During the transitional period between the early works of the late 1840s and production of the “great novels” in the mid-1860s, Dostoevsky confronted the problem of the Russian common people with particular urgency and immediacy. The consolations of the social theories which underlay his earlier political activism—and for which he suffered a decade of Siberian exile, spent partly in a hard-labor camp— withered in the face of actual, enforced contact with the common class. Upon his return to the capital on the eve of peasant emancipation in 1861, Dostoevsky staked the resurrection of his authorial career on his insistence that an abyss divided common and elite cultures which would bedevil elite attempts to represent the Russian common people as objects of literary and journalistic inquiry. At a moment when intellectuals and other urban elites struggled to prepare bureaucratically and imaginatively for a liberated peasantry, estrangement became the cornerstone of Dostoevsky's aesthetic practice. Instead of rendering a naturalistic portrait of the common people enhanced by the pathos of a firsthand knowledge bought dear, Dostoevsky traces in his fictionalized account of his prison experience, Notes from the House of the Dead, a peculiar disintegration of the narrating consciousness for whom estrangement emerges as the condition by which the peasant-other can be known and the limitations of knowing acknowledged and suffered. This article explores the genesis in fictionalized autobiography of the Dostoevskian narrator familiar to readers of thegreat novels, a narrator who dismantles the very structure of knowing and telling, a would-be guide to the text's action who becomes mired in a confession of what he does not understand.

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