Dead Souls (Part 1) – Nikolai Gogol

[I read Part 1 of this novel in three sections, writing about each section before reading on. This meant that I never knew what was coming next. I intend to read Part 2 one day.]

28 March 2017
Part 1, Chapters 1-3
Where are we? Somewhere in Russia in the first half of the 19th Century, but Gogol is reluctant to provide any details. In fact, the narrator of this novel seems determined to create a world with no distinguishing features at all. It starts from the first sentence. ‘In the provincial town of N there drew up a smart britchka—a light spring-carriage of the sort affected by … all persons who rank as gentlemen of the intermediate category.’ He’s given us a list of four types of men who might fit that category including, for instance, ‘land-owners possessed of about a hundred souls,’ and that’s the point. We might not know where N might be, but we guess that everything we are to encounter will fit into the usual familiar hierarchy. And there’s nothing remarkable about the passenger in the carriage either: ‘though not handsome, he was not ill-favoured, not over-fat, and not over-thin. Also, though not over-elderly, he was not over-young. His arrival produced no stir in the town, and was accompanied by no particular incident….’

We get the picture. Or, rather, we don’t. This novel appeared when Charles Dickens’s reputation was already established in Britain, and I wonder if Russian readers were aware of the three or four novels of his that had been published so far. If not, maybe there were Russian novelists offering a similar range of larger-than-life characters and locations, all with their own special features. Gogol is offering us the opposite. This town, and the main character who remains nameless for the next two pages and more, seem smaller than life. Even the inn where he stops ‘belonged to the species to be found in all provincial towns….’ Nothing to see here. And, in case we think this is merely lazy writing, the narrator provides us with some drolly mocking insights into what things are like in this place that is just like everywhere else. There’s a painting in the inn of a nymph ‘possessing breasts of a size such as the reader can never in his life have beheld,’ just as nobody has ever seen anybody behaving so heroically as in the history paintings owned by the wealthy. The room will no doubt have a wardrobe blocking the door adjoining the next, but behind it will be ‘a neighbour whose ears are burning to learn every possible detail concerning the latest arrival.’ Everybody clearly wants to know everybody else’s business.

We discover little enough about the man when he does eventually provide ‘his name, his surname, and his rank’ for the local police, as required by the bureaucracy: ‘Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov, Collegiate Councillor—Landowner—Travelling on Private Affairs.’ So we’re in a society in which ‘rank’ is as important as ‘name’ and everyone, apparently, knows his place. Gentlemen travel, servants serve, and… and soon we are introduced to every single public official in the town. We don’t know what he’s really after, but Chichikov makes it his business to meet them, one by one, and to ingratiate himself with them all. It isn’t difficult. They clearly aren’t the brightest people – could anybody possibly be in world that Gogol has created? – and, whatever subjects come up in conversation, he can hold his own. So, within a few days of getting himself invited to dinners and clubs, ‘the Governor gave it as his opinion that Chichikov was a man of excellent intentions; the Public Prosecutor, that he was a good man of business; the Chief of Gendarmery, that he was a man of education; the President of the Local Council, that he was a man of breeding and refinement; and the wife of the Chief of Gendarmery, that his politeness of behaviour was equalled only by his affability of bearing.’

This comes at the end of the scene-setting first chapter, and I began to wonder, in a social satire like this one, whether Chichikov might not be Death himself, or the Devil in disguise. When a book has a title like Dead Souls, full of minor characters who show every possible vanity and snobbery, the idea doesn’t seem outlandish that they are already dead, or morally dead. This suspicion doesn’t go away in Chapter 2. Chichikov, for reasons that have still not become clear – I’ve read to the end of Chapter 3 – offers to buy any serfs who have died since the most recent census. Serfs at that time were often referred to as ‘souls’ – we remember it from the novel’s opening sentence – so dead souls are what he’s buying. Ah.

