Dead Souls Demystified goes viral!

Want to share with your friends and family all of the gleanings you’ve learned from tuning into Dead Souls Demystified, but only have 10 free minutes to do so?  Have no fear!  We’re here to introduce a revolutionary video that introduces what we’ve been discussing with our podcast episodes, and a little bit of information about who the DSD team is comprised of.  Enjoy!  

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Poshlust!?

Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita” and “Pale Fire,” has quite a few things to say regarding Nikolai Gogol and his “Dead Souls,” including an extensive attempt to define the Russian concept of “poshlust” in explaining much of the themes that run through “Dead Souls.”  How does looking at “Dead Souls” through Nabokov’s eyes change our appreciation and understanding of Gogol’s work?  Should it?  

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Transcript of episode, with discussion questions at the end:

Vladimir Nabokov’s Criticism of Dead Souls: the Poshlust of Chichikov and the landowners and Gogol’s groundbreaking style

 

In 1944 the brilliant, multilingual Russian-born author and professor Vladimir Nabokov published a short landmark criticism on the works and life of Nikolai Gogol. He dedicates about a third of the book to discussing Dead Souls and in his criticism, he presents some very compelling and insightful ideas regarding Gogol’s novel. This segment of our podcast will focus on Nabokov’s reading of Dead Souls.

In beginning his analysis, Nabokov rejects two common readings of Dead Souls. Firstly, he argues that Dead Souls is not a detailed realistic picture of provincial Russia. Gogol argues that to look for “an authentic Russian background” in Dead Souls is as useless as an endeavor as to figure out Denmark from reading Hamlet. Gogol’s characters and settings, Nabokov argues, merely “happen to be Russian” and undergo a “thorough permutation and reconstruction in the laboratory of Gogol’s peculiar genius.” Secondly, Nabokov argues that Dead Souls should not be read as a moral or reformist text, despite Gogol’s intentions, for reasons that will be explained later in this segment. Rejecting these two notions, Nabokov presents two major reasons why he believes Dead Souls to be a work of genius: firstly, for its masterful evocation of the Russian concept of poshlust, and secondly, for Gogol’s groundbreaking originality of style.

Nabokov spends a great deal of his section on Dead Souls trying to define the untranslatable Russian word poshlust in English. Falling short with such quasi-synonyms as “cheap, sham, common, smutty, high falutin’, [and] in bad taste” Nabokov then decides to define poshlust through an anecdote once told by Gogol, that we will now paraphrase:

 

When in Germany, Gogol encountered a German wooer attempting to court a woman from beneath her balcony. While she sat there enjoying the view and knitting, this man, day after day, would take off his clothes, plunge into the lake and embrace a couple of swans that he had prepared for that very purpose.

 

Both Gogol and Nabokov are at a loss to determine what exactly those swans were supposed to symbolize, but the courter’s belief that his actions were “poetically antique and mythological” represent poshlust in its “ideal form.” Other breeding grounds of poshlust include advertisements, in which perfect families are presented with freckled children and smiling grandmothers, literature, and propaganda. For Nabokov, poshlust suggests “that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser” and the concept is not, simply, the “obviously trashy, but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive” Throughout Dead Souls, Nabokov argues that Gogol brilliantly presents and parodies this very Russian concept, most notably in the characters of Chichikov, Manilov, and Sobakevich.

Chichikov’s actions throughout this novel exude poshlust. His driving motive is to obtain an estate on paper that does not even exist in reality, and surely this belief that happiness can be purchased, even through the buying of non-existent beings, is exactly what Nabokov was talking about. His entire aura “is continued and symbolized by his snuffbox and his traveling case.” His traveling case (the Russian word being feminine and suggesting a marriage between Chichikov and the valise) represents his dirty business dealings with all of those around him. Nabokov is keen to point out that Korobochka, whose name means, “little box,” is the only major female character in the novel, thus strengthening the suggesting of Chichikov’s union with his financial strongbox. Chichikov generously offers his snuffbox, filled with vile tobacco and decorated with a couple of violets, to everyone he encounters and this box and its offering alike ooze poshlust. Completely mediocre, inoffensive, and both mentally and physically round and pleasant, Chichikov is an incarnation of fakeness- his entire raison d’être seems to be his desire to please others so that he can advance his own material possession. Even Chichikov’s name, which translators Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky say is “echoic of bird’s chirping and scissors snipping” connotes his pleasant exterior but simultaneously scheming mind.

