Notes on Reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House

The Wounded Eagle (1870), Rosa Bonheur

The Wounded Eagle (1870), Rosa Bonheur

In every creature a spark of God.
—Leoš Janáček

On a slip of paper found in his clothes after his death, Leoš Janáček had written:

Why do I go into the dark, frozen cells of criminals with the poet of Crime and Punishment? Into the minds of criminals and there I find a spark of God. You will not wipe away the crimes from their brow, but equally you will not extinguish the spark of God. Into what depths it leads—how much truth there is in his work! See how the old man slides down from the oven, shuffles to the corpse, makes the sign of the cross over it, and with a rusty voice sobs the words: ‘A mother gave birth even to him!’ Those are the bright places in the house of the dead. [citation]

The “poet,” of course, was Fyodor Dostoevsky, from whose semi-autobiographical novel, Notes from a Dead House, Janáček created his opera, From the House of the Dead. I saw the fabled Patrice Chéreau production of the opera when it came to the Met Opera some years ago. The opera was my introduction to Janáček’s music, an experience a little like that of my first live baseball game (Ken Holtzman pitching for the Cubs in the first no-hitter in Wrigley field in nine years). Memorable, absolutely, but without a drop of context by which to appreciate what a significant event it was.

For one, I’d never read Dostoevsky’s book. This summer, I spotted a brand new Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Notes from a Dead House and had the peculiar idea it would make a good summertime read. Since college days, I’d tried and failed on several occasions to read The Idiot (which I now own in a Pevear/Volokhonsky translation that beckons balefully from a shelf). I got no further with attempts at the Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. I suppose I thought, as I’d seen the opera, that I might have a better chance with Dostoevsky this time around.

The first passage that riveted my attention contained a stark premonition of forced labor in concentration camps in World War II:

It occurred to me once that if they wanted to crush, to annihilate a man totally, to punish him with the most terrible punishment, so that the most dreadful murderer would shudder at this punishment and be frightened of it beforehand, they would only need to give the labor a character of complete, total uselessness and meaninglessness. [Notes from a Dead House 22]

Dostoevsky’s book is based on his own years as a prisoner sentenced to hard labor in Siberia for “his participation in a secret utopian socialist society” in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. [Notes vii] Dostoevsky’s choice of a fictional narrator and protagonist, the latter a nobleman convicted of killing his wife, were “in part a mask for the censors. . . . But the mask is dropped rather quickly.” [Notes xii] Of the relationship between the nobleman stripped of his rights and peasant prisoners, Dostoevsky observed:

every newcomer to prison, two hours after his arrival, becomes the same as all the others, at home, as rightfully a master in the prison association as any other. They all understand him, and he understands them all, is known to them all, and they all consider him one of theirs. Not so with a nobleman, a gentleman. No matter how fair, kind, intelligent he is, for years on end the whole mass of them will hate and despise him; they will not understand him and, above all, will not trust him. He is not a friend and not a comrade, and even if over the years he reaches a point where they no longer insult him, still he will never be one of them and will be eternally, painfully conscious of his estrangement and solitude. [Notes 253-4]

My response was immediately empathetic, and I had to stop myself to ask: Is it reasonable to grant more sympathy to the “ten times more tormenting” plight, as Dostoevsky put it, of the imprisoned nobleman than to the plight of those who’d never had the advantages the nobleman has lost?

Dostoevsky’s keen and considered observations of his time in prison offer up a slew of wrong lessons that imprisonment and punishment can impart. The major, a prison official with daily impact on the prisoners’ lives,

always has a need to crush someone, to take something away, to deprive someone of his rights—in short, to restore order somewhere. . . . There are punishments for mischief (so people like our major reason), and for these scoundrelly prisoners there is severity and an unrelenting, literal enforcement of the law—that’s all it takes! . . . These giftless enforcers of the law decidedly do not understand, and are incapable of understanding, that its literal enforcement alone, without thought, without an understanding of its spirit, leads straight to disorder and has never led to anything else. [Notes 146-7]

At the conclusion of the book, Dostoevsky described the redemptive “spark of God” that so moved Janáček:

how much youth was buried uselessly within these walls, how much great strength perished here for nothing! I must say it all: these people are extraordinary people. They are perhaps the most gifted, the strongest of all our people. But their mighty strength perishes for nothing, perishes abnormally, unlawfully, irretrievably. And who is to blame? [Notes 296]

Here, as elsewhere in the book, I was pulled up short. For many of the prisoners whose stories Dostoevsky related, the spark was surely there, but Shishkov’s tale of brutally beating and murdering his wife, without a trace of remorse, gave me considerable pause.

Listening List

Leoš Janáček, Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) (1927-1928) (Charles Mackerras/Vienna State Opera Chorus/Vienna Philharmonic)

 On Spotify

On YouTube


A review of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Notes from a Dead House may be found here.

Reviews of the Chéreau production at the Met Opera may be found here and here,  and a DVD of the Chéreau production, performed by Pierre Boulez/Arnold Schoenberg Choir/Mahler Chamber Orchestra, may be found here.

Excerpts from two perspectives on Shishkov’s tale (“Akulka’s Husband,” in Notes 211-220) may be found in Nancy Ruttenberg’s Dostoevsky’s Democracy (136-137) and Anna Schur’s Wages of Evil: Dostoevsky and Punishment (91-92)


Credits: The image at the head of the post may be found here. The text of the epigraph apparently appears at the head of Janáček’s score. The quotations may be found at the links indicated, together with the page number, where available.





17 thoughts on “Notes on Reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    Leave it to you to give me a musical connection to a book that otherwise I would probably never have discovered. I’ll be listening to that opera.

    Coincidentally, I had taken my own copy of ‘House of the Dead’ (an old used book I’ve owned for many years) off the shelf earlier this summer with the intention of reading, but I’m sunk deeply into ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ right now.

    This is why we read–your pondering on that question of suffering. I have thought for a long time that it is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge the degree of another person’s suffering, but it is very important to try.

    There are so many riches in Dostoyevsky’s works, but if the verboseness and repetition of his longer novels put you off, you might want to try his shorter works, which are just as good, if not better.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Though I’ve set a few thoughts down here, I find it very hard to articulate my various responses to this book and its subject matter. I agree with your comments about suffering, and some other questions that arise for me are these: Does punishment offer any real value? if, or to the extent that, it does not, what alternatives, what real solutions, might be found? What do you do with someone like Shishkov, who, to me, seemed quite beyond redemption?

  2. David N

    So I take from what you write that your feelings about the book are ambivalent? What I think is so marvellous about Janacek’s opera is that he gives the brutalised, murdered women in a couple of the prisoners’ narratives a ‘voice’ through the orchestra – it’s heartbreaking and pitiful.

    The opera had such an effect on me as a student in Edinburgh when Scottish Opera mounted David Pountney’s production that I had a very severe fever after it. I may have been sickening anyway, but I think I cried so much it weakened me.

    Worth reading: a very slim volume by Mikhail Khodorkovsky which shows the same understanding of fellow inmates and, of course, a profound anger against the Russian establishment in a contemporary context. The killings may be fewer, but not so much has changed since the days of the more repressive tsars…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: This may sound peculiar, if not downright idiotic, but I didn’t find Dostoyevsky a reliable guide to the circumstances he was describing. This came through most powerfully to me in his comment, “They are perhaps the most gifted, the strongest of all our people,” which I thought a pipe dream. What the book does do is give the prisoners back their full, complex, messy humanity. They are no longer ciphers. Yet, despite some subtle insights, I didn’t have confidence that Dostoevsky’s perspective offered much in the way of sorely needed wisdom for contemplation and assessment of the things he described.

      1. David N

        I think your original take is absolutely right and has made me think more about my adolescent infatuation with Dostoyevsky (I read all the big novels in translation when I undertook Russian Studies as an outside subject in second year of university, along with the two major Tolstoys, five of the Turgenevs, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol…I was obsessed and didn’t study much else that year). He was always too unbalanced to be objective. From his later behaviour, one might have thought that of Tolstoy too, and yet he is THE most objective and omniscient of novelists when he wants to be. He stays with me; I may yet reread the bigger Dostoyevskys but at the moment I don’t feel inclined to do so. The Gambler, though, is absolutely marvellous.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: I am so relieved that you’ve said this. From what you and Mark have both commented about Dostoevsky’s shorter works, I’ve ordered up The Gambler from the library in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. Also, I do hope I have a chance to see/hear Prokofiev’s opera based on it someday. As for Tolstoy, I’ve been thinking it’s soon going to be time for another read of War and Peace (also this time in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation). I love that book.

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – so interesting to read; the thought of enforced labour at any time, but in times of sheer absolute hell – these sorts of ‘use of the day’ would be absolutely appalling for many, and only a few could rise and live beyond, if it came.

    I’ve just got Conversations with Myself by Mandela … and I’m sure he’ll have some thoughts on the work in breaking up the sharp white limestone in the quarries on Robben Island.

    I’ve noted Mark’s comment too … cheers Hilary

  4. shoreacres

    Reading your entry, and the comments, I’m reminded of a line from Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?”

    I also found myself wondering if Dostoevsky, George Kennan (“Siberia and the Exile System”), Solzhenitsyn, and no doubt others whose work I’m not aware of, aren’t parts of the same process: telling and retelling, each in their own way, a story we hardly can grasp, yet badly need to hear.

