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Dead Souls – Nikolay Gogol

 
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Posted September 3, 2016 by

Dead Souls – Nikolay Gogol – 1842

Reviewed by: Lale              Date: 10 November 2002

 Dead Souls: What an incredible satire on Russian character and tradition!

When I had read Gogol’s stories, The Madman’s Diary, The Coat etc. I called him “a crazy person.” I meant it as a compliment. I was referring to his creativity, his choice of odd subject matters and characters, his unique ability to reveal problems in bureaucracy with hilarious satire. I did not know that he eventually really went mad, in the more common sense that we use the term.

Dead Souls has two parts. First part is complete (and published in Gogol’s time) and as good as a satiric novel can get. Second part is interrupted with many notes by the editor such as: “Part of the manuscript is missing here”. What a shame!

According to an explanation on the cover of the book, the first part of Dead Souls had taken Gogol eight years to write. While writing the second part of the book, Gogol expands his vision and the goal of the book. He imagines a great book consisting of three parts in which he will get to tell the story of Russians from all walks of life.

It is interesting to note that Balzac, who was Gogol’s contemporary (Balzac: 1799-1850, Gogol: 1809-1852), also envisioned a similar massive work. From Herbert J. Hunt’s introduction to Balzac’s “Lost Illusions”:

“By about 1830 he had already conceived the idea of presenting the social and moral history of his own times in a complex series of novels and short stories: he also intended it to be an interpretation of life and society as he saw it, …”

The only difference between Balzac’s and Gogol’s ambitious grand projects was that Gogol’s was going to have one character (Chichikov) that would connect all the sub-stories and essentially consist of one book (of three volumes), whereas Balzac’s was going to contain many independent pieces combined under the title “The Human Comedy” but could be read as individual books.

It killed them both. Balzac literally worked himself to death. Gogol, obsessed with his to-be masterpiece, ‘a palace of colossal dimensions’, he imagined to solve Russia’s problems and with his work losing its boundaries, he lost his mind, burnt most of what he had written after the publication of part one, and committed suicide.

The idea of Dead Souls was initially Pushkin’s. According to what Gogol has written in his “Author’s Confession”, Alexander Pushkin had given his own subject to Gogol and had said that he would not have given it to anyone else. I am sure all literature lovers are grateful to Pushkin for this. Nobody else could have done justice to Chichikov and nobody else could have given us such a magnificent black humour book filled with hilarious dialogues and observations of the absurd.

I can open the book up at random, and read a hilarious scene or a dialogue, and what I read will be ridiculous but true. Gogol was a very intelligent observer. He only needed to exaggerate just slightly to get the comic effect. Take for instance the episode where Chichikov’s three-horse carriage gets tangled up with a six-horse carriage. Can’t you just visualize the racket that followed? Uncle Mityay and Uncle Minyay trying to untangle the harnesses with an entire village shouting and giving advise? Ridiculously funny and ridiculously real.

Towards the end of the book, Gogol leans towards solving Russia’s problems by choosing villages over towns, a simple existence over an educated one, and religion over everything else. This doesn’t work of course, but doesn’t take away from the brilliance of the book. In the character Kostanjoglo, we see Gogol idolizing the perfect landowner and the solution to all of Russia’s problems. Here, it is hard to say if Gogol is pulling the reader’s leg or if he is being serious. We know that Gogol was not against serfdom, which, one can easily argue, was the root of many of Russia’s problems, but if Gogol is seriously offering us Kostanjoglo’s philosophies as solutions, then why does he make him as comic a character as anyone else? Does he want us to take Kostanjoglo seriously, a man who doesn’t believe in any advancement, any education, any new technology, any progress?

 After Kostanjoglo, comes the religious solution in the shape of Murazov. In these fragmented parts of the book, we clearly see the religious obsession that took hold over Gogol and eventually caused him to burn the rest of his manuscript. Had Gogol finished his book (or had he not burnt the manuscript), then maybe Dead Souls was not going to be as immortal (pun intended) as we accept it to be today. Gogol was capable of ruining this masterpiece with pro-serfdom, anti-progress and religious “solutions”.