The landowners Chichikov encounters also embody poshlust, most notably Manilov and Sobakevich. Manilov, whose name comes from the Russian verb manit, meaning to allure or attract and also suggest the Russian word for mannerisms, is a hilarious representation of this concept, and his home is filled with poshlust: “the greasy green scum on the pond among the maudlin charms of an “English garden,” the pretentious “pseudo-classical” names of his children, and, for Nabokov the most evocative, the “neat row of hillocks formed by the ashes Manilov used to shake out his pipe…-the only artistic pleasure he knew.” Manilov’s saccharine politeness and over-compensating politeness are just as sickening to the perceptive reader as the brash, arrogant, and destructive attitude of Nozdryov, whose name disgustingly and fittingly suggests nostrils and “all sorts of holes and porosities”

For Nabokov, the poshlust that Sobakevich embodies is the most epic and poetical of any character in the book. His room, ridiculously adorned with “full length lithographic portraits of Greek generals,” and massive furniture, represents quite aptly this burly man, within whom Nabokov sees a poet of epic, romantic proportion. The food that Sobakevich gluttonously devours “is fare fit for some uncouth giant” and the amount of food he primitively engulfs is seen by Nabokov to be Homeric in its immensity. One does not have to stretch the imagination far to see within Sobakevich, (whose name comes from the Russian sobaka, meaning dog, and whose diminutives, such as Mish, mean bear) Polyphemus of Homer’s Odyssey.

While Nabokov certainly focuses for some time on Gogol’s uncanny ability to portray the petty poshlust of everyday characters, he also spends a great deal of his criticism analyzing Gogol’s innovative literary style. The two of Gogol’s many stylistic features on which Nabokov focuses are his ability to generate hypothetical characters and worlds out of similes and metaphors and his unprecedented originality in description.

Nabokov states that Dead Souls is ripe “with that Gogolian gusto and wealth of weird detail which lift the whole thing to the level of a tremendous epic poem” and cites many examples where Gogol is able to generate life through his powerful syntax. The first example Nabokov give, an extended simile describing gentleman at the governor’s ball will be given here in its entirety:

“The black tailcoats flickered and fluttered, separately and in clusters, this way and that, just as flies flutter over dazzling white chunks of sugar on a hot July day when the old housekeeper hacks and divides it into sparkling lumps in front of the open window: all the children look on as they gather about her, watching with curiosity the movements of her rough hands while the airy squadrons of flies that the light air has raised, fly boldly in, complete mistresses of the premises and taking advantage of the old woman’s purblindness and of the sun troubling her eyes, spread all over the dainty morsels, here separately, there in dense clusters.”

 

In this amazing sentence Gogol is able to create a whole home filled with two generations of characters that vanishes just as soon as it is so vividly and beautifully presented. In a cyclical fashion he starts with the flickering of the tailcoats, separately and in clusters, loses himself in the reverie he has crafted, and returns to the idea of separate and clustered flies. No other writer, save Homer, had ever attempted such comparisons. In his examination of the mundane movements of everyday characters, Gogol has the ability to create entire worlds. Other similar passages that Nabokov cites are the church chorister Gogol creates out of the barking of Korobochka’s dogs, the musician born from Sobakevich’s head, and the lieutenant trying on his boots all night at the end of Chapter 7.

Nabokov compares the way Gogol saw the world in opposition to the way every other writer saw the world to the way a human sees the world in opposition to the way “the faceted eye of an insect” see the world. Instead of using stale, overused descriptive terms inherited from European literature, such as the sky being blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, etc., Gogol was able to innovate literature by bringing in yellows and violets, describing the sky as a “pale green at sunrise” or “the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day”—innovations that “would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called “classical writer.” While descriptive passages such as Gogol’s description of Plyushkin’s garden may seem boring and overlong to the modern reader, at the time of Dead Soul’s publication they were as revolutionary to Russian literature as Manet’s art was to French painting, Nabokov argues.

For Nabokov, Gogol was a fascinatingly original artist and Nabokov’s preference to focus on the artistic merits of Gogol prevents him from accepting Dead Souls as a reformist, moral work with an important message. Nabokov discusses how the dead souls of the serfs are “revived” twice throughout the book: once by Sobakevich who is trying to get Chichikov to pay more for them by bragging about their merits despite the fact that they are already deceased, and again by Chichikov when he is looking over his deeds of purchase and begins to imagine the lives of all the names before him. Nabokov believes that Gogol’s art is good enough in these passages to revive the dead and that “ethical and religious considerations could only destroy the soft, warm, fat creatures of his [Gogol’s] fancy.” Gogol’s vision for parts two and three appeared ludicrous to Nabokov. He argues that in part one “All the characters…[are] equally subhuman, and all living in the bosom of Gogol’s demonocracy, [so that] it does not matter a damn who judges who” and that the attempt to bring in the superhuman judge of the government or society in parts two and three would have spoiled the beautiful art of part one.

