“The Peasant Marey”, although written fifteen years after the publication of The House of the Dead, is a short story developed by Fyodor Dostoevsky from the same autobiographical experience: his imprisonment in Siberia. The story has an unnamed narrator, whose style and point-of-view resemble that of Goryanchikov, Dostoevsky’s fictional surrogate in The House of the Dead. The narrator starts the story with a scene from the novel, in which a prisoner named Gazin is beaten violently for his intoxicated aggressiveness (The House of the Dead 1003). Then, he abruptly brings up a childhood reminiscence of being saved by his father’s serf from an imaginary wolf, which leads him to have a sort of “unconscious awakening” unstated in the original novel (Kanzer 83).
Although dubious, it is worth arguing that “The Peasant Marey”, with its inserted “new insight”, is qualified as an unofficial epilogue of The House of the Dead, because it brings up thoughts and sensations that are not in the original fiction but need to be further expressed. An epilogue is, according to Collins Dictionary, “a closing section added to a novel, play, etc., providing further comment, interpretation, or information.” In The House of the Dead, the innate benignity of the peasantry is repeatedly reflected throughout the book, yet this idea is presented so subtly as to be overshadowed by the book’s other, more fully articulated themes — the inefficiency of the penal system and the insurmountable gulf between the peasantry and the gentry. In “The Peasant Marey”, Dostoevsky revisits this overlooked aspect from his previous novel by adding an ideological recollection, and thus adjusts the emphasis of his earlier interpretations. Through such a reflection on human nature and fundamental convictions, Dostoevsky consolidates his ideas contained in The House of the Dead and documents a more complete vision about peasants, prisoners, and Russians in general.
As he first struggles to adapt to a prison life among the peasants, the narrator Goryanchikov states: “I consoled myself with the thought that bad men are to be found everywhere but even among the worst there may be something good” (The House of the Dead 1406). For him, a member of the lower gentry, peasants first seem barbaric and different by nature. Goryanchikov assumes that even the more educated peasants are less civilized and that here “education has nothing whatever to do with moral deterioration” (235). During his first days of imprisonment, Goryanchikov himself is likely to exclaim “je hais ces brigands!” in his mind (“The Peasant Marey” 3). However, with an open mind and an observing nature, Goryanchikov soon abandons his initial biases toward fellow prisoners, and discovers from various details of his life, that “you may meet a bad man anywhere and everywhere” regardless rank and social position (The House of the Dead 5682). For instance, in the story of the prison hospital, Goryanchikov describes a disturbing death scene of a consumptive prisoner, who died without having his iron shackles taken off. Despite the general noisiness of the hospital environment, everyone falls into silent condolence, and one prisoner with named Tchekounoff even ventures to express his discontented towards the sergeant by clenching his teeth, trembling, and murmurs almost involuntarily, “He too had a mother!” (3541). As soon as the body is carried out, everyone begins talking suddenly. Goryanchikov expresses his curiosity about the moral density brings about by the death and about what drove Tchekounoff to make such a risky utterance. But Dostoevsky does not write more about this event in the narrative comments.
Another example of Goryanchikov’s awareness of the inner beauty and naivety of the peasants is when he observes the prisoners put on a Christmas performance. On Christmas Eve, every prisoner contributes to the event in his own way: bringing in spirits, gathering costumes, setting up the stage, and gathering an audience comprising from the officers and villagers. Everyone is serious and preoccupied, “though there was little enough to do” (The House of the Dead 2628). And those without an occupation “bustle about with a business-like air simply because others are genuinely occupied,” to feel accepted into the “bosom of the family” (2617). Those prisoners who binge drink suddenly restrain their previous behaviours, and all prisoners become merry and polite as if celebrating the holiday among family. Goryanchikov describes the performance as talented, with the acting abilities of the inmates, and beautiful in the simplicity and richness with which it presents Russian folk traditions (2979). He also notes that while watching the play, most prisoners laugh and cry like “children, at the age of forty” (3005). But he comments very little on the content of the play or the prisoners’ naïve appreciation of the aesthetic, and neither does he talk much about the festive warmth of the prison environment. Instead, he focuses on the lack of human freedom in the prison schedule and the fact that inmates of the gentry receive better respect among the audiences because they are stereotyped as being more educated (2974). It is worth arguing that when writing the chapter, Dostoevsky would have had stronger emotion towards the waste of human talents under the “dead” system and the estrangement between social classes. However, it is also clear that he felt the benignity of the peasants; these feelings, although not explored in the novel, are examined in “The Peasant Marey”.
Moreover, the idea that humans are essentially equal before God and that there is a lot more to study in the characteristics of the Russian peasants than what was previously recognized by the intelligentsia is brought up in the story of the Holy week. The local villagers allow the convicts to rank with themselves during church services: not a single peasant judges the prisoners before God, and prayers are offered to everyone without discrimination. The prisoners, too, repent sincerely and beg for God’s mercy (House of the Dead 4634). Given this scene of mutual understanding and suffering among the common people, one is allowed to speculate the reason that Russians peasants refer to crime as a “misfortune” and the criminal an “unfortunate” (House of the Dead 1125). However, Dostoevsky does not fully expand upon the topic but rather brings the discussion back to the inhumanity of the judicial punishment and the cruelty of certain officers.
