Dead Souls is set in the mid-19th century, in Russia, during the time of Tsars, and of serfdom. Until the 1860s, the agricultural areas of Russia (which was virtually all of inhabited Russia) lived under a sort of feudal system where the peasants who worked the land were at best one level up from slaves.
I first read this and a book of short stories by Gogol for a Russian literature class in college. Gogol is a satirist, a humorist, an absurdist. Probably the most similar writer to Gogol that I’m aware of is Kafka, but the similarity is not real close. Kafka often has kind of surreal plotlines that turn back on themselves or spin their wheels in a nightmarishly frustrating way. There’s some of that in Gogol, but to a lesser degree.
Gogol does things like set up a description and then explain why he can’t give it. Or he pretends to give a description, but it’s really grossly inadequate or focused on something minor and irrelevant.
Like the waiter early in the book who is described as moving about so fast that it really wasn’t possible to see what he looked like. Maybe at first glance that almost sounds like it makes sense, but if you think about it even a little bit it clearly doesn’t. We’re not talking about somebody who maybe sprints past you when you’re not paying attention and by the time you look up you can only catch a glimpse of the back of him. This is a waiter at an inn, taking your order, bringing your drinks, bringing your food, moving about the tables, rushing to and from the kitchen, etc. Imagine yourself in such a situation. Is there any way the waiter could be darting about so quickly and so frantically that you couldn’t see what he looked like, couldn’t discern if he had dark hair or blonde hair, was tall or short, had facial hair or was clean-shaven, and so on? So it’s an absurd, comical reason for a narrator to cite for not being able to describe a person.
The protagonist of the novel is Chichikov, whom we eventually learn is a former mid-level government official who has lost his job due to his tendency to use his position to line his pockets, and his involvement in various shady get-rich-quick schemes. (Or really maybe his flaw is getting caught, since one gets the impression that a certain level of official corruption was pretty much the norm.)
Now Chichikov has come up with another way to make his intended fortune, involving the system of serfdom.
Serfs were in many ways in the legal system treated as property. They could be bought and sold, etc. The number of serfs working for you on your land was one of the factors that determined the value of your property, and hence one of the factors that determined how much property tax you were obligated to pay as a landowner. Once a year a census was taken, at which time you could update how many serfs you owned if some had died, some had run away, etc. So you paid taxes based on the most recent census, and continued to pay at that same level until there was another census. If you were down in the records as having 500 serfs, and then 50 died in an epidemic, you’d still have to pay taxes on 500 rather than 450 until the next census.
Chichikov’s scheme is to get as many non-existent serfs transferred into his name as possible, and then to mortgage whatever land he can get along with all these serfs (who exist only on paper) and then abscond with the money. He figures it should be easy to buy dead serfs cheap, or even get them for free, since the sellers would actually benefit from the sales as they’d be reducing the number of serfs they are taxed for without having to wait until the next census.
It can be a little unclear or a little complicated as far as whether it’s financially advantageous or disadvantageous to be the legal owner of serfs who are gone (died, run away, whatever)—if it’s advantageous then why would the landowners part with them, and if it’s disadvantageous then why would Chichikov want them?—but the key as I understand it is that it’s only advantageous if you intend to fraudulently and illegally use them as collateral to borrow money that you then don’t pay back.
So Chichikov identifies areas out in the country that seem likely to have had a disproportionate number of deaths recently—maybe there’s been a natural disaster, maybe the area has been hard hit by disease, etc.—and visits them to try to buy dead serfs.
First he ingratiates himself with all the local landowners and public officials; he’s a pretty smooth operator when it comes to schmoozing and flattery and such. Eventually, after he’s been in the area for a while, and everyone knows him and thinks well of him, he looks for openings to approach people about the kind of transaction he’s interested in. He doesn’t bring them into it in a conspiratorial way, doesn’t explain why he wants to buy dead serfs. He leaves that open, like it’s unimportant how it will benefit him, or like maybe he’s just eccentric and it won’t benefit him at all, and instead tries to keep them focused on the fact that it will benefit them taxwise to get dead souls off their ownership list. Then when he gets as many dead serfs as he thinks he can realistically get from one town, he moves on to the next and repeats the process.
At least that’s the plan. In fact things don’t go nearly that smoothly. The landowners are understandably taken aback by the proposition to begin with, and in spite of his explaining and re-explaining to them how it will benefit them to get rid of their dead serfs, very few of them will simply do a quick and easy transaction with him like he wants.
Some want to haggle with him and try to get him to pay as much as possible for the dead serfs. He again tells them no, no, don’t you see that even if you gave them to me for free you’d come out ahead?, but they figure the fact that he wants them so much—God knows why—indicates that the dead serfs have some value for him, and they want to find out just how much value they have, how high he’ll go on the price.
One entertainingly befuddled old widow just can’t get her mind around the concept at all. She rather uncertainly babbles on about the high quality of the serfs who have died—this one was a fine cook, this one was a skilled blacksmith, etc.—or worries about the ruckus digging them out of the ground will cause. No matter how much he tries to get through to her that he doesn’t want to actually take physical possession of them (or their corpses) but wants to do a transaction solely on paper, she continues to mutter about irrelevant things that indicate she still doesn’t get it. She tries to steer him toward buying some of her eggs or some kind of transaction she is familiar with, stalling and being indecisive about the whole dead serf thing, wondering if she should perhaps first see how much other people might be paying for dead serfs.
