Dostoevsky: Freedom in a Dead House
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The Centrality of Human Freedom in Dostoevsky and Huxley
by Evelyn Hylton
Finding Freedom in a Dead House: Penitentiary and Paradox
"Human freedom stands as one of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s most extensively probed subjects, in both his novels and his other writings. Believing that freedom was central to bearing the imago Dei, the author despised people and institutions that sought to contain or even eliminate such a crucial component of humanity, in spite of its potential for misuse (which he equally despised).
But perhaps the greatest irony of Dostoevsky’s understanding of freedom’s importance is that it was sparked in a “tomb” of confinement and constant surveillance: prison. In the absence of his full Russian citizenship and traditional nobleman’s rights, Dostoevsky (re)discovered the value of his personal freedom he had previously taken for granted — a four-year experience that would become the basis not only for this first work examined in this thesis, but would influence the rest of his writing career.
Examining Notes from a Dead House, this chapter aims to argue that, per Dostoevsky’s semi-fictional account of prison life, freedom from constraint is critical for the well-being of the human spirit and is a precondition of moral restoration and personal fulfillment. This chapter will also attempt to argue that one must embrace suffering as a reality inseparable from human freedom and its exercise — a point that latter chapters will emphasize as well.
For the purposes of this thesis, Dead House attests to the natural human need for freedom from constraint, which then enables human beings to exercise the freedom to strive towards a goal or an ideal — which, for the prisoners of the story, is ultimately moral restoration and an experience of full humanity.
In 1860, Dostoevsky began to formally write about his prison experience in a serial work
he called Notes from a Dead House, which translator Richard Pevear considers a pioneer of the prison memoir sub-genre. Prison life for Dostoevsky included four years of solitary and communal confinement, followed by several years of compulsory military service in exile; the content of Dead House, however, focuses solely on the Westernized liberal nobleman’s four years in the Siberian hard labor camp in Omsk.
Here, Dostoevsky experienced first-hand the extremes of life under total control and became acutely aware of the lack of personal freedom afforded to Russian prisoners. A nobleman-turned-prisoner, Dostoevsky was soon crushed beneath the new burden of living under the tyrannical supervision of prison authorities who allowed him only slightly more autonomy than a herd animal.
Yet according to Joseph Frank in Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, Dostoevsky also discovered in his moments of solitary confinement that the human spirit possessed an astonishing capacity for “resiliency and strength ... when thrown back on its resources”, and he began to understand the ways in which
“the self possessed powers of resistance that it could exert even under conditions of the extremest distress ; man never had to renounce the autonomy of his personality if he chose — finally and stubbornly chose — not to do so”.
In Dead House, the prisoners’ deprivation of freedom was physical, intellectual, and
Despite being subjected to a harsh and often brutally regimented lifestyle and deprived of many means with which to occupy himself, Dostoevsky nonetheless experienced the subtle power of brief moments of freedom in prison. His exposure to the dystopian living conditions of the prison directed him towards a recognition of the value of personal freedom and humanity’s inability to function without it.
In “Dostoevsky and Freedom,” Robert L. Jackson states that
“freedom for Dostoevsky in the ‘dead house’ was, in the first instance, freedom from: freedom from immobility, incarceration, coercion; from the violation of one’s human dignity, from an obligatory herd existence.”
Indeed, for any prisoner, “freedom” means the absence of restraint and the ability to live comfortably, happily, and independently. It is no wonder, then, that to Dostoevsky,
“to be alone is as normal a need as drinking and eating, otherwise you become a misanthrope in this compulsory communism. The society of people becomes a poison and a plague, and it is just from this unbearable torture that I have suffered the most of all these past four years.”
To this thought, Jackson adds,
"The deprivation of freedom, Dostoevsky believed, is an unendurable torture”.
Prison life proved to be the antithesis of a whole, fulfilling human existence for Dostoevsky, but not solely because of the physically harsh living conditions. Evidenced in the letters he wrote to his relatives after his release, the greatest strains of prison life revolved around the stifling of creativity and the lack of intellectual engagement and brotherly communion that resulted from his “compulsory communism”.
Frank notes that according to Dostoevsky, the convicts were virtually forced to face the common burden of their reality:
"Nothing worked more disturbingly on the nerves of the prisoners, in the first weeks of their isolation, than the lack of any occupation or distraction that could take their minds off their perilous situation . . . What Dostoevsky badly needs, he tells Mikhail, is some external mental impressions to revivify him, because the mind requires nourishment as the body required food."
