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"House of the Dead" espouses Dostoevsky's primary psychological premise. Specifically, it claims that with a why you can justify any how. According to him, the worst punishment conceivable is not beating or jail time or any of those conventional avenues. Rather, it is pointless work. One must have a perceived notion of a grander purpose when it comes to one's labours, an ominous implication. It asserts that the human being can endure any succession of outrages, but must be allowed to assert a 'self.' This is why the prisoners depicted in the book are prone to spontaneous drinking bouts, destructive behaviours that are against the rules, etc. They know what is in their best interests, Dostoevsky would argue, but choose to act in contravention to those interests because doing so establishes self.
This is not a prison memoir in the sense that most people see it. It could just as easily be perceived as a social critique of the world. Many of its core ideas resonate a great deal with modern culture.