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Fragmentation and unity

July 19, 2012

I started out skeptical when I read “genre violence” in an article about Dostoevskii’s Notes from the House of the Dead (Записки из мертвого дома, 1860-62), incorrectly expecting the metaphor to be about Dostoevskii writing a hard-to-classify work and this somehow resembling violence. Why not something more pleasant and apt, like genre elusiveness or Protean-ness or creation or blending or concealment? But I was on the wrong track.

As I now understand Anne Dwyer’s point, the violence was done not against Notes from the House of the Dead as a whole, but against each prisoner’s story-within-a-story. The non-Russian prisoners’ stories resemble the Romantic poems about Russians encountering Caucasians in the borderlands of the empire (Pushkin’s Southern Poems especially), Pushkin’s nationalistic, anti-Polish “To the Slanderers of Russia,” or Gogol’s portrayals of Germans in St. Petersburg or his caricatures of Jews. Then, the Russian prisoners’ stories echo more or less the same texts, whereby “established literary models are revealed to be inadequate for capturing the Russian imperial situation” (215). The “violence” comes in when every story, instead of ending like it would have in Pushkin or Gogol, ends the same way:

But none of these modes comes to fruition. The horizontality of the prison space and the narrator’s concomitant lack of a privileged perspective hamper the development of a traditional elevated view of the realm. Imperial power itself figures not as a source of poetic inspiration, but as an impersonal, crushing force that severely delimits the paths that narratives may take. All the prisoners’ stories have the same ending, namely the incarceration of the protagonists. (220)

Violence in Notes also means violence against the lower-class prisoners’ bodies. All of them, Russian peasant or Jew or other, have scarred backs; none of the nobles, Russian or Polish or other, do. This drives a wedge between a Russian nobleman like the prisoner-narrator Gorianchikov and the Russian common people, which is painful to the former. Gorianchikov could find common ground with the Polish noblemen who share his love of French literature and European civilization, but he doesn’t want to. Only the Poles are capable of a nationalism-based solidarity that crosses classes, instead of a class-based solidarity that spans religious and ethnic groups (on this kind of violence, see pp. 220-25).

See Anne Dwyer, “Dostoevsky’s Prison House of Nation(s): Genre Violence in Notes from the House of the Dead,” The Russian Review 71 (April 2012): 209-25 (abstract).

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