Quick Review When Tchitchikov comes up with a brilliant plan, he embarks on an adventure bringing him a name and fortune after encounters with interesting people.
Nikolai Gogol published Dead Souls in 1842. I read it for the first time in Russian while I was in college. This is the first time I am reading the English translation by Constance Garnett. She translated a majority of classical Russian literature to much critical skepticism at this point in time. The work in its original form is more nuanced and beautiful than the translation, but that is always the case. It is impossible to relay the original in its entirety to another language and culture. Although, Dead Souls is an incredible read in English. So I highly recommend it.
The narrator, even Gogol himself, views and refers to the novel as an epic poem, though, in prose form. It is intended to encapsulate the mindset and attitudes of the middle class in Russia during the mid-1800’s. Gogol is able to capture a range of emotions, attitudes, psychology, and culture within this epic novel, which garnered him the role as grandfather of Russian realism.
In order to understand the plot of the novel, it is important to understand the culture in which it was written. Serfs were referred to as souls in legal jargon. Before 1861, serfs belonged to the land and landowners, who could sell them, trade them, or mortgage them at will. The word poshlost is incredibly important to the novel, but it does not translate to English well; it deals with the character of a human always negative. Poshlost is always in bad taste, self-serving, petty, and even to the point of evil. It’s hard to encapsulate this word in English.
Tchitchikov comes up with a brilliant plan to basically get rich quick. The novel revolves around the idea that Tchitchikov collects the dead souls, or dead serfs, from the landowners who have to pay taxes on them until the next census. Tchitchikov’s plan eventually reveals itself, but he amasses a large holding of souls, who are not dead in the eyes of the law.
Tchitchikov has his own sordid past, but he arrives in an area of Russia and turns all of his charms on the landowners in the region. Tchitchikov is his own caricature. Each landowner he meets is a ridiculous caricature of personality failings Gogol bears witness to in society around him. The landowners, though absurd in their own way, is not a flat character. They have their own evolutions and complexities. None of the characters are overly likeable; they do come across as understandably diluted.
The title Dead Souls refers to two different concepts. The souls of the deceased serfs, obviously. The second is more thematic and requires reading to understand and revolves around the word poshlost. The other dead souls in the novel are the living characters suffering from an unrivaled amount of poshlost. Their souls are dead in Gogol’s eyes. Arguably, there is no “hero” in the traditional sense. Tchitchikov is more of an antihero.
Gogol is an amazing writer even in translation. He is one of my favorite Russian authors. He is not as well known outside of Russia like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is, but he is just as important if not more so. Gogol set the tone and bar for all Russian writers after him.
“”What… a sale of dead souls?””
Title: Dead Souls
Translator: Constance Garnett
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics