Nikolai Gogol Long Fiction Analysis
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3775
The cover of the first edition of Dead Souls, designed by Nikolai Gogol himself, reads as follows: “The Adventures of Chichikov or Dead Souls. A Poem by N. Gogol. 1842.” “The Adventures of Chichikov” is in the smallest print, “Dead Souls” is more than twice that size, and “A Poem” is twice again the size of “Dead Souls.” The word “or” is barely legible. The fact that “The Adventures of Chichikov” was inserted at the insistence of the censor, who felt that “Dead Souls” alone smacked of blasphemy, accounts for one-half of this typographical irregularity. The fact that “A Poem” (Russian poema, which usually designates an epic poem in verse) dominates the cover of a prose work that at first glance is anything but “poetic” also had its reasons, as will be seen.
The plot structure of Dead Souls is simple. Chichikov, a middle-aged gentleman of decent appearance and pleasing manners, travels through the Russian provinces on what seems a mysterious quest: He buys up “dead souls,” meaning serfs who have died since the last census but are still listed on the tax rolls until the next census. Along the way, he meets various types of Russian landowners: the sugary and insipid Manilov; the widow Korobochka, ignorant and superstitious but an efficient manager of her farm; the dashing Nozdryov, a braggart, liar, and cardsharp; the brutish but shrewd Sobakevich; and the sordid miser Plyushkin. Having returned to the nearby provincial capital to obtain legal title to his four-hundred-odd “souls,” Chichikov soon comes under a cloud of suspicion and quickly leaves town. Only at this stage does the reader learn about Chichikov’s past and the secret of the dead souls. A civil service official, Chichikov had twice reached the threshold of prosperity through cleverly devised depredations of the state treasury, but each time he had been foiled at the last moment. After his second fiasco, he had been allowed to resign with only a small sum saved from the clutches of his auditors. Undaunted, he had conceived yet another scheme: He would buy up a substantial number of “dead souls,” mortgage them at the highest rate available, and disappear with the cash.
The plot of part 1 takes the story only this far. In what is extant of part 2, Chichikov is seen not only trying to buy more dead souls but also getting involved in other nefarious schemes. It also develops, however, that Chichikov is not happy with his sordid and insecure existence and that he dreams of an honest and virtuous life. He would be willing to mend his ways if he could only find a proper mentor who would give him the right start. There is reason to believe that Gogol planned to describe Chichikov’s regeneration and return to the path of rightenousness in part 3. The whole plot thus follows the pattern of a picaresque novel, and many details of Dead Souls are, in fact, compatible with this genre, which was well established in Russian literature even before Gogol’s day.
Actually, part 1 of Dead Souls is many things in addition to a picaresque novel: a humorous novel after the fashion of Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-1837, serial; 1837, book), with which it was immediately compared by the critics; a social satire attacking the corruption and inefficiency of the imperial administration and the crudity and mental torpor of the landed gentry; a moral sermon in the form of grotesque character sketches; and, above all, an epic of Russia’s abjection and hoped-for redemption. The characters of part 2, while copies, in a way, of those encountered in part 1, have redeeming traits and strike the reader as human beings rather than as caricatures. The landowner Tentetnikov, in particular, is clearly a prototype of Oblomov, the hero of Ivan Goncharov’s immortal novel of that title (1859; English translation, 1915), and, altogether, part 2 of Dead Souls is a big step in the direction of the Russian realist novel of the 1850’s and 1860’s. The following observations apply to part 1, unless otherwise indicated.
The structure of Dead Souls is dominated by the road, as the work begins with a description of Chichikov’s arrival at an inn of an unidentified provincial capital and ends with him back on the road, with several intervening episodes in which the hero is seen on his way to his next encounter with a potential purveyor of dead souls. Chichikov’s tippling coachman, Selifan, and his three-horse carriage (troika) are often foregrounded in Gogol’snarrative, and one of the three horses, the lazy and stubborn piebald, has become one of the best-known “characters” in all of Russian fiction. The celebrated troika passage concludes part 1. Vladimir Nabokov has written that critic Andrey Bely saw “the whole first volume of Dead Souls as a closed circle whirling on its axle and blurring the spokes, with the theme of the wheel cropping up at each new revolution on round Chichikov’s part.”
When Chichikov is not on the road, the narrative becomes a mirror, as each new character is reflected in Chichikov’s mind with the assistance of the omniscient narrator’s observations and elucidations. One contemporary critic said that reading Dead Souls was like walking down a hotel corridor, opening one door after another—and staring at another human monster each time.
