Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

(originally read and written: March 21st, 2013)

Dead Souls is the story about a mysterious man named Chichikov who arrives in a town one day with the agenda to buy the rights to dead serfs from their masters. He befriends all the high officials of the town and becomes quite popular, until a scandal ensues when his strange business acquisitions are discovered and force him to flee from the town. It turns out Chichikov was formerly a civil servant who lost his government position because of a previous scandal involving bribery. Chichikov is an unscrupulous and calculating man who wants desperately to become rich, but who continually fails to make his way in the world.

Gogol isn’t as intellectual as his Russian compatriots, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Yes, there are some references to history, art, and literature here and there that you’d expect to find in pretty much any great work of literature, but it lacks the scholarly depth and range found in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s work. After all, one major thematic goal of War and Peace is to criticize the historical practices and critique the Great Man Theory of History, which makes it necessary to reference previous historians and the various intellectual positions of historiography. Likewise, Crime and Punishment explores a deranged man’s guilt and justifications for a murder which directly ties back to Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas and said man compares himself to Napoleon. The very stuff of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s plots, their characters’ thoughts, and the larger thematic points of their narrative are built on the exploration of these intellectual ideas.

Gogol, on the other hand, prefers satire. When he does make references to other literature and philosophical ideas it is for a quick joke to mock the habits of Russian society or just as a quick characterization tool. He relies heavily on a tongue-in-cheek narrator, absurd events and behaviors, and over-the-top characters succumbing to various vices and comical habits.  The goal of Dead Souls is to criticize Russian society in all its facets, especially the habits of the nobility, the government bureaucracy, and the human propensity for greed. After all, Chichikov’s desire to purchase dead souls to sell them to the government is not only outlandish, but it is a get rich quick scheme.

His work satirizes the behaviors and habits of the upper class. For example, this early scene when Chichikov (also called Pavel Ivanovich) visits the landowner Manilov illustrates the farcical tone perfectly, lampooning the social decorum and good manners practiced by the upper-class social circles by taking it to a ridiculous extent. In this scene, Manilov and Chichikov are trying to enter a room during his visit, but social etiquette causes both men to want the other to enter the room first:

“Kindly do not worry so for my sake, I will go in after,” Chichikov said.

“No, Pavel Ivanovich, no, you are a guest,” Manilov said, motioning him to the door with his hand.

“Do not trouble yourself, please, do not trouble yourself. Go in, please,” Chichikov said.

“No, excuse me, I will not allow such an agreeable, well-educated guest to go in after me.”

“Why well-educated? . . . Go in, please.”

“Ah, no, you go in, please (24).”

This goes on for a little while longer, until finally the two decide to squeeze their bodies sideways so they can both enter the room together.

In this same chapter, after we meet Manilov’s wife, the narrator goes on an amusing short tangent about the education of women. The narrator begins posing a series of rhetorical questions about the poor behavior of the household serfs in this house, suggesting the house is mismanaged by husband and wife, and then chooses to drop the subject because “these are all low subjects, and Mrs. Manilov had received a good education (23).” The narrator then informs us that one can only get a good education from a boarding school, which is spoken tongue-in-cheek since the mismanagement of the house suggests that her “good education” certainly wasn’t a useful education, which brings into question whether it was really a good education after all. At a boarding school, the primary subjects of study are the French language (“indispensable for a happy family life” as the narrator reminds us), pianoforte, and crocheting of purses and other surprises. All of this is said ironically and is extremely reminiscent of Charles Dickens; the line about the French language being indispensable for a happy family life, which is obviously meant to be taken ironically, could’ve been pulled right out of one of Dickens’s novels. After all, how does one’s ability to speak French increase the happiness of family life!

The author continues to lampoon the upper-class’s usage of French over Russian in later sections of the novel.

“But filled though the author is with reverence for the saving benefits that the French language brings to Russia, filled though he is with reverence for the praiseworthy custom of our high society which expresses itself in it at all hours of the day—out of a deep feeling of love for the fatherland, of course—for all that he simply cannot bring himself to introduce any phrase from any foreign language whatsoever into this Russian poem of his. And so let us continue in Russian (185).”

People who like a comical novel will surely like this one. However, I suspect I appreciated some of the elements Gogol is poking fun at precisely because I had just recently read the far more serious Russian masterpieces: Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. To understand all the jokes one has to have some familiarity with Russian Literature and culture.

On a more frustrating note, novel is incomplete and unfinished. The introduction to my edition tells me Gogol intended and even completed later parts, which he burned. Little footnotes in this edition reveal that paragraphs and pages and sometimes whole chapters are missing. In quite a few sections parts of a conversation are missing, then it jumps to the next scene, but usually these omissions aren’t too hard to follow; it’s pretty easy to get back into the flow of narrative and figure out what went missing. The final chapter, which finds Chichikov in jail and all his misdeeds from the earlier books exposed, clearly was meant to have many interceding chapters in between. Likewise, at the end there seems to be a shift from lampooning Russian society to a more moral tone as many of the characters pontificate on the meaninglessness of Chichikov’s quest for wealth; as one of his benefactors at the end suggests he should have been practicing a virtuous and selfless way of life, and not been so caught up in material concerns and in acquiring riches and selfish ephemeral pleasures. A material life leads only to unhappiness and embroils one in complications and unethical behaviors, not to mention it puts one in a dangerous competition with others who seek the same thing.

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