Reading Nabokov’s opinions of Dead Souls is interesting and compelling, but he is certainly an extremely arrogant and opinionated man and his ego can definitely get in the way of his ideas. What do you make of his theory that Dead Souls can only truly be appreciated for its literary merit, and not its social commentary? Should what one great writer has to say about another writer even matter?

What team did Gogol really play for?

And does this affect how we read this novel? Should it?  Join us in a discussion about literary scholar Simon Karlinsky’s exploration into the potentially homosexual mind of Nikolai Gogol.  

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Transcript of episode, with discussion questions at the end: 

The Sexuality of Nikolai Gogol and the Sexes in Dead Souls

 

            The work of Nikolai Gogol and Dead Souls in particular has inspired a great deal of literary criticism and his work continues to lend itself to new interpretations to this day. In perhaps the most controversial criticism of Dead Souls ever published, The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, first published in 1976, Simon Karlinsky argues that Gogol, who never married or had a serious girlfriend or lover, was a homosexual. Karlinsky, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at University of California, Berkeley, argues that Gogol’s sexual orientation, which he could not “accept or forgive in himself”, comes out subconsciously through his literature. Karlinsky goes as far to say that Gogol’s suppressed homosexuality is the “missing key to the riddle of his personality” and explains his eventual creative decline and self-destruction.

            Karlinsky provides some biographical information, but for the most part the book is “an examination of his sexuality and its manifestations in his literary art.” Examining all of Gogol’s work with such a lens, Karlinsky comes to the conclusion that Gogol had “overpowering emotional attraction to members of his own sex and aversion to physical or emotional contact with women.” Karlinsky admits that his circumstantial evidence may seem unconvincing when taken out of context but asserts the evidence to be “cumulatively valid when considered…in totality.” Because this podcast revolves around Dead Souls we won’t delve into Karlinsky’s analysis of other works but will focus solely on the portrayal of the sexes in Dead Souls.

            As we discuss in our segment on Gogol’s antecedents, Karlinsky begins his section on Dead Souls by pointing out that “The one traditional ingredient of the picaresque novel formula that is glaringly missing in Dead Souls is the hero’s promiscuity and his usual numerous sexual adventures.” In Karlinsky’s opinion, Chichikov is “entirely devoid of any sexual instinct” and, like all of Gogol’s protagonists, he lacks a true love, or even lust, interest throughout the entire novel. When he receives the letter before the ball from an anonymous admirer he reacts only with “simple curiosity” and at the ball, he earns the “enmity [of all present females] by his uncivil lack of attention.” Karlinsky points out that both Vladimir Nabokov and Andrei Bely have posited the theory that Chichikov’s only love interest is his strongbox, in which he carries his money and business papers. The word Gogol uses for the briefcase is of the feminine gender and Gogol invites the reader to compare the box to the only major female character of the story, Korobochka, whose name in Russian means “little box.”

            The one clear counter-argument to Karlinsky’s theory in terms of Dead Souls is Chichikov’s attraction to the governor’s daughter. Yet Karlinsky points to many passages that portray this attraction in a very unconventional, misogynistic light. First off, when Chichikov first sees the governor’s daughter he realizes that while she may be pure and attractive in her youth “she will end up a piece of trash,” as all women inevitably do. The only happiness she will bring men, Chichikov muses, will come from the two-hundred-thousand-ruble dowry her parents might offer. At the ball, when Chichikov sees her next, he approaches her but cannot engage her—he “stutters, digresses, and becomes almost incoherent” and “the girl is so bored she keeps yawning.” Yet what is most demonstrative to Karlinsky is the fact that the governor’s daughter is the ultimate cause of Chichikov’s “undoing and disgrace.” Despite the fact that “she is the character on whom the plot and the dénouement of the book hinge” she is, at least to Karlinsky, an anti-heroine who says nothing, has no name, and “all but fades into the wallpaper.” If anyone else but Gogol wrote this novel, Karlinsky argues, “the governor’s daughter would have been the heroine with whom the male protagonist becomes romantically involved,” but instead she is just a featureless nobody who ruins everything for Chichikov.