(Dostoevsky: Years, 22)
(Design: Peter Mendelsund)
Without the opportunity to pursue much of anything besides the prison tasks and the strict lifestyle prescribed for them by their superiors, the narrator and his fellow convicts are forced to live in such a way that their natural inclination to exercise their wills is effectively abolished. Some of the convicts cynically nod to their abuse of relative freedom in civic life:
“‘You didn’t know how to live in freedom, now stroll down the green street and inspect the ranks.’
‘You didn’t listen to your father and mother, now you can listen to the drumhead’s leather.’
‘You thought gold embroidery was fun, now crush stones till your time is done’”.
Although the narrator notes the lack of seriousness with which these utterances are made, they do contain an “admonition” ; the convicts know they are in prison as an effect of their abuse of freedom in the civic world, and they in turn lose that freedom as a consequence of their unlawful behavior.
Despite any poetic justice in their punishment, the convicts live much like animals or machines according to the narrator — a condition perhaps most broadly marked by their lack of freedom. The narrator (and Dostoevsky) protests the immorality of this type of penal servitude in Russia, declaring that its extreme confinement
"achieves only a false, deceptive, external purpose. It sucks the living juice from a man, enervates his soul, weakens it, frightens it, and then presents this morally dried-up, half-crazed mummy as an example of correction and repentance.”
To Dostoevsky, the penal system he faced under Nicholas I did little to address what he saw as the root of most crime among the Russian people. Anna Schur suggests that Dostoevsky largely perceives crime not as a
“product of environment, a miscalculation of pleasures and pains, or a lapse of will as the determinists, utilitarians, or metaphysical libertarians would have it”, but rather “an act of self-assertion, as sudden as the subsequent transition to penitence and resurrection. Its suddenness, in fact, indicates that the ‘living soul’ survives and is capable of moral regeneration.”
Thus, Dostoevsky’s major criticism of the Russian penal system is that instead of allowing the criminal to experience an unmitigated process of repentance and renewal that leads to true absolution of guilt, the criminal is dehumanized by a system of punishment and containment that damages the human spirit more than it reorients it towards moral restoration.
The narrator later says,
“whatever measures be taken, a living man cannot be turned into a corpse: he will be left with his feelings, with a thirst for revenge and life, with passions and the need to satisfy them.”
In essence, he implies that freedom-less living conditions are ultimately incompatible with human nature and warns readers of the chaos which ensues when uncontainable aspects of humanity such as emotions, intellect, and autonomy are caged for extended periods of time.
The narrator’s experience in prison also forces him to realize the true value of freedom he overlooked as a regular citizen. He says,
“The hope of an inmate, deprived of freedom, is of a completely different sort from that of a man living a real life. A free man has hopes, of course ... but he lives, he acts; the whirl of real life carries him away entirely.”
In this passage, the narrator likely alludes to his attitude as a legally free man before his prison sentence; when living a “real life,” people tend to take for granted the value of their personal freedom. But it is important to recognize the depth of what the fictional narrator conveys about Dostoevsky’s own realization about the value of individual freedom for the author.
In a letter to Natalia Fonvizina, Dostoevsky writes,
“I want to say to you that in such moments, one does, ‘like dry grass,’ thirst after faith, and that one finds it in the end, solely and simply because one sees truth more clearly when one is unhappy.”
The spirit of this section of the Fonvizina letter pervades the majority of Dead House, not only regarding the narrator’s observations of fellow prisoners wrestling with their assigned “convict” identities, but also regarding his own revelations about what it means to be fully human and individual freedom’s role in constituting that humanity.
By the time the narrator is released from prison, he has witnessed and personally experienced the “positive and negative polarities of freedom” during his four years in Siberia. While some prisoners behaved no less than immorally when confronted with
opportunities for freedom, others — and in some cases even the same ones — recognized the potential for goodness that arose in response to freedom.
As Dostoevsky expresses later in his novella Notes from Underground,
“The highest freedom, then, is not ‘freedom from,’ which leaves one in isolation with oneself, but ‘freedom for’ — the power to direct oneself towards an ideal, and to strive for it” and living “in harmony with equally free fellow men”.