Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057

When Nikolai Gogol began work on Dead Souls in the 1830’s, he developed a picaresque anecdote, initially suggested by poet Alexander Pushkin, that was crudely satiric. Eventually the concept grew into a “poema,” or an epic, signaling its broad scope, patriotic flavor, and symbolic content. Although the censors forced him to alter the “Tale of Captain Kopeykin” in the tenth chapter of the novel and to change the title “Dead Souls,” with its blasphemous and politically charged implications, to “The Adventures of Tchitchikoff,” the work drew universal admiration. By the time the work was published in 1842, Gogol anticipated two more volumes describing the moral rebirth of Tchitchikoff and the ideal state of the Russian nation. Gogol’s consistent dissatisfaction with the draft prevented him from publishing the continuation. The five chapters of volume 2 did not appear until three years after his death in 1852.

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Gogol’s contemporaries emphasized the accuracy of his portraits of Russian life, his realism. Some critics viewed Gogol’s Russia as a faithful copy or justified the negative portrayals as necessary for a balanced depiction of Russia, while others objected to his cruel depiction of Russian life. The novel was interpreted variously from purely satiric to morally uplifting. Although Gogol’s work was frequently discussed as a commentary on the unjust institution of serfdom, Dead Souls instead emphasizes the imperfections of government bureaucracy and satirizes officials working within that system. Gogol focuses his attention primarily on the middle class, rather than the high nobility, noble landowners, urban bureaucrats, or the peasantry. The provincial setting allows, however, for ample presentation of varied social groups. Dead Souls develops generalizations about Russian manners, speech, characters, and spirit within episodes of comic and lyric digression.

The first six chapters of the novel establish Tchitchikoff’s mirrorlike amiability as he visits a series of Russian landowners: the vapid and obliging Maniloff, the suspicious Madame Korobotchkina, the misanthropic Sobakevitch, the hyperbolic Nozdreff, and the miserly Pliushkin. In order to buy the legal titles to recently deceased serfs, he mimics the dominant obsession of each. Gogol manages to sustain the enigma of Tchitchikoff through these shifts of behavior. Only near the end of the novel does Gogol flesh out his hero by supplying his biography and preparing him for the next stage on the road. The late inclusion of the biography makes it apparent that the Tchitchikoff mirroring has been mutual. Maniloff now appears as a parody of Tchitchikoff decorum; Korobotchkina’s bargaining emerges as a variant of his cunning; Nozdreff represents his prevarication; Sobakevitch manifests his calculating maneuvers; Pliushkin figures as his acquisitional passion.

In the first half of the novel, Gogol delineates a gallery of portraits by outlining each landowner’s physical appearance, home, family, hospitality, and reaction to Tchitchikoff’s proposal. Gogol’s methods of characterization exhibit a tension between the general and the particular, between typical traits and idiosyncratic detail. Although all the main characters belong to the same social class, they represent distinct personality types: Maniloff’s sentimental inertia, Nozdreff’s wild prevaricating, Sobakevitch’s bearlike bluster, and Pliushkin’s disfiguring thrift acquire significance as typifying generalities. Even when drawing the abundant minor figures, Gogol emphasizes the generalized nature of certain looks or behavior and yet gives them unique and comic names. At the same time, the traits of Gogol’s characters, particularly Tchitchikoff’s acquisitiveness, are features of the times.

The metaphysical implications of the title, denying of the soul’s immortality, drew controversy. The title seems to describe the characters, all of whom represent varying degrees of spiritual or intellectual deadness. Throughout the text, categories of living and dead commingle. The deceased serfs are sometimes treated as if they were alive, while minor figures appear in great detail only to disappear without further mention. The fragmentary second part of the novel begins to trace the spiritual rebirth of Russia as well as that of Tchitchikoff.

The road embodies the dominant structural principle of the work. The novel begins with Tchitchikoff’s arrival and ends with the continuation of his journey. The celebrated closing paragraph likening Russia to a speeding troika establishes the connection between Russia and Tchitchikoff, whose destinies are both unresolved. As the instrument of Tchitchikoff’s quest, the road represents experience, movement, and change. The dynamic of the road balances the inertia of the landowners. Finally, the road describes the narrative itself. Since the concept of a journey loosely structures the novel, digressions, random events, and episodic characters seem natural. In his lyric asides, the narrator compares his enterprise to a journey where unexpected turns create significant developments. Gogol takes his cue from the picaresque novel, with its wandering heroes, outlandish adventures, and digressive narrators.

The first volume is characteristic in its lack of plot or resolution. From the opening paragraph, essentials are blurred and irrelevancies are sharply etched. Gogol is particularly fond of suspending the action while he develops a simile at such length that it functions as a tale in its own right. While the epic simile generates beauty out of mundane details or broadens the significance of events, Gogol’s extended similes often become comic digressions. Similes emerge to mock conventions of epic narration and to make fun of the characters and events of Gogol’s own tale. Gogol combines comedy of situation and slapstick physical humor with verbal humor, including witty puns, absurd neologisms, purposefully vague dialogue, and exaggerated formulaic expressions. The plot is consistently overwhelmed by comic details and lyric digressions.

Dead Souls is largely a book written about how it is written. The authorial interruptions are confessions, admonishments, pleas for sympathy, and complaints about probable misunderstandings. Throughout the text, the narrator anticipates objections to his “low” language, his use of a scoundrel as a hero, the lack of love intrigue, and other differences from conventional novels. The interpolated “Tale of Captain Kopeykin” in the tenth chapter is a masterpiece of skaz, or mannered narration in which the speaker unwittingly vies with his story for attention using a vivid manner that overshadows the content of the story. Ultimately, the entire narrative exists as a performance, a colloquial stylization replete with outlandish words and irrelevancies balanced by a desire for lofty lyricism and moral uplift. Dead Souls finally emerges as an enigmatic work that continues to fluctuate between the comic and the tragic, the epic and the picaresque.

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Dead Souls