            Of the five landowners, Karlinsky points out that only two are married. Sobakevich’s wife, in one of her only appearances in the novel, gives her husband a kick when she finds out that he admires Chichikov, another man. The other married landowner, Manilov, is described as being extremely happy in his marriage, yet because of this, all of his business affairs are in a total state of disarray, as he is distracted by his blissful love for his wife, which Gogol’s describes “with more than a touch of malice,” argues Karlinsky. The only major character associated with extra-marital, heterosexual sex is Nozdryov, certainly an altogether unlikable character. Karlinsky argues that Nozdryov is the only male character that belongs to the “otherwise all-female coalition that causes Chichikov’s fall from grace.” This coalition includes the meddlesome Korobochka, who sells Chichikov out to the town, the aforementioned governor’s daughter, and the two gossips Gogol focuses on in the beginning of Chapter IX. For Karlinsky Nozdryov is merely a tool used by women, because of his aggressive attraction to them, who “betrays other males into women’s hands.”

            Such is the summary of Karlinsky’s argument in regards to Dead Souls: women, and sexual encounters with women, bring about nothing but destruction, and just as in Gogol’s life, there is no major female love interest. Interestingly enough, Karlinsky doesn’t even mention the passage of Dead Souls that was to me, the most overtly homosexual in the entire novel: when Manilov and Chichikov “became folded in a strenuous embrace and remained so locked for fully five minutes. Indeed, the kisses exchanged were so vigorous that both suffered from toothache for the greater portion of the day.”

Nevertheless, the argument Karlinsky presents is certainly a compelling one but it does raise some skepticism. For one, can someone really make a fair judgment of an author’s sexuality based on the contents of their work? Also is the homosexual Karlinsky reading into his own mind in his analysis of the works of Gogol rather than the mind of Gogol, as it is so easy to do? Lastly, is Karlinsky downplaying Chichikov’s sexual attraction to the governor’s daughter? When Chichikov runs into the governor’s daughter in Chapter V, Gogol writes that “in every condition of life a man is likely to behold at least once in his life a vision unlike anything he has ever seen before, which for once rouses in him feelings entirely unlike those he is destined to experience all the rest of his days.” He goes on to write that the governor’s daughter would have inspired feelings of great love and emotion in a young hussar or student but Chichikov “was already middle-aged and of cautious, tempered, character.” Perhaps Chichikov is just an awkward guy who never knew how to comport himself around females; this doesn’t necessarily mean that he is gay or that his creator was gay. Maybe he is simply more concerned with money and status than females and sex because he is better at acquiring them. These questions are interesting ones to consider, and it is hard to say whether Karlinsky’s criticism is a work of brilliant psychological insight or a pseudo-intellectual post-Freudian stretch of an argument. 

“We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.'”

Where do we see Gogol’s influence as its stemmed out from “Dead Souls” and his other literary masterpieces?  How did Gogol master the elements of surrealism, realism, and satire within his works, and where do we see them today?  After exploring this subject with this, we can bet that you’ll start seeing little hints of Nikolai Gogol everywhere you turn.  

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Transcript of episode, with discussion questions at the end: 

The Widespread Influence of Nikolai Gogol

 

            Although the origin of this statement is uncertain, Dostoyevsky is often quoted for saying “We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’” The influence that Gogol had upon the next generation of Russia’s Golden Age writers cannot be overestimated. And when modernism entered the picture in the early 20th century, Gogol became a powerful influence for countless Russian and non-Russian writers alike. The stylistic, thematic, and tonal elements that Gogol mastered, many of which can certainly be seen in Dead Souls, and passed on to future generation of writers include: a penchant for surrealism and the grotesque, an affinity for realistic detail, and the ability to satirize the absurdity of modern society.

            In many of Gogol’s short stories things take a turn for the bizarre. In “The Nose” a man wakes up mysteriously missing a nose. In “The Overcoat” a ghost is encountered. “Viy” and “Nevsky Prospect” also contain Gothic, supernatural elements. Considered by some to be part of the Romantic Movement, along with writers such as Lord Byron and Edgar Allen Poe who also incorporated supernatural elements of horror, Gogol had an uncanny ability to disorient the reader with surreal tales of terror. Although this element of Gogol’s work is best seen through Gogol’s short stories, Dead Souls is certainly not devoid of Gogol’s nightmarish tone. Nabokov asserts, “Chichikov himself is merely the ill-paid representation of the Devil, a traveling salesman from Hades” and states that Gogol “believed far more seriously in the devil than he did in God.” Modeled after the Inferno, part one can be seen as a hellish allegory. Gogol’s tendency towards such supernaturally gothic touches was extremely influential for many writers: Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug, is not so different from Gogol’s Nose. In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov the devil himself confronts the middle brother, Ivan, and in Bulgakov’s Master and the Margarita, much of the novel’s plot centers around the premise of the devil visiting Soviet Russia, along with an author’s burning of his own controversial manuscript (ring any bells? Dead Souls part two perhaps?).

