It may be unsurprising that in nineteenth-century Russia, under a politically sensitive tsarist regime notorious for sending some of the country’s most famous writers into exile, prison became a conspicuous topic in literature. In the second half of the century, the works of three of Russia’s best realist authors - Fedor Dostoevskii, Lev Tolstoi, and Anton Chekhov – prominently featured prison, and even prisoners as heroes. Nevertheless, critical treatment of these prison-related works tends to isolate them to the context of each individual writer. This dissertation explores the carceral connections between these authors to see how prison, as a common theme, played a larger role in the development of nineteenth-century Russian literature than has previously been recognized.
My study focuses especially on how prison influences the creation of the three authors’ literary worlds. Specifically, through close reading and analysis of selected texts, I show how the realists use the time and space of prison to produce the themes and forms of their fiction. Thus prison becomes foundational in the works of Dostoevskii and Chekhov, and revelatory in Tolstoi’s late period. Theoretical support for this analysis comes mainly from Mikhail Bakhtin, whose notion of the “chronotope” aids in the investigation of prison-like settings, and Michel Foucault, who tracks the changing nature of prison and its increasing effect on society leading into the era of the Russian realists. The works of Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, and Chekhov have common origins in the modern penal system Foucault describes, which shifts its focus from the crime to the criminal, and from the body to the soul. The Russian realists, I conclude, engaged with prison in a way that not only drove their own thematic and formal innovations, but also provided a framework for subsequent generations of Russian “prison writers.”
Keywords: Russian literature, Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, Chekhov, prison, Resurrection, Sakhalin, Brothers Karamazov