However, regardless of Gogol’s declining sanity that is being reflected in the last bits and pieces of the book, Dead Souls remains a masterpiece and Gogol a genius. I think if he had continue to do what he does best, observe acutely and narrate hilariously, he might have indeed be capable of solving all of Russia’s problems.

Here are some of Gogol’s character introductions. Just look at the variety of personalities. I picked the excerpts that are either very descriptive of the character or irresistibly funny. Or both:

CHICHIKOV:Collegiate Councillor, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. Neither too fat nor too thin.

“Whatever the conversation was about, he was always able to keep up with it; if they were discussing stud farms, he talked about stud farms; if they were talking about pedigree dogs, he was able to make very sensible observations on that subject too; if they discussed some investigation conducted by the provincial treasury department he showed that he was not uninformed about legal jiggery-pokery, either; if there was some argument about billiards, he knew all there was to know about a game of billiards, too; if virtue was discussed, he spoke very eloquently about virtue too, and even with tears in his eyes; if the question of the distillation of vodka was raised, he knew all there was to know about the art of distilling spirits; if conversation turned on Customs and Excise officers, he delivered …”

PETRUSHKA:Chichikov’s servant.

“He was more taciturn than talkative by nature; he even had a noble urge for enlightenment, that is to say, for reading books, without bothering too much about their contents: it made no difference to him whether it was a tale about the adventures of a lovelorn swain or simply a primer or a prayer book – he read everything with equal attention; if someone had slipped a book of chemistry to him he would not have refused it.”

SELIFAN:Selifan is Chichikov’s driver. Having spent a page on Petrushka, Gogol does not want to waste more of our time by talking about Selifan, the two belonging to the “lower orders”.

“The driver Selifan was quite a different sort of man. … But knowing from experience how loath his readers are to strike up an acquaintance with persons of the lower orders, the author feels rather ashamed to take up so much of their time with them. A Russian, I am afraid, is like that: he has passionate desire to bolster up his own importance by striking up an acquaintance with anyone who is at least one rank above him, and a nodding acquaintance with a count or a prince is much more important to him than the most intimate relationship with people of his own class. The author, in fact, is a little apprehensive for his hero who is only a Collegiate Councillor, that is to say, a civil servant of the sixth grade.”

MANILOV:A very nice landowner with no “idiosyncrasies”

” ‘Don’t worry about me,’ Chichikov kept saying. ‘After you, sir.’

‘No, no, after you, sir,’ Manilov kept saying, pointing to the door. ‘You are our guest, sir.’

‘Why, no,’ Chichikov kept saying, ‘after you, sir. Please, please, don’t put yourself out on my account.’

‘I’m very sorry, sir, but I cannot possibly permit such a charming and cultured guest to follow me.’

‘Why cultured? Please, sir, after you.’

‘No, after you, sir.’

‘But why, sir?’

‘Well, just because, sir!’ Manilov said with an agreeable smile.

At last the two friends went through the door sideways, squeezing each other a little.”

KOROBOCHKA:A collegiate secretary’s widow and a lady landowner. She is a good negotiator. She is a shrewd miser but she does not economize pancakes when it comes to offering them to a “government contractor”.

” ‘Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,’ said the old lady. ‘Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.’”

NOZDRYOV:Landowner. Gambler, liar, drunk and trouble maker.

 “His sensitive nose could smell out a fair, an assembly, or a ball for miles around: and in the twinkling of an eye he was there, arguing and causing confusion at the green table, for like all men of his type he had an uncontrollable passion for cards.”

‘… Believe it or not, I alone drank seventeen bottles of champagne at dinner.’

‘Not seventeen bottles, surely,’ observed the fair man. ‘You’d never manage to drink that.’

‘As an honest man, I tell you I did,’ replied Nozdryov.