            Despite his tendency to get a little weird, Gogol is simultaneously famous for his painstakingly detailed realism. His ability to create a living, breathing world (especially through similes and comparisons, which we discuss in our segment on Nabokov’s criticism of Dead Souls), ripe with countless totally believable details is astonishing. One example of this mastery is the elaborate Captain Kopeikin story told by the post master in Chapter X- an entire ten page life of an irrelevant character who may very well be the figment of another fictional character’s imagination is given with extremely precise detail. Another such section is in Chapter 7, when Chichikov is reviewing the deeds of purchase he has drawn up for the buying of the dead souls. He spends pages imagining lives for all the dead souls he has purchased. Imagine this literary task: here Gogol is describing in rich detail the lives of fictional, deceased serfs as imagined by yet another fictional character. Gogol’s true genius is not that these serf’s imagined lives are so believable, but that they are believable as Chichikov’s imaginations of the serf’s lives. It is no coincidence that this remarkable passage comes just after Gogol presents one of the most convincing defenses of literary realism ever.

            He begins by writing “Happy is the writer who, avoiding boring and repulsive characters, as well as those that astound one by their painful reality, is drawn to characters that embody the highest values of humanity.” He goes onto say, however, that such [happiness] is not the lot of “of the writer who has ventured to bring into the open what is ever before men’s eyes, all those things which the indifferent gaze fails to perceive, the whole horrid and shocking slimy mess of trifling things which have clogged our life.” Gogol goes on to elaborate on how the writer concerned with realism will wrongfully receive no recognition and applause; his lot is bound to be hard and the solitude he will experience “bitter,” for “contemporary judgment does not admit that the telescope pointed at the sun and the microscope recording the movements of unnoticed insects are equally wonderful.” In this praise of realism, it is not hard to see that Gogol is writing from a place of personal experience; he strongly values the artistic merit of capturing reality in all its essence. Gogol’s affinity for detail, even down to the most mundane point, made a huge impact on Russian literature (on writers such as Turgenev and Dostoyevsky) and we can see how far this idea went with Leo Tolstoy whose massive works, such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace, have been said to perfectly capture reality in all of its countless details. Gogol’s realism also influenced the French literary schools of realism and naturalism that included such writers as Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola, respectively.

            Although Gogol’s many influential techniques and themes can be discussed for pages, the last one we will discuss is his brilliant ability to satirize the absurdity of government and bureaucracy. Along with his play the Inspector General, Dead Souls is seen to be Gogol’s greatest satiric work. The entire plot can of Dead Souls can be viewed as utterly absurd: a bumbling buffoon carrying out a somewhat brilliant albeit totally neurotic and obsessive plan capitalizing on a bureaucratic loophole so that he may become a more accepted member of society.  The story of Dead Souls is total madness, and like much of 20th century absurdist literature (such as Kafka’s The Trial, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22) Gogol is able to communicate something tragically heroic and human about a protagonist’s perseverance in pursuing an absurd goal. As early on as the 1840s Gogol was able to see something tragically absurd in the human condition, and it wasn’t until nearly one hundred years later that this idea became popular in world literature.

            How did you read Dead Souls? Would you say you saw the book to be more of   surrealist work, a piece of realist fiction, an absurd satire or a mix of all/some of these? Can you think of any books that you have read that remind you of devices used by Gogol? 

Picaresque or epic? You decide.

What exactly is the plot of “Dead Souls”?  Seems like an easy enough question, but as we delve into discussion about the influences and antecedents of this novel — from the picaresque novel, to the Homeric epic, and maybe a little bit of Dante’s Inferno thrown in there — the answer may not seem so black and white.  

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Transcript of episode, with discussion questions at the end: 

 

Gogol’s antecedents: The Picaresque novel, Homer, and Dante

 

            Certainly one of the strangest features of Gogol’s Dead Souls is its plot. When I first read the book I felt as if I was waiting for something to happen for something to happen and it wasn’t until Chapter 7 or 8 that I realized I should probably give up on such a notion. Gogol implements no traditional plot device: there is no major conflict or antagonist, no legitimate love interest, no enthralling climax, no dénouement, or redemptive resolution; even the beginning of the novel is seen through the eyes of two characters who play no part in the novel past page one. In understanding the “plot” of this novel it is useful to look back to the books and authors who influenced Gogol in his writing of this novel.