    Even in the more trivial aspects of our lives, the same dynamics can appear. Dostoevsky was writing of far more serious matters, but two of my friends with experience of homeowners’ associations could just as easily have written this:

    “[They always have] a need to crush someone, to take something away, to deprive someone of his rights—in short, to restore order somewhere… There are punishments for mischief…and an unrelenting, literal enforcement of the law—that’s all it takes!… These giftless enforcers of the law decidedly do not understand, and are incapable of understanding, that its literal enforcement alone, without thought, without an understanding of its spirit, leads straight to disorder and has never led to anything else.”

    Of course, if the homeowners’ association is one end of the spectrum and the gulag is the other, there still are multitudes of situations in between where the same words would apply.

    And on a much more serious note, Shishkov’s tale recalls the actions of the man who shot one of our deputy sheriffs in the back a week ago. It was not a crime of passion. It wasn’t retribution. It was planned, and it was casual. I suspect part of the reason the city has been so affected by the experience is precisely that any evidence of that spark of God is harder to find than usual.

    1. shoreacres

      One added note. A friend just passed on this description of what happened to Monica Foy, a young woman who sent out an ill-considered tweet after Deputy Goforth’s murder. It seems one more example of the dynamic you pointed to: self-appointed enforcers trampling on whomever they please – apparently for the sheer (if perverse) pleasure of it.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        shoreacres: I think you’re right about that process of “telling and retelling, each in their own way, a story we hardly can grasp, yet badly need to hear,” though I wish that the telling and retelling would have a wider impact than seems to be the case. (With Dostoevsky, I had the impression that he could barely make sense of the experience he related, and no wonder.)

    2. David N

      Oh, that relationship between prison brutality and homeowners’ assocations has come at just the right time – we are about to have what’s bound to be a very acrimonious meeting with our totalitarian Board here in my square this evening. I’ll quote that with gratitude, shoreacres.

  5. angela

    Wonderful to read your entry, Susan. I am very much inspired to hunt down this opera as I was able to experience Janáček’s opera Jenůfa this summer and walked away captivated by his style. Must say I had not enjoyed an opera so much – been so ready to return to my seat after intermission- as I was this production. I’ve played with reading Crime and Punishment, but never committed. Based on the lively commenting here, I shall venture for a shorter work first! As always, a pleasure to read your musing. Peace ~ a

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: Terrific to hear from you! How wonderful that you were able to hear/see Jenůfa. I hope one day to have that chance, too. If you do get a chance to see Janáček’s From the House of the Dead–and/or read Dostoevsky’s book, I’d love to know your view. I’m now reading The Gambler (obtained from the Mid-Hudson Library system, which I know you’ll appreciate–in this case not ILL, but I sure have taken advantage of that again and again–what a great service, and I have you to thank for setting me on the trail of it). I’m so far finding The Gambler weirdly fascinating. Two memorable scenes so far are the protagonist taking on a French count at the dinner table (much to the horror of assembled guests) and the grandmother’s first whirl at the roulette table. Priceless.

      1. angela

        Susan, how your comment made me smile as I had forgotten about our ILL exchange! I am not sure how I missed it last night, but now listening to the Youtube link you provided – so glad for the quick reference, thank you!

  6. newleafsite

    Sue, now that the comments on this one have seemingly concluded, thought I’d slip in with a response which is entirely personal. I have not read Notes From a Dead House. I did read one of the novels you mention by Dostoevsky, a long time ago, and haven’t really thought about it again until you surprised me by bringing up this subject now. In the summer before I started college, the school to which I had most purposefully applied, and which had accepted me, mailed me a thick paperback entitled Crime and Punishment. There was a note, explaining that all incoming freshmen should read the novel and be prepared to discuss it in small groups with the upperclassman assigned to lead us through orientation. Dutiful and mesmerized, and in excited awe at my first assignment, I read it. Why did they want us to read that? Was it meant to be cautionary? Quiet and shy, I was a late bloomer unprepared with worldly experience to understand its possible implication for me.

    We freshmen were made to wear beanies for the first week of school, so everyone could spot us. My mind swimming in the bleak images of C&P, this new identity had an uneasy sense of the criminal about it. During the small group orientation, the older student leader asked whether we had all read the novel. We had. Did anyone have anything to say about it? Beanie-clad, we stared at him, speechless, all unwilling to begin – perhaps, like me, lest we appear guilty! Thankfully, he didn’t seem to want to talk about it, either, and he dropped the subject and moved on. Whether such an introduction made an indelible negative impression on this 18-year-old, I’m not sure. But I only started at that college; I finished in a different place.

Comments are closed.