‘You can tell yourself what you like, but I tell you that you couldn’t drink even ten.’

‘What would you like to bet me that I could?’

‘Why should I bet?’

‘Well, bet me the gun that you bought in the town.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘Well, go on, wager it! Have a go.’

‘I don’t want to have a go.’

‘Oh, yes, you’d have been left without a gun as you’ve been left without a cap. …’”

SOBAKEVICH:Landowner who looks like a bear.

“When Chichikov looked sideways at Sobakevich, he struck him this time as being very much like a medium-sized bear. To complete the resemblance, the frock-coat he was wearing was of exactly the colour of a bear’s coat, his sleeves were long, his trousers were long, he walked flat-footedly, lurching from side to side, and was continually treading on other people’s toes. His complexion was of a hot red colour, such as you find on a copper penny. There are, of course, many faces in the world over the finish of which nature has taken no great pains, has used no fine tools, such as files, gimlets, and the like, having simply gone about it in a rough and ready way: one stroke of the axe and there’s a nose, another and there are the lips, the eyes gouged out with a great drill, and without smoothing it, nature thrusts it into the world saying: ‘It will do!’”

PLYUSHKIN:A skinflint landowner obsessed with money.

“… he wandered about the streets of his village every day looking under the bridges, under the planks thrown over puddles, and everything he came across, an old sole, a bit of a peasant woman’s rag, an iron nail, a piece of broken earthenware, he carried them all to his room and put them on the heap which Chichikov had noticed in the corner.”

” ‘But I ordered the samovar. To tell you the truth, I don’t really care for tea very much myself: it’s an expensive beverage and, besides, the price of sugar has gone up cruelly. Proshka, we don’t want the samovar! …’”

TENTETNIKOV:A very highly educated landowner who “devoted himself entirely to planning a great work on Russia.” (Tentetnikov is attempting a work very much like the one Gogol imagined his Dead Souls to be.)

“About two hours before dinner he went off to his study to apply himself seriously to a work which he planned should embrace the whole of Russia from every point of view: civic, political, religious, and philosophical. This work was to solve all the difficult problems and questions that had arisen in Russia in the course of time and to define clearly her great future; in short, all this was presented in a way that was calculated to appeal to modern man. However this colossal undertaking had so far not advanced beyond the stage of meditation; the quill pen was bitten, all sorts of drawings appeared on the paper, and then everything was pushed aside, a book was taken up instead and was not put down till dinner-time. The book was read with the soup, the sauce, the roast, and even with the sweet, so that some dishes grew cold while others were removed completely untouched. Then followed coffee with a pipe, a game of chess with himself. What he did afterwards until supper time, it is really hard to say. Apparently he simply did nothing at all.”

GENERAL BETRISHCHEV:Tentetnikov’s neighbour and the father of Ulinka whom Tentetnikov fell in love with.

“The general lived like a general, he entertained on a large scale and he liked his neighbours to call on him and to pay their respects to him. He himself did not pay visits. He talked in a gruff voice, read books, and had a daughter, a strange and quite unique creature.”

PETUKH and PLATONOV:

Pyotr Petrovich Petukh:a landowner who had to mortgage everything for food. He loves having guests over for dinner. He pushes food down their throats.

Platon Mikhailovich Platonov:a “bored” landowner.

A dialogue between Petukh and Platonov:

” ‘Have you dined?’ asked the host.

‘Yes, I have.’

‘Good Lord, man, have you come to make fun of me? What good are you to me after dinner?’

The visitor said with a smile: ‘I’m afraid I had nothing at all at dinner if that’s any comfort to you: I’ve no appetite at all.’

‘What a catch we’ve had! You should have seen it. What a huge sturgeon we caught, what a huge carp, what crustaceans!’

‘It makes me vexed to talk to you. Why are you always so cheerful?’

‘Why on earth be bored?’ said their host.

‘What do you mean: why be bored? Because one is bored.’