            Many consider Dead Souls to be picaresque novel. This term comes from the Spanish word picaro which translates to rouge or rascal and the first example of the genre seems to be Lazarro de Termes, a Spanish novella anonymously published in the 16th century. Essentially all picaresque novels follow a similar pattern. An amoral protagonist travels around in an attempt to secure a fortune, normally by swindling and cheating established members of society. Yet throughout the course of the novel, the established men and women of society inevitably prove themselves to be no morally better than the rouge hero. Originating in Spain, by the 17th and 18th centuries French, British, and Spanish authors alike, such as Henry Fielding, Alan-René Lesage, and Daniel Defoe had mastered and popularized the form. By presenting a plot with such a structure an author can do a few things: critique society, contrast his protagonist with a slew of diverse character types, and present a series of entertaining, sin-filled, juicy sub-plots.

            Dead Souls can certainly be seen as a picaresque novel. Chichikov, who is defined by his utter mediocrity and concerned solely with exteriors, spends the entire novel scheming and swindling landowners so that he can make a quick book. When the life of Chichikov is finally presented to the reader as he gallops away from the town at the end of Part 1, it is little more than the story of one scheme followed by another. With the picaresque novel Gogol certainly critiques Russian society: he satirizes the very idea of serfdom, whether intentionally or not and he brings into question who the dead souls really are: the serfs, Chichikov, the landowners, the townspeople, or all of the above? Gogol certainly is also able to make use of many hilariously entertaining diverse character types, from the stoic, bitter Sobakevich to the obnoxiously unbearable Nozdryez (who we discuss at greater length in our segment the Land Owners). In fact, after the book was published, the characters Gogol had created in it became archetypes commonly referred to in everyday Russian conversations. In many ways a picaresque novel, critic Simon Karlinsky points out in his sexual analysis of Gogol’s work that the “one traditional ingredient of the picaresque novel formula that is glaringly missing in Dead Souls I the hero’s promiscuity and his usual numerous sexual attractions.” See our section on Gogol’s sexuality.

While certainly influential, the picaresque novel was not Gogol’s only influence. In titling the novel Gogol chose to label the work as a “poema.” This word is often translated into English as poem, which is a bit misleading, as it connotes a narrative poem or an epic. In crafting Dead Souls, which Gogol intended to be an epic of provincial Russian life, Gogol took many cues from the greatest epic poet of all time: Homer. In the first published criticism of Dead Souls, 19th century Russian critic Konstantin Askakov makes a detailed comparison between Gogol’s Dead Souls and Homer’s Odyssey. Askakov writes, “Gogol’s epic revives the ancient Homeric epic; you recognize its character of importance, its artistic merits and the widest scope. When comparing one thing to another, Gogol completely loses himself in the subject, leaving for a time the occasion that gave rise to his comparison; he will talk about it, until the subject is exhausted. Every reader of The Iliad was struck by this device, too.” Gogol uses this technique of absurdly detailed comparisons time and time again throughout Dead Souls, and Nabokov analyzes this further in his criticism, which we discuss in our section on his criticism. A great example of this technique can be seen when Gogol compares Korobochka’s carriage to a watermelon and expounds on this metaphor for over a page. These comparisons of Homeric proportions lend an epic tone to Gogol’s choppy prose and cause this seemingly silly picaresque novel to be hailed as a “novel in verse.”

While the picaresque novels precede the plot of this novel and epic poetry greatly influences Gogol’s style and technique, his moral intent with this book is rooted deeply in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy is broken down into three parts: Inferno, in which Dante tours hell and recognizes sin, Purgatorio, in which Dante climbs out of the world of sin and begins his ascent towards love for God, and finally Paradisio, in which the soul is redeemed and becomes one with God. Considered the greatest work of Italian literature, it comes as no surprise that Gogol explicitly looked towards Dante’s trilogy for a moral message in Dead Souls, which he wrote mostly in Rome. Intending for Dead Souls to be a modern day counterpart to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first part of the novel, the only part Gogol was able to finish, was supposed to correspond with the Inferno. In parts two and three he intended for Chichikov’s sinful ways to undergo punishment and ultimately rehabilitation. Some, such as Nabokov, argue that this grand moral intention of Gogol’s is silly and irrelevant—the mere idea of the novel’s plot (that is the purchasing of dead personal) is too absurd to take seriously and to read this work with a Christian, reformist lens is ignorant. These critics argue that the work should instead be appreciated on its many artistic merits, its total originality, and its disregard for literary clichés.

