Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead and What’s Mine’s Mine by George MacDonald. Novelists like these, the kind we term “classic,” well deserve that term. Every book of theirs brims with insights into the human condition. So many other writers’ concerns are only skin deep, but Dostoyevsky and MacDonald write of the soul. MacDonald has the tendency of doing this in a sermonizing fashion, which has perhaps made him less popular among moderns. Yet, there was a time when great preachers could attract crowds. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, wrote one hundred years ago but his insights the evils of socialism and fallen man strike one as still relevant.
The House of the Dead focuses on the dark side of man–his fallen nature. And no wonder: this novel derives from the experience of Dostoyevsky being exiled to Siberia for his involvement in a radical political group. What Dostoyevsky saw of human nature in prison cured him of Marxist ideas and the concept of the perfectibility of man forever. This novel records the sheer divide between nobles and commoners and the great diversity of the convicts: there were Chechens, Old Believers, Muslims, a Jew, Orthodox, Catholics, Poles, Russians, rich, poor, middle class, laborers, soldiers, craftsmen, and others. Many were perfectly well off, but this did not prevent them from committing crimes. The commoners in the villages outside of the prison referred to the prisoners as “unfortunates.”