To this end, it is obvious that Dostoevsky’s primary areas of focus in The House of the Dead are the inhumanity and ineffectiveness of the Russian penal system, as well as the insurmountable social gap. Dostoevsky shapes his narration to construct a smooth story arc and to provide a better argumentation for the social issues above. Although Dostoevsky was interested in a complete discussion about the development of human nature and the beauty of the Russian soul, the subject was probably too complicated for him to tackle at the time and required more thought and more life experiences for him to explore in sufficient depth, which Dostoevsky accomplished during his later years. Such a topic also requires greater length to be clearly explained, and this is difficult to do within the frame of The House of the Dead. Moreover, simply from a writer’s perspective, arguing about the peasantry’s nature could have jeopardised the strength of the established argument on the social gap. The narrator Goryanchikov claims that during his stay in prison, he is never able to get close to his fellow convicts from the lower ranks. Although he befriends with many inmates — teaching a Tartar to read, teaching another prisoner some common knowledge, and trading consistently with many others — Goryanchikov is shut out from the inner worlds of his fellow prisoners simply because he is a member of another social rank. The most powerful example of the alienation between the peasantry and the gentry is arguably the protest organized by lower rank prisoners. When Goryanchikov tries to participate in the protest, he is meanly insulted and is finally told by one of the kinder prisoners that they “are here on business of our own” and that Goryanchikov should go to his own people and “got to keep out of it” (5402). With strong examples like this to demonstrate the estrangement of the social classes, it would be very difficult to fit another argument in the narrative that Goryanchikov is able to understand the peasants and to perceive the beauty of their soul. As Robert Jackson states in his critique on the authenticity of “The Peasant Marey”: “how is it possible to have a new view of the convicts, that is, a view of their basic humanity, without the capacity to look into their hearts?” (213).
Thus, at the time of writing The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky naturally emphasized social topics that he felt were most urgent and that he could carry out with the most clarity, efficiency, and creativity. At the same time, when composing “The Peasant Marey”, Dostoevsky was already in his mature writing period. The short story, although brief, “bears the typical Dostoevsky imprint”. Mark Kanzer comments, Fierce convicts and rough peasants with hidden Christlike qualities, complicated emotions, and deep introspection are characteristic of the Dostoevsky novel, but the very brevity of this tale of ‘The Peasant Marey’ enables us to grasp more readily the essential processes of his thought and phantasy. (81) In this story, as in most of his later novels, Dostoevsky is more interested in the profound historical, psychological, and theological roots buried deep under the societal system and are reflected through the behaviors of people within the system. Although Dostoevsky still identifies social problems through the perspective of a Polish gentry, his emphasis lies within a certain “Russian cognition” (Jackson 215). Rather than exposing social injustice through autobiographical experience, he takes a deeper and more nuanced look at peasants, prisoners and the Russian psychology. And the narrator is no longer an observer who obeys the system but also a mediator who elevates himself to a higher mental and spiritual position to regard the system “in an entirely different way” (“The Peasant Marey” 7). Through his recognition of the ideological truth of the world, all the anger and hatred he holds against his fellow convicts vanishes completely. He discovers and properly values the “inner organic form, obraz, or image” under the apparently “repulsive, yet alluvial, filth in Russian life” (Jackson 214). In other words, the kind and genuine “peasant Marey” types of people everywhere among the villagers, prisoners, and even guards represent the potentials of the Russians. By “scrutinizing his past,” “examining closely his interior and outward life,” and emphasizing such “new insights”, Dostoevsky uses “The Peasant Marey” to add breadth and depth to the Siberia experiences depicted in The House of the Dead (The House of the Dead 5932).
“The Peasant Marey” can thus be considered Dostoevsky’s epilogue-like addition to his earlier autobiographical fiction The House of the Dead to further discuss overlooked aspects and form a more comprehensive perspective of the general Russian populace. Dostoevsky examines his previous experiences and enriches them by adding his later thoughts. “The Peasant Marey” shows Dostoevsky’s personal growth as he continues to develop his writings and ferment his ideology on the Russian soul. As Dostoevsky said in a letter to Apollon Maikov in 1868, it is through age that he at last “finds both Christ and the Russian land, the Russian Christ and the Russian God” (Lantz 24).
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead. Translated by David McDuff, J. M. Dent & Sons, 2008. Kindle Edition.
— “The Peasant Marey”. Translated by Kenneth Lantz, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. PDF version from Blackmask Online, http://www.blackmask.com. “Epilogue.” Def.1. Collins Dictionary, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/epilogue.
Jackson, Robert. “The Triple Vision: Dostoevsky’s ‘The Peasant Marey.’” Close Encounters: Essays on Russian Literature, Academic Studies Press, 2013, pp. 211–225.
Kanzer, Mark. “Dostoevsky’s ‘Peasant Marey’.” American Imago, vol. 4, no. 2,1947, pp. 78-88.
Lantz, Kenneth. The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, 2004.