We find this out when he pays a visit to a member of the local gentry. There’s a lot of the kind of comic scene-setting we’re becoming used to. The estate, which is very difficult to find – it might have helped if Chichikov had remembered the name properly – is unremarkable, obviously. ‘Not many people would have admired the situation,’ and the owner has not carried out any of the improvements he’s vaguely thought about for years. He, Manilov, is no more remarkable than his house. ‘Let me try to say something concerning the owner,’ begins the narrator, but there’s a clue in that ‘try.’ Manilov is most notable for the qualities he doesn’t possess, and while first impressions might be favourable, by the ‘third moment’ after meeting him ‘one would inevitably become overpowered with the deadly sense of ennui which comes of the intuition that nothing in the least interesting is to be looked for.’ The description goes on for a very long paragraph after that, illustrative of just how dull he is. He and his wife are so dull they are still perfectly happy in one another’s dull company after eight years of marriage. How we laughed.

But, after dinner, Chichikov gets down to business. But before he makes his proposal to buy the ‘dead souls,’ it has been made very clear to us that Manilov has no clue about the lives of the people supposedly in his care. To be the owner of a hundred souls is a matter of status, as we have seen several times in the novel already, not a matter of the pastoral care of those ‘souls.’ Or, it seems, any other kind of care. Manilov is as vague about the serfs on his land as he is about everything else – so, when Chichikov asks him, he is clueless about how many of them have died.

It feels as though Gogol is getting down to his own business now. Up to this point, the tone of the narrative has been complacent, worldly. Things might not be satisfactory, the narrator seems to say, but what can you do? In fact, anyone who has read any 19th Century Russian novels knows that the welfare and emancipation of serfs was a live issue. Some landowners were taking steps to improve things long before the official emancipation in 1861, so we can guess that any reader in 1842, when this novel was written, would recognise Manilov for what he is, a complacent fool with literally no thoughts beyond his own needs. (The questions he asks his young sons to test their geography reveal his own limitations. What is the greatest city in… France? In Russia? Meanwhile, his wife has been educated in just the same useless way as all such women, as satirised by the narrator: ‘changes and improvements have begun to take place…. For instance, in some seminaries the regimen places piano-playing first, and the French language second, and then the above department of housewifery; while in other seminaries the knitting of “surprises” heads the list, and then the French language, and then the playing of pianos—so diverse are the systems in force!’)

Manilov is uneasy about Chichikov’s proposal. It would save him money – landowners are taxed according to ‘souls’ counted at the previous census, so why, Chichikov asks, not sell on the dead ones? Being Manilov, he can think of no objections. He salves his conscience by refusing to accept money, but Chichikov has got what he came for. He will return to clinch the deal after Manilov’s steward has done a proper count of all those who have died. And what does the reader think, aside from wondering what Chichikov is really up to? That the gentry are a bunch of fools, certainly. Anything else?

The process is repeated in Chapter 3. Chichikov is looking for another of the region’s big estates, asks directions, and the driver gets them both lost. There’s some broad comic business to do with the driver, the drink he has taken below stairs at Manilov’s, and the disastrous time he has trying to remember the route at the same time as keeping the three horses under control. For comedy reasons, the thoughts and personalities of the horses are described as vividly as the driver’s. I still haven’t quite got a handle on the master/servant relationships in this novel.

Eventually, in the middle of the night, wet and completely lost, they find a reasonably-sized house. The widow who owns it is suspicious at first, but she puts them up, and next day Chichikov asks her about her own dead souls. Her reaction is not quite the same as Manilov’s: she, too, is mystified and suspicious, but at least she knows which of her serfs have died. And she is far more interested in the offer of payment that Chichikov makes – in fact, although she has never heard of such a transaction, she is suspicious all over again that she might be able to get a better price from a different buyer. Gogol makes Chichikov’s exasperation comic, as he tries to reason with her: ‘Nor will you receive twelve roubles per item, but fifteen—and roubles not in silver, but roubles in good paper currency.’ How we laughed, again. Eventually, she relents. He’s right – who else has ever offered to buy dead serfs? Knowing them all, she is able to dictate the names of the eighteen who have died, and Chichikov can go on his way.