While it may be a bit limiting to totally disregard the Christian morals Gogol intended for this book to communicate it is telling that he was unable to finish parts two and three. Although Gogol wanted to “save” Chichikov’s soul, he spent the last ten years of his life failing to do so, burning the manuscript of part two mere days before his death. Much like Alyosha’s character wouldn’t really be too interesting after the end of Brothers Karamazov, it is hard to imagine a Chichikov who is punished and learns his lesson. It seems that the inferno Gogol creates in part one was too real and alluring for him to pull the story out and raise it to a higher moral platform.

Which of Gogol’s influences appear to emerge most strongly to you after reading Dead Souls? Do you see this novel as a picaresque one or does its scope and purpose strike you as something more epic in scale? 

Setting the scene: serfs and politics in “Dead Souls”

The plot of Gogol’s “Dead Souls” revolves around one man’s journey to buy up as many deceased serfs (ie, dead souls) as he can.  For modern day readers, any work of literature or art that focuses on slavery is seen as a sensitive issue.  But was “Dead Souls” during its time of publication?  Listen to this episode of Dead Souls Demystified to understand a little more about the context of serfdom and the repercussions of Gogol’s writing about this system.  

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Transcript of the episode, including discussion questions at the end:

Chichikov’s Scheme: The Serf System and the Politics of Nikolai Gogol

Before investigating the finer points of Gogol’s style it is important to understand the serf system of tsarist Russia, around which much of this novel’s plot revolves.
The serf system existed in Russia for centuries, from at least as far back as the eleventh century until Tsar Alexander II abolished the serf in his landmark Emancipation Reform of 1861. Throughout this time period, serfdom existed only in Western, Central, and Southern Russia—it never took hold in Siberia or the far north. From the 17th century onwards the bulk of Russian agriculture rested upon the serf system and by Gogol’s time, one in three Russians was a serf. The system worked as follows:
A landowner owned a certain estate and the serfs (in Russian крепостной крестьянин, or unfree peasants) rented plots of land that made up this estate. The serfs worked the land and their revenues were paid to the landowners so that the serfs could continue working the land. Some serfs learned trades and worked as artisans or craftsmen in the town, by they were still financially bound to the landowners. Obviously the system was set up so that it was impossible for the serfs to make a considerable profit and the landowner enjoyed the benefits of all the serfs’ labor. For all intents and purposes, serfdom was a form of slavery. The number of serfs that the landowner owned determined the amount of tax that the landowner had to collect, and although the landowner himself was not responsible to pay taxes he had to annually collect taxes from each serf and present the sum to the government. Thus an estate’s worth was not determined by acreage or output but rather how many serfs, or souls (in Russian души) the landowner owned.
Periodically the Russian government conducted censuses to quantify how many serfs each estate possessed. Unfortunately for the landowner, the estate still had to pay taxes on serfs who had passed away in between censuses, and the serf was only recognized as dead by the government until the next census came around. From this interesting bureaucratic stipulation stems the plot of Gogol’s Dead Souls.
The roguish Pavel Chichikov, Gogol’s protagonist, has the idea to travel around provincial Russia and purchase dead souls from various landowners. Until the end of the narrative the reader is unsure why, exactly, Chichikov would be motivated to purchase the ownership of dead serfs. Eventually his master plan is uncovered: by acquiring the dead souls on paper Chichikov will establish an estate that he can then mortgage to the bank in exchange for capital.
There is no evidence that such a scheme ever actually occurred in Tsarist Russia but it certainly would have been feasible, albeit rather ludicrous. It is purported that Gogol got the idea from Pushkin, who said that he himself intended to write an epic character-driven poem based on a similar plot device. In his criticism of Dead Souls, Nabokov points out that Chichikov could not have been viewed as guilty by his government: after all, he is merely “buying up dead men in a country where live men were lawfully purchased and pawned.”