Then problems arise for Chichikov not directly related to his efforts to buy dead serfs. Some of the very people who embraced him as a man of honor and an all-around great guy based on the very superficial evidence of the way he carried himself at their parties and such, turn on him for equally superficial reasons based on the silliest of gossip as they convince each other that he means to elope with the governor’s daughter.
Rather than a smooth con, Chichikov’s travels degenerate into a series of comic misadventures, where Gogol gets to introduce various oddball characters and oddball situations that he can exploit for their humor. We never do learn just how successful Chichikov’s scheme was in the long run, because Gogol died without finishing the book.
I like Gogol’s style more than not; I always get some good laughs from his material. For me, though, the style works better in short stories. A short story is over quicker, and you don’t mind as much that it didn’t particularly go anywhere, that descriptions were empty, that non-essential characters were introduced just for a laugh, that it’s all pretty ludicrous. With a full length novel, you’re more invested as a reader, it matters more (I think, anyway) that the story make sense and come to some resolution. It’s more noticeable when dozens of pages go by and the story hasn’t really moved forward.
Maybe you can say some of the same things about Kafka’s books, but I don’t experience the same degree of dissatisfaction with the way his books don’t go anywhere. It’s like their weird Escher-like plot structure and lack of resolution are handled in such an inventive and delightful way that they’re part of the appeal. With Dead Souls there were too many times reading it that I felt myself getting bored as some of the new kooky characters and situations Chichikov got himself involved with seemed too repetitious of earlier encounters and I was ready for things to get more eventful.
But I think the main weakness is that Dead Souls came at a time in his life when Gogol was taking himself all too seriously. He had come to have increasingly grandiose ideas about his destiny to write the great Russian novel, and had become more and more of a religious fanatic, falling under the spell of some Rasputin-like holy mentor. He conceived of Dead Souls as a book that would reveal the mysterious true character of the Russian people, and show them through Chichikov the path they needed to take for redemption. Ironically, the satirist became the kind of eccentric nut that would have been a prime target of his satire.
Judging from what I’ve read not just of Gogol but of Dostoyevsky and others from the extraordinary 19th century of Russian literature, Russian authors loved to go on and on about the essence of what it was to be a true Russian, and to enumerate all the grand and not-so-grand character and behavioral traits that so epitomize Russians. (In an old Woody Allen stand-up routine, he talks about an imagined conversation he had with Gertrude Stein as they watched a young Manolete, and mused about how a boy of 18 could often look to be 19, whereas a boy of 19 could easily appear to be 18, since “that’s the way it is with a true Spaniard.” That’s about how silly these pronouncements about the essential character of the true Russian come across to me.) Gogol does this as frequently in Dead Souls as I’ve seen it in any of these Russian novels. You would hope it’s a parody of this tendency in Russian writers, but the sad thing is I think he means it all very seriously.
Dead Souls was supposed to be a three-part novel, or a series of three novels. In the first part, Chichikov would be a con man, traveling about collecting dead serfs. In the second part, he’d gradually come to some moral understanding of what was wrong with his approach to life, and would learn from people he encountered how one ought to be living instead. In the third part, he’d put his newfound principles into action and show what it was to live the sort of reformed, devout life that Gogol wanted to reveal to his countrymen in messianic fashion.
Gogol completed and published the first part, and he completed the second part or nearly so but then burned it at the behest of the religious zealot who had become his spiritual guide (a few chapters and fragments of chapters remained, and those are now included in the book, at least in the version I read), and then died (partly due to being weakened by his extreme religious fasting) before he could rewrite the second part or write the third part.
The first part Gogol wrote in pretty much his usual absurdist style with a little preachiness thrown in, so it has some decent funny bits and weirdo characters. The fragments of the second part manifest a shift in the proportion where there’s a bit less of the bizarre and comic, and a bit more of character’s giving apparently non-satirical speeches about what it is to live an honest and productive Christian life. And then of course it just ends.
I wasn’t thinking of this at all when I used the Woody Allen example above, but come to think of it I suppose some people would see a parallel with Allen’s filmmaking. First he established himself as a genius of comedy movies, then he decided he wanted to be taken more seriously as someone with important things to say through film, and he changed his style to something that still had moments of his wonderful sense of humor but that now strived for more. Many critics and fans contend that he was at his best in his early work when he was going more for pure comedy.
I may or may not agree that the quality of Allen’s movies dropped significantly when he decided to be a “serious” filmmaker, but with Gogol I certainly see a drop-off from the comic absurdity of many of the short stories and a good portion of the first part of Dead Souls, to whatever it is he was trying to do when he decided it was his destiny to save Russia and the world by getting Russians to see the error of their ways and live up to their potential.
Dead Souls is a moderate success as a comic work of satire, in spite of Gogol’s misguided and unsuccessful efforts to have it serve some greater purpose. But I would still recommend his short stories over it.