It’s a difficult novel to get a handle on. The humour isn’t always easy to gauge, even if we’ve gathered that any favourable descriptions are definitely ironic. I think it’s to do with that mock-complacent tone. All servants smell, according to this narrator – there are two quite vivid descriptions of this, relating to different servants; all innkeepers have an eye on the main chance; all the town’s officials are the heroes of their own limited little stories, and their judgments of others, as we’ve seen, are just as limited. As for Chichikov…. Is he the devil? Gogol’s alter-ego, out to reveal the follies of mankind to itself? Or is he just like all the rest, having no more in mind than a tax scam of his own?

8 April
Part 1, Chapters 4-8
It’s hard to gauge the humour in translated texts. Gogol uses some of the same techniques as Dickens, his near-contemporary: comic exaggeration, including exaggerated stereotypical characterisation; worldly-wise generalisations about how people always tend to behave; coincidences that move the plot forward (so that a beautiful young woman from Chapter 5 reappears, disastrously for Chichikov, in Chapter 8); a general desire to puncture hypocrisy through ridicule… and, no doubt, a lot of others. But whereas I feel I understand Dickens and the great 18th Century comic novelists writing in English, I am often left mystified by Gogol. Are we supposed to find his comedy gambler in Chapter 4 hilarious? His comedy boor in Chapter 5? His comedy miser in Chapter 6? The whole class of comically corrupt bureaucrats in Chapter 7? The whole gender of middle-class women in Chapter 8, every single one of whom is an idiot?

As I’ve implied, the novel is a series of episodes. The dull-witted Manilov in Chapter 2 turns out to be the first in a series of comic stereotypes Chichikov meets as he makes his accident-prone way from one big house to the next. The most interesting thing about them is the way they all react differently to Chichikov’s offer to buy dead souls and, along the way, what we glean of his ulterior motives. Or not. I’ve mentioned how Manilov doesn’t really know what to think – he doesn’t object to Chichikov having the souls, having no idea who any of his serfs are, but he doesn’t like the idea of selling them. The widow Korobochka in Chapter 3 apparently knows much more about her serfs – but in the end she is only interested in getting the best price. (She re-enters the novel in Chapter 8 for this very reason: she thinks Chichikov might have paid below the odds. I’ll come back to her.)

The gambler is Nozdrev, and he makes an unwelcome re-entry in Chapter 8 as well. He’s taken from stock, the rich young man only interested in horses and cards – except that Gogol stretches his character traits so far that he becomes a joke. Perhaps he has gambled all his money away, because he wants to bet on absolutely everything that happens during Chichikov’s visit. Or perhaps this is just one aspect of his idiotically impulsive and erratic behaviour. Like everyone that Nozdrev deals with, Chichikov goes from bosom friend to villain and back in a moment – but, by the time he is having to go he is an enemy again. Nozdrev is very suspicious indeed about the idea of selling souls. It isn’t that he refuses outright, but he will only do it as part of a different deal. If Chickikov will buy this horse for a ridiculous price, or that broken carriage for more than it’s worth, Nozdrev will throw in the dead souls. But no. Chichikov wouldn’t get into the widow Korobochka’s other sales offers, and he won’t take any of Nozdrev’s impulse buys either. By the end of the chapter they are about to have a fight, which Chichikov would be bound to lose, when a local police superintendent turns up to arrest Nozdrev for an unpaid bill. As ever, Nozdrev’s response is to accuse the plaintiff of lying. He’s an inveterate liar himself, of course.

Chichikov hasn’t been able to convince Nozdrev, the man who lies more easily than he tells the truth, when he is forced to explain why he is buying dead souls. He makes something up on the spot, and he knows how lame it sounds. He says he wants the souls ‘in order to acquire a better standing in society,’ but Nozdrev dismisses this outright as a lie. So, ‘I must tell him straight out,’ Chichikov says to himself, and then: ‘The truth is that I am thinking of getting married…’ and the bride’s parents want a suitor with 300 souls, not the 150 he owns. Again Nozdrev is unimpressed, but Chichikov swears that if he is lying this time, it is only ‘this’ much – and he indicates a tiny part of his little finger. How much do we believe? And do two incidents involving a beautiful young woman offer us a clue? He sees her in the carriage that his own collides with – he really should get a different driver – and he is immediately struck by her. The comedy this time comes in the way he immediately begins fantasising not of the romantic life they could have together, but of how much she might be worth. She’s the one who’ll be back in Chapter 8….