The road and the mirror by no means exhaust Gogol’s narrative attitudes. Dead Souls features some philosophical discussions on a variety of topics; many short narrative vignettes, such as when Chichikov dreamily imagines what some of his freshly acquired dead souls may have been like in life; an inserted novella, The Tale of Captain Kopeikin, told by the local postmaster, who suspects that Chichikov is in fact the legendary outlaw Captain Kopeikin; repeated apostrophes to the reader, discussing the work itself and the course to be taken in continuing it; and, last but not least, Gogol’s much-debated lyric digressions. Altogether, while there is some dialogue in Dead Souls, the narrator’s voice dominates throughout. In fact, the narrative may be described as the free flow of the narrator’s stream of consciousness, drifting from observation to observation, image to image, and thought to thought. It is often propelled by purely verbal associations. A common instance of the latter is the so-called realized metaphor, such as when a vendor of hot mead, whose large red face is likened to a copper samovar, is referred to as “the samovar”; when Chichikov, threatened with bodily harm by an enraged Nozdryov and likened to a fortress under siege, suddenly becomes “the fortress”; or when the bearlike Sobakevich is casually identified as a “fair sized bear” in the role of landowner. It is also verbal legerdemain that eventually turns Sobakevich’s whole estate into an extension of its owner: “Every object, every chair in Sobakevich’s house seemed to proclaim: ’I, too, am Sobakevich!’”
Hyperbole is another device characteristic of Gogol’s style. Throughout Dead Souls, grotesque distortions and exaggerations are presented as a matter of course—for example, when the scratching of the clerks’ pens at the office where Chichikov seals his purchase of dead souls is likened to “the sound of several carts loaded with brushweed and driven through a forest piled with dead leaves a yard deep.” Often the hyperbole is ironic, such as when the attire of local ladies is reported to be “of such fashionable pastel shades that one could not even give their names, to such a degree had the refinement of taste attained!”
A sure sign of the author’s own point of view surfaces in frequent literary allusions and several passages in which Gogol digresses to discuss the theory of fiction—for example, the famous disquisition, introducing chapter 7, on the distinction between the writer who idealizes life and the writer who chooses to deal with real life. Gogol, who fancies himself to be a realist, wryly observes that “the judgment of his time does not recognize that much spiritual depth is required to throw light upon a picture taken from a despised stratum of life, and to exalt it into a pearl of creative art” but feels “destined by some wondrous power to go hand in hand with his heroes, to contemplate life in its entirety, life rushing past in all its enormity, amid laughter perceptible to the world and through tears that are unperceived by and unknown to it!” The phrases “to exalt it into a pearl of creative art” and “amid laughter perceptible to the world and through tears that are unperceived by and unknown to it” have become common Russian usage, along with many others in Dead Souls.
Dead Souls is studded with many outright digressions. It must be kept in mind, however, that the mid-nineteenth century novel was routinely used as a catchall for miscellaneous didactic, philosophical, critical, scholarly, and lyric pieces that were often only superficially, if at all, integrated into the texture of the larger work. Still, the number and nature of digressions in Dead Souls are exceptional even by the standards of a roman feuilleton of the 1840’s. As described by Victor Erlich, two basic types of digressions are found in Dead Souls: “the lateral darts and the upward flights.” The former are excursions into a great variety of aspects of Russian life, keenly observed, sharply focused, and always lively and colorful. For example, having observed that Sobakevich’s head looks quite like a pumpkin, Gogol, in one of his many “Homeric similes,” veers off into a village idyll about a peasant lad strumming a balalaika made from a pumpkin to win the heart of a “snowy-breasted and snowy-necked Maiden.”
Gogol’s upward flights are of a quite different order. They permit his imagination to escape the prosaic reality of Chichikov’s experience and allow him to become a poet who takes a lofty view of Russia and its destiny. In several of these passages, Gogol’s imagination becomes quite literally airborne. One of them, at the conclusion of chapter 5, begins with a lofty aerial panorama: “Even as an incomputable host of churches, of monasteries, with cupolas, bulbous domes, and crosses, is scattered all over holy and devout Russia, so does an incomputable multitude of tribes, generations, peoples swarm, flaunt their motley and scurry across the face of the earth.” It ends in a rousing paean to “the Russian word which, like no other in the world, would burst out so, from out the very heart, which would seethe so and quiver and flutter so much like a living thing.”
Early in chapter 11, Gogol produces another marvelous panoramic vision of Russia, apostrophized in the famous passage, “Russia, Russia! I behold thee—from my alien, beautiful, far-off vantage point I behold thee.” (Gogol wrote most of Dead Souls while living in Italy.) The conclusion of this, the final chapter of part 1, then brings the most famous lines of prose in all of Russian literature, the troika passage in which a speeding three-horse carriage is elevated to a symbol of Russia’s historical destiny. The intensity and plenitude of life and emotion in these and other airborne lyric passages stand in stark contrast to the drab world that is otherwise dominant in Dead Souls. These lyric digressions were challenged as incongruous and unnecessary even by some contemporary critics who, as do many critics today, failed to realize that Gogol’s is a dual vision of manic-depressive intensity.
As a poema (epic poem), Dead Souls is a work that Gogol perceived as the poetic expression of an important religious-philosophical conception—that is, something on the order of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) or John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Incidentally, there is one rather inconsequential allusion to Dante in chapter 7, where one reads that a collegiate registrar “served our friends even as Virgil at one time had served Dante, and guided them to the Presence.”
Immediately after the appearance of Dead Souls, critics were split into two camps: those who, like Konstantin Aksakov, greeted the work as the Russian national epic, found numerous Homeric traits in it, and perceived it as a true incarnation of the Russian spirit in all of its depth and plenitude, and those who, like Nikolai Alekseevich Polevoi and Osip Ivanovich Senkovsky, saw it as merely an entertaining, though rather banal and in places pretentious, humorous novel. The latter group—which included even the great critic Vissarion Belinsky, who otherwise felt that Dead Souls was a perfect quintessence of Russian life—found Gogol’s attempts at philosophizing and solemn pathos merely pompous and false. There has never been agreement in this matter. Nevertheless, several passages in part 1, the whole drift of part 2, and a number of quite unequivocal statements made by Gogol in his correspondence (in Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends and in his posthumous “Author’s Confession”) all suggest that Gogol did indeed perceive Dead Souls as a Divine Comedy of the Russian soul, with part 1 its Inferno, part 2 its Purgatory, and part 3 its Paradise.
How, then, is part 1 in fact an Inferno, a Russian Hell? It is set in a Hades of dead souls, of humans who lead a shadowy phantom existence bereft of any real meaning or direction. Thus, it must be understood that in the Romantic philosophy of Gogol’s time, the “normal” existence of a European philistine was routinely called “illusory,” “unreal,” and even “ghostly,” while the ideal quest of the artist or philosopher was considered “substantial,” “real,” and “truly alive.” As Andrey Bely demonstrated most convincingly, all of part 1 is dominated by what he calls “the figure of fiction.” Whatever is said or believed to be true is from beginning to end a fiction, as unreal as Chichikov’s financial transactions. For example, when the good people of N. begin to suspect that something is wrong with Chichikov, some of them believe that he plans to abduct the Governor’s daughter, others conjecture that he is really Captain Kopeikin, a highway robber of legendary fame, and some actually suspect that he is Napoleon escaped from his island exile, but nobody investigates his motive for buying dead souls. As Bely also demonstrated, even time and space in Dead Souls are fictitious: The text will not even allow one to determine the season of the year; Chichikov’s itinerary, if methodically checked, is physically impossible; and so on. Behind the figure of fiction, there looms large the message that all earthly experience and wisdom are in fact illusory, as Gogol makes explicit in a philosophical digression found in chapter 10.
In this shadowy world of fiction there exist two kinds of dead souls. There are the dead serfs who are sold and mortgaged and who, in the process, acquire a real semblance of life. Mrs. Korobochka, as soon as she has understood that Chichikov is willing to pay her some money for her dead serfs, is afraid that he may underpay her and somewhat timidly suggests that “maybe I’ll find some use for them in my own household.” Sobakevich, who haggles about the price of each dead soul, insists on eloquently describing their skills and virtues, as though it really mattered. Chichikov himself firmly rejects an offer by the local authorities to provide him with a police escort for the souls he has purchased, asserting that “his peasants are all of eminently quiet disposition.” The same night, however, when he returns home from a party thrown by the local police chief to honor the new owner of four hundred souls, he actually orders Selifan “to gather all the resettled peasants, so he can personally make a roll call of them.” Selifan and Petrushka, Chichikov’s lackey, barely manage to get their master to bed.
The humanitarian message behind all of this is obvious: How could a person who finds the buying and selling of dead souls “fantastic” and “absurd” have the effrontery to find the same business transactions involving living souls perfectly normal? This message applies not only to Russia in the age of serfdom (which ended only in 1861—that is, at about the same time formal slavery ended in the United States) but also to any situation in which human beings are reduced to their social or economic function.
The other dead souls are the landowners and government officials whom we meet in Dead Souls. As the critic Vasily Rozanov observed, the peculiar thing about Gogolian characters is that they have no souls; they have habits and appetities but no deeper human emotions or ideal strivings. This inevitably deprives them of their humanity and renders them two-dimensional personifications of their vices—caricatures. Sobakevich is a very shrewd talking bear. Nozdryov is so utterly worthless that he appears to be a mere appendage of his extraordinarily handsome, thick, and pitch-black sideburns, thinned out a bit from time to time, when their owner is caught cheating at cards and suffers a whisker pulling. Plyushkin’s stony miserliness has deprived him of all feeling and has turned him, a rich landowner, into a beggar and an outcast of society. Dead Souls has many such caricatures, which have been likened to Brueghelian grotesque paintings. This analogy applies to the following passage in chapter 11, for example: “The clerks in the Treasury were especially distinguished for their unprepossessing and unsightly appearance. Some had faces for all the world like badly baked bread: one cheek would be all puffed out to one side, the chin slanting off to the other, the upper lip blown up into a big blister that, to top it all off, had burst.”