‘You don’t eat enough, that’s the trouble. You’d better try having a proper dinner. You see, they’ve invented boredom only recently. No one was ever bored in the old days.’

‘Don’t boast! And don’t you try to tell me that you’ve never been bored yourself.’

‘Never. I don’t know what it means. I haven’t the time to be bored. I wake up in the morning and there’s the cook to see, dinner has to be ordered, then i have breakfast, and then I have to see my estate agent and then I go fishing and then it’s dinner-time. You have hardly time to take a nap after dinner when it’s time to see the cook again and order supper. When is there time to be bored?’”

COLONEL KOSHKARYOV:A landowner who has duplicated the bureaucracy and paperwork of the government in his own village.

” ‘In that case put it in writing. Your request will go to the Office of Reports and Petitions. Having entered it into a book, the Office will send it over to me. I will send it to the Committee of Rural Affairs and from there, after all the necessary inquiries have been made, it will be sent on to my estate agent. the estate agent together with the secretary …’”

KOSTANJOGLO:The “perfect” landowner. He is against education and progress. He is a good farmer, a good manager of his estate and both he and his serfs prosper. He works hard, loves and respects the soil. He is against waste of time and waste of money. He detests city life and its dinner parties and fine clothings, but these all get blurred up with his negative notions of self-education and the education of the peasants. Chichikov thinks that he is the most intelligent man he has ever seen.

” ‘But how can I help being angry? It’s not as if it were something that did not concern me. I have a personal interest in all this. You see, I can’t help feeling annoyed that the Russian character is getting spoilt. You see, a quixotic element has now appeared in the Russian which he never had before, if education becomes his fad, he becomes a Don Quixote of education, he will found schools such as no fool would ever dream of founding. The man who goes through such a school will be good for nothing, he’ll be fit neither for the city nor the village, he’ll turn into a drunkard who is full of his own importance. If philanthropy becomes his fad, he will become a Don Quixote of philanthropy and he will spend a million roubles on building all sorts of ridiculous hospitals and other institutions, great edifices with columns, and then he’ll go bankrupt and his patients will have to go begging: that’s philanthropy for you!’”

Well, after Kostanjoglo, there is one other important character, Murazov, but because of the breaks in the manuscript we do not learn much about him. All we know is that he is a very moral, honest and righteous man. He believes that if people like Chichikov gave themselves up to religion and spent all their energy, time and thoughts on religious work, they could be prevented from leading unethical lives. He tries to show Chichikov the right way.

Don’t let the fact that this is an incomplete book stop you from reading it. Just think of it as typical Gogol, because even before going mad and burning manuscripts, Gogol had the habit of leaving his stories in the middle. One of his short stories start with a warning: “This story is missing the end.” And Gogol is not kidding. When you get to the end, you find out that the end is missing.

Reviewed by: Guillermo Máynez Gil 

Chichikov, a middle-aged man, arrives to a provincial capital in Czarist’s Russia. He has money, a charriot, two servants, good manners, and refined tastes. Soon he is admitted into the town’s “high society”, as he is charming and smart. As usually happens in small pretentious towns, he becomes fashionable and “hot”. After a couple of days, Chichikov sets about to work. He visits local landowners -who were also people-owners- and makes a strange proposal to them: “Count all peasants who have died since the last official census and sell them to me”. Of course, everybody is suspicious about his motives, but they get interested also, since “dead souls” still caused taxes for the owner, until the next census, so they could get rid of those taxes. What on Earth does Chichikov want the dead souls for? Read this funny but thoughtful book and you’ll find out.

This story enables Gogol to write an incisive, merciless critique of Russian society. The landowners and other characters are hilarious, but also the impersonification of social vices common to Russia then, Russia today, and you could say to other societies as well. So it is one of the funniest books you can read, but it contains also much sarcasm (as intelligent humor frequently does) and a bit of sadness about what could be better but is not. Great book.


ReadLit Team

 


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