Next. The polar opposite of Nozdrev is Sobakevitch, and if he’s from stock he’s almost the Beast from ‘Beauty and the Beast’. In his dogged pursuit of the right way to do things, he has turned his house and estate into a kind of model of no-nonsense solidity. His serfs are well looked after, his house is extremely plain but well-built of excellent materials…. He himself, locked away from the society we come to realise he hates – he literally has not a good word to say about any of the locals Chichikov mentions – has become a bear. He is huge, he tries – but not hard enough – to avoid treading on his guest’s toes, and while eating colossal meals he mocks the effete tastes of absolutely everybody. His reaction to Chichikov’s plan is surprising. He knows his serfs most intimately of all – the list he makes later includes details of skills and character as well as their parentage – but he is willing to sell. The haggling is just as surprising. Sobakevitch pitches the price hopelessly high – 100 roubles to the one or two that Chichikov seems to be thinking of offering. Sobakevith speaks of their qualities as though they are still alive – there is almost always some exasperating idiocy during the negotiations – and Chichikov has to remind him that the best blacksmith or carpenter in Russia are of no use to him dead. But… Sobakevitch sells, writes that list that sounds as though it would actually take days to complete, and Chichikov is happy.

Next. The miser, happy to accept a very low price because he knows the value of nothing. He’s from stock too, with an estate that’s falling apart, serfs whose lives are as pointless as his… etc. The most interesting thing in the chapter, for me, was an introductory section that doesn’t appear in the Hogarth translation I’m reading online. The narrator, perhaps Gogol himself, describes the difference between his response to new things now compared to when he was young. Then, ‘I used to rejoice when I approached an unknown place for the first time…. Every building, everything that bore on itself the stamp of some noticeable peculiarity.’ Not any more. ‘Now it is with indifference that I approach any unknown estate, and with indifference that I gaze at its trite appearance….’ This feels crucial to the way the novel is narrated. The take-it-or-leave-it introduction to N, its inn, and its people. The continuation of this in the chapter centred on Manilov and his unremarkable estate, the stock characters we meet from then on. Are we all dead souls? Is that the point?

Whatever. Chichikov returns to N and, for the whole of Chapter 7 and most of Chapter 8, his plan seems to work perfectly. His careful nurturing of the relationships he struck up in those first days in the town have paid off, because the president of the council, who regards him as a close friend, procures all the necessary legal stamps with none of the customary delays and backhanders. As far as the town is concerned, he is now the owner of several hundred serfs, Sobakovitch’s detailed inventory of skills and qualities making it seem as though this man really knows how to make a deal. Chichikov has grossly inflated the amounts he has paid for them – the magistrate is impressed that almost a hundred thousand roubles have changed hands – so he is clearly a rich man. Chichikov, during a celebratory meal at the house of the chief of police, invents an estate for himself, so now his is a somebody. He is ‘the landowner of Kherson.’

It is all going well. The townspeople love him so much they are reluctant to let him leave, and all the unattached women want to get to know him and his fortune better. (Gogol’s social satire is not subtle.) There’s even an anonymous love letter sent by one of them, who tells him she will be at the governor’s ball…. Chichikov is not as good at dealing with women as with men – I’m guessing that the little lie he told Nozdrev is that only his lack of fortune stands in the way of his winning a particular bride – and this contributes to the way that things apparently start to unravel at the ball. When things are going well, he doesn’t seem to realise that it’s only his reputation as a rich man that makes his so interesting to all the women. Fine. But Gogol seems to have decided that what he needs now, for the first time, is some plotting…

…so he reintroduces the beautiful young woman from the carriage accident. She is the governor’s daughter – you couldn’t make it up – and this time, Chichikov doesn’t only look at her with rouble-signs flashing in his eyes. The narrator plays an interesting game with the idea of what is really going on: ‘It is impossible to say for certain whether the feeling of love had indeed awakened in our hero—it is even doubtful that gentlemen of his sort, that is, not really fat and yet not really thin, are capable of love; but for all that there was something strange here, something of a sort he could not explain to himself: it seemed to him, as he himself confessed later, that the whole ball with all its talk and noise had for a few moments moved as if to somewhere far away….’ That phrase, ‘not really fat and not really thin,’ takes us right back to the opening of the novel, as though Gogol wants to remind us of the paper-thin characterisation he has gone in for from the start. How can such a nonentity love?

The first problem arises – and Gogol tells us that it will come back to bite Chichikov – when all the other women see that he is no longer even pretending to pay any attention to them. Suddenly, they are ready to change their opinions of him – I said at the start of this that they all behave exactly alike, idiotically – and when another character makes an appearance, they are more prepared to believe his accusations than they would usually. It’s Nozdrev, and although he is well-known for his lies, they do not dismiss out of hand his loud and repeated accusations that Chichikov has been buying up dead soul. Soon, Chichikov is feeling very uncomfortable – ‘Devil take all of you who thought up these balls!’ he says to himself – and he leaves early. Fine. Except, having decided to make the most of this new element in his narrative, the awkward character from an earlier encounter, Gogol brings back the widow Korobochka: ‘after three sleepless nights in a row, she had resolved to go to town … and there find out for certain what was the going price for dead souls…. What consequences this arrival produced, the reader may learn from a certain conversation that took place between a certain two ladies. This conversation . . . but better let this conversation take place in the next chapter.’


Am I underestimating this novel? I’ve had another look at Chapter 8 and, while it’s beginning to have some of the features of a more conventional novel, Gogol keeps reminding us that he’s really writing an anti-novel. We got that right at the beginning, with his description of people and places with absolutely no distinguishing features. Then we’ve had the episodes in which different characters have things to tell us about our attitudes to the living and the dead – but those characters are presented as stereotypes, who we would expect to be unremarkable in every way. Now, in Chapter 8, we get the anti-romantic comedy. Gogol plays with the things you find in love stories. The narrator doesn’t say that the local women fall in love with Chichikov for his money. No, they ‘not only discovered a heap of agreeable and courteous things in him, but even began to find a majestic expression in his face, something even Mars-like and military, which, as everyone knows, women like very much.’

He’s playing with what ‘everyone knows’ about affections, in the way of an author like Fielding – another great player of games. Then, later in the chapter, we get Chichikov’s reaction to the arrival of the Governor’s daughter. She is described in stock phrases: ‘The golden hair, the fine-drawn, delicate contours, the face with its bewitching oval—a face which might have served as a model for the countenance of the Madonna….’ His dumbfounded reaction is described in a very long paragraph focusing almost as much on the reactions of the other ladies, surprised by his sudden lack of interest in them, as it does upon him.

Time for satire: ‘we see a phenomenon not infrequently observed—the phenomenon of the Chichikovs of this world becoming temporarily poets. At all events, for a moment or two our Chichikov felt that he was a young man again, if not exactly a military officer.’ It’s ridiculous, and soon we see the young woman’s reaction. He might have found her unexpectedly after their encounter, but this is no ‘boy meets girl/ boy loses girl/ boy finds girl again’ romantic comedy. She is bored stiff in his company. Meanwhile, the narrator is constantly drawing our attention to how this isn’t like it is in the stories: ‘His emotion was such that he could not formulate a single intelligible syllable; he could merely murmur the devil only knows what, though certainly nothing of the kind which would have risen to the lips of the hero of a fashionable novel.’


14 April
Chapters 9-11 – to the end of Part 1
The absurdities in the town of N continue for two chapters. It’s Chichikov’s ungallant behaviour that leads to the ‘conversation that took place between a certain two ladies’ promised at the end of Chapter 8. We see how the townswomen’s rumour-machine operates, so that almost immediately an entire narrative has been created. The supposed purchase of dead souls is nothing but ‘an invention to conceal something else. The man’s real object is – to abduct the governor’s daughter!’ The governor’s wife is in cahoots with him, and… and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the fiction consists of. Every woman of a certain class believes it, so that soon the men hear of it too. But the men aren’t concerned about this intrigue that might have come straight from a novel. They are concerned about their own futures. There’s a new Governor in post and, one by one, the officials realise that if their own conduct concerning the sale of the souls comes to light, they are in trouble. This leads to a rumour-mill as productive as the women’s, with just as compelling a narrative for the men. Things will come to light – they all have guilty secrets to do with work not done, or scandals hushed up – and the Governor will see how badly run their town really is….

