefront of the Russian literary scene at the age of twenty-four, and for a brief period he was, quite literally, the talk of the town.
Dostoevsky began The House of the Dead when he was thirty-nine, having returned to Russia after serving a prison sentence in Siberia and being absent from the literary scene for ten years. His first creations at this time, the novellas Uncle's Dream and The Friend of the Family, were received quite tepidly, and it was generally felt that his talent had not survived his exile. His prison memoirs, however, convinced even his detractors that they had been mistaken. These memoirs created a sensation by opening up a hitherto concealed world for the Russian reader; and the outcast criminal inhabitants of this hidden universe, generally looked down upon as little better than subhuman, were treated by Dostoevsky with respect and even occasionally with sympathy. He made no effort to conceal their sometimes horrendous crimes; but he saw them as sentient human beings whose behavior deserved to be understood if not pardoned.