As early as 1842, the critic Stepan Shevyrev suggested that Dead Souls represented a mad world, thus following an ancient literary and cultural tradition (which today is often referred to as that of the “carnival”). The massive absurdities, non sequiturs, and simply plain foolishness throughout the whole text could, for Gogol and for many of his readers, have only one message: That which poses for “real life” is in fact nothing but a ludicrous farce. The basic course of Gogol’s imagination is that of a descent into a world of ridiculous, banal, and vile “nonbeing,” from which it will from time to time rise to the heights of noble and inspired “being.”
While Dead Souls is unquestionably Gogol’s masterpiece, his only other work of long fiction, Taras Bulba, is not without interest. The 1835 version of this work is a historical novella; the 1842 version, almost twice as long and thus novel-sized, has many digressions and is at once more realistic and more gothic but also more patriotic, moralizing, and bigoted. The plot is essentially the same in both versions.
Taras Bulba is a Ukrainian Cossack leader, so proud of his two fine sons recently back from school in Kiev that he foments war against the hated Poles, so that Ostap and Andriy can prove their manhood in battle. The Cossacks are initially successful, and the Poles are driven back to the fortress city of Dubno. The Cossacks lay siege to it, and the city seems ready to fall when Andriy is lured to the city by a messenger from a beautiful Polish maiden with whom he had fallen in love as a student in Kiev. Blinded by her promises of love, Andriy turns traitor. The Cossacks’ fortunes now take a turn for the worse. They are pressed hard by a Polish relief force. On the battlefield, Taras meets Andriy (now a Polish officer), orders him to dismount, and shoots him. The Cossacks, however, are defeated, and Ostap is taken prisoner. Old Taras makes his way to Warsaw, hoping to save him, but can only witness his son’s execution. Having returned to the Ukraine, Taras becomes one of the leaders of yet another Cossack uprising against the king of Poland. When peace is made, Taras alone refuses to honor it. He continues to wreak havoc on the Poles all over the Ukraine but is finally captured by superior Polish forces. He dies at the stake, prophesying the coming of a Russian czar against whom no power on earth will stand.
There is little historical verity in Taras Bulba. Different details found in the text point to the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries as the time of its action. It is thus an epic synthesis of the struggle of the Orthodox Ukraine to retain its independence from Catholic Poland. The battle scenes are patterned on those in the works of Vergil and Homer, and there are many conventional epic traits throughout, such as scores of brief scenes of single combat, catalogs of warriors’ names, extended Homeric similes, orations, and, of course, the final solemn prophecy. Taras Bulba is a tragic hero who expiates his hubris with the loss of his sons and his own terrible death.
The earlier version of Taras Bulba serves mostly the glorification of the wild, carefree life at the Cossack army camp. In the later version, this truly inspired hymn to male freedom is obscured by a message of Russian nationalism, Orthodox bigotry, and nostalgia for a glorious past that never was. The novel features almost incessant baiting of Poles and Jews. Gogol’s view of the war is a wholly unrealistic and romantic one: The reader is told of “the enchanting music of bullets and swords” and so on. From a literary viewpoint, Taras Bulba is a peculiar mixture of the historical novel in the manner of Sir Walter Scott and the gothic tale. The narrator stations himself above his hero, gently faulting him on some of his uncivilized traits, such as the excessive stock Taras puts in his drinking prowess or his maltreatment of his long-suffering wife. Rather often, however, the narrator descends to the manner of the folktale. His language swings wildly from coarse humor and naturalistic grotesque to solemn oratory and lyric digressions. Scenes of unspeakable atrocities are reported with relish, but some wonderful poems in prose are also presented, such as the well-known description of the Ukrainian steppe in the second chapter.
Altogether, Taras Bulba contains some brilliant writing but also some glaring faults. It immediately became a classic, and soon enough a school text, inasmuch as its jingoism met with the approval of the czar—and eventually of Soviet school administrators. Several film versions, Russian as well as Western, have been produced.
Although Gogol’s production of fiction was quite small by nineteenth century standards, both his novels and his short stories have had extraordinary influence on the development of Russian prose—an influence that was still potent at the end of the twentieth century, as witnessed by the works of Andrei Sinyavsky and other writers of the Third Emigration.