And then we’re into Chapter 11. It’s pretty clear from reading Dead Souls that by the early 1840s, plenty of elements of the novel must have been as well-established in Russia as they were in the rest of Europe and America. But a writer like Gogol (and like Dickens, writing at the same time) is confident enough to play with the form, and to subject it to as many satirical tweaks as he inflicts on his characters. So in Chapter 11 we get what we would have got a long time ago in a conventional novel. In many of them, it would have come in the opening paragraph.

It starts with the story of the young boy sent off to school by a father he would never see again, with words of fatherly advice that he would never deviate from. pleasing the teachers is more important than being clever: ‘you will surpass your fellows…even if you should fail in your studies.’ Spending time with friends will is no good; unless they are rich, ‘since one day they may be useful to you.’ He should ‘never entertain or treat anyone, but see that ever one entertains and treats you.’ And, ‘above all else, keep and save every kopeck…. A friend or a comrade may fail you … but never will a kopeck fail you. Nothing in the world cannot be done, cannot be attained, with the aid of money.’ The comic irony is that Chichikov’s father dies almost penniless, having never taken any of his own dreadful advice. But his son does and…

…in a few pages, we get the story of the rest of his life. In fact, he follows his father’s advice to the letter: he keeps his head down, first at school and then in his first low-aid job, saves every kopeck, toadies up to the boss, is promoted, slowly makes his way up the ladder… etc. Only when a quarrel between the co-conspirators in a long-planned smuggling scam of his leads to an investigation – he’s high up in the customs office now – is his previously unstoppable rise brought to an end. He is able to escape a jail sentence, but he has lost his job, his all-important rank, and everything else but a small nest-egg he’s had hidden away for just such a contingency.

Our ‘hero’ – Gogol often calls him that – is subject to the usual symptoms of self-pity and self-justification: ‘Why has misfortune overtaken me in this way? Never have I wronged a poor person, or robbed a widow, or turned any one out of doors: I have always been careful only to take advantage of those who possess more than their share.’ And it is soon after this that another idea occurs to him. He is told of the legal anomaly concerning the way that taxes on serfs are calculated, whether they are alive or dead, and this leads him to the scam we’re now familiar with. We’ve had the whole of the back-story, right up to his going out on the road just before the novel opens.

Gogol is always thwarting the expectations of any reader who thinks they know how novels work. I’ve mentioned the opening paragraph before, how, instead of pointing out unusual things about his main character and the place he is in, the narrator does the opposite. Chichikov, nameless for the first two pages, becomes an Everyman, and N could be any town – which is, I guess, why I wondered whether this might be an allegory of death or temptation. And only now, in the final chapter of Part 1, do we get the back-story. Had it appeared much earlier, it would have been conventional: Chichikov is a chancer, a con-artist whose escapades have got him to the point at which we first meet him. The point is, it doesn’t appear earlier, it appears here. So now, instead of being the expected thing, it’s a surprise. (Is it something of a disappointment that he’s no more than a con-man? Maybe I should wait until I’ve read more before deciding.)

To go with the deliberately unhelpful non-descriptions of Chapter 1 and the late revelations, there are other games. Sometimes it’s pastiche or parody, like the rom-com (or non-rom-com) of Chapter 8. Before that, Gogol had given us a variation of the picaresque – the episodic, random-seeming Chapters 2-6. It starts with Chichikov combing the countryside for someone whose name he’s got wrong, and from then on it’s a wonder he and his driver Selifan aren’t lost forever. Later, back in the town, it looks as though we’re going to get a conventional plot. But, to me, it seems that anything that seems conventional isn’t in fact. Chichikov gets his certificates in Chapter 7 with no trouble whatsoever, the opposite of what every reader knows would really happen. Rom-com tropes are highlighted only to be punctured in Chapter 8 and lead only to the frank absurdities of the women’s and men’s factional approach to judging Chichikov in 9 and 10. All the women react like this, all the men react like this….

And then we get Chapter 11. By the 1840s, readers would have been used to omniscient authors making pronouncements about the human condition, the mores of society, and of the fictional characters within it – to step outside the narrative as though talking to the reader. We get a lot of that in Chapter 11, for instance when the narrator tells us all we need to know about how he feels about Russia. Gogol punctures his own encomium, a long (380-word) paragraph beginning with ‘Ah, Russia, Russia, from my beautiful home in a strange land I can still see you! In you everything is poor and disordered and unhomely’ and ending with ‘Yes, a strange, brilliant, unearthly vista indeed do you disclose, O Russia, country of mine!’ (This isn’t the last we’ll hear of Russia.)

In fact, what really brings it to an end is Chichikov waking from his sleep in the britchka: ’Stop, stop, you fool!’ shouted Chichikov to Selifan’ – and we’re back inside the absurdities of the undignified flight from N. As I’ve said before, with this author we never, ever forget we’re in a novel.

There are a lot of other things, including the constant puncturing of every single character’s vanities and hypocrisies. As I’ve said before – I know I’m repeating myself a lot – nobody is admirable in this novel. The two ladies who have the conversation in the early part of Chapter 9 are, ludicrously enough, described as ‘a lady agreeable in all respects’ and her friend, ‘not possessed of so versatile a character, and therefore we shall refer to her as the simply agreeable lady.’ In fact, they are both terrible gossips, just like all the others and, as we look on, we see the story about the supposed abduction generated from nothing but speculation they decide is true. Later, as Chichikov leaves the town in a hurry – he’s been ill with a cold for a few days, and emerges to discover he is persona non grata – he sees the funeral of the president of the council, who has died of what seems to be the fear of losing face. Chichikov is satirical: ‘In the newspapers they will say of you that you died regretted not only by your subordinates, but also by humanity at large…. Yet, should those journals be put to it to name any particular circumstance which justified this eulogy of you, they would be forced to fall back upon the fact that you grew a pair of exceptionally thick eyebrows!’ The clever thing is, it’s true: those eyebrows are the only memorable thing about him.

Gogol has a thing going about fathers and sons. There were Manilov’s absurd test questions to his sons in Chapter 3, and Chichikov keeps worrying about his own (so far non-existent) children, his ‘posterity’. In Chapter 5, after his narrow escape from a beating or possibly worse: ‘“But for the Superintendent,” he reflected, “I might never again have looked upon God’s daylight—I might have vanished like a bubble on a pool, and left neither trace nor posterity nor property nor an honourable name for my future offspring to inherit!” (It seemed that our hero was particularly anxious with regard to his possible issue).’ Much later, when he is feeling sorry for himself after his disgrace in Chapter 11: ‘“How can I not feel remorse, knowing that I’m a useless burden on the earth, and what will my children say later? There, they’ll say, is a brute of a father, he didn’t leave us any inheritance!” It is already known that Chichikov was greatly concerned with his posterity. Such a sensitive subject!’ This seems to be part of a satirical commentary on the supposed bond or contract between fathers and sons. Chichikov’s father liked to give out (highly selfish) advice, but never followed it himself and died almost penniless. As for Chichikov – what kind of a father is he, when he only thinks about children as potential admirers (or not) of his own greatness?

Enough? How does Part 1 end? In role as the omniscient author pronouncing on anything and everything, the narrator invites his readers to look into themselves: ‘which of you, when quiet, and alone, and engaged in solitary self-communion, would not do well to probe your own souls, and to put to yourselves the solemn question, “Is there not in me an element of Chichikov?” For how should there not be?’ Is this deep philosophical questioning? Or another pastiche, this time of those authors who deal with such grand ideas? I’ll opt for the latter, as Gogol ends with the britchka’s mad rush, likened to an imaginary Russia: ‘Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes—only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!’

At the conclusion of the first part of a novel in which everything about Russia is worthy of nothing but the most biting satire, I’m going to make no comment.


3 Responses to Dead Souls (Part 1) – Nikolai Gogol

  1. Thomas says:

    Well, did you read part two? And if you did, where’s the review. I liked this summary of part one.

  2. rosalie says:

    amazing. thank you so much

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