Upon its publication in 1842, Dead Souls created a massive uproar among the Russian public. One of the many ironies surrounding this work is that it was immediately hailed by the rising liberals of Russia as a brilliant satire of the horrible serf system that Russia maintained. In the novel Gogol portrays a series morally vapid landowners who are reluctant to deal with the selling of purchasing of dead souls. Yet every day, without a second thought, these landowners occupy themselves in the ownership of living human beings. In crafting this telling hypocrisy it is not hard to see why so many liberals clung tight to this book and claimed Gogol to be a hero of their cause.
Gogol, however, was not a liberal at all. An archconservative, Gogol in no way intended to criticize the entire system of serfdom. His moral judgment of both Chichikov and the five landowners (that is Manilov, Korobachka, Nozdryez, Sobakevich, and Plyushkin) stems not from their dealings with serfs but rather their social conduct and their oozing poshlost, a concept we discuss at greater length in our segment on Nabakov’s landmark criticism of this text. Yet if Gogol was not attacking the serf system what was he saying about such an institution? What were the politics of this strange writer?
Gogol was a slavophile. He strongly supported the tsar, detested liberal movements towards constitutional monarchy and the emancipation of the serfs, and was a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian. He valued traditional Russian values and in no way desired for Dead Souls to deliver the liberal message that many took from it. As we discuss in our segment on Gogol’s influences and intentions, Gogol intended for Dead Souls to be a modern day counterpart to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first part of the novel, the only part Gogol was able to finish, was supposed to correspond with the Inferno, or Dante’s journey through hell, in which sin is recognized. From there Dante travels to Purgatory and Paradise in which sin is rejected and the soul unites with God.
In Part One of Dead Souls we see a great deal of sin: Manilov’s phony brown-nosing and saccharine politeness, Korobachka’s petty and annoying stupidity, Nozdryev’s intemperance, general disposition, and well for Nozdreyev the list goes on, Sobakevich’s gluttony, and Plyushkin’s laziness and depression. Instead of attacking serfdom as an institution, Gogol was trying to criticize such personal sin that he believed to be rampant throughout all of Russia. In parts two and three his grand intention was to show how Russian gentry can better manage their estates.
Failing to complete these sections, Gogol does however express such sentiments in the first book he published after Dead Souls: Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. In this collection of letters, Gogol writes a particularly telling letter to a Russian landowner in which he instructs the landowner on how to take care of his serfs. Strongly espousing strict Conservative Christian values, Gogol asserts that the landowner must not beat his serfs but must scold them severely in front of others. He says landowners must not teach their serfs how to read but must read scripture to them; that they must watch over the work of the peasants closely and even work beside them; that they must be “a patriarch, the inceptor of everything, the vanguard of all things.”
These lofty Slavophilic Christian messages are quite ironic when one considers that Gogol spent most of his life outside of Russia and nearly his entire life (save for a few weeks) outside of provincial Russia. Who is Gogol to be giving agricultural advice to landowners? Throughout Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, Gogol takes on similar very patronizing, didactic tone and the mere fact that he could never finish Parts two and three of Dead Souls speak to the fact that maybe his Conservative critique of the inefficiency of the serf system is not a very coherent one.
Perhaps the message that the liberals gained from this novel is more strongly communicated than the one Gogol intended. What do you think? Should authorial matter in regards to an author’s moral message?

First thing’s first: who was Nikolai Gogol?

How did Gogol become “the Father of Russian’s Golden Age of Realism?”  What tragedy did he encounter early in life that altered the course of this journey?  What eventually caused him to burn his manuscript of the continuation fo “Dead Souls,” an act that some may argue was the most regrettable in literary history?  Listen here to find out all the juicy details.

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Transcript of the episode:

Before we delve too deeply into the mystique and intrigue that surrounds Nikolai Gogol’s, “Dead Souls,” we need to understand a little bit about who the man behind the masterpiece really was. Nikolai Gogol was born on March 31, 1809 in the Ukrainian town of Sorochincy. His father was a poet and amateur playwright, and his mother was the descendent of Polish landowners. Gogol enjoyed a comfortable childhood spent on his parents’ estate, and was very closely cared for by his parents, particularly his mother. It is reported that five-year-old Gogol wrote poems that were classified as legendary by noted poets and playwrights. When Gogol was 9 years old, his brother Ivan, who was only one year younger, passed away, and Gogol was from then on always on the search for his “next best friend.” It is perhaps because of this tragedy that his parents decided to send Gogol to boarding school at the age of 12, in order to be removed from the home of the memories of his brother. Gogol attended the Poltava boarding school from 1819-1921, and then the Nezhin high school from 1921-1928. It was while in high school that he began to write, and had soon distinguished himself among his classmates for his “biting tongue,” his prose and poetry that were published in the school magazine, and his humorous portrayal of older characters in school theatrical productions. Gogol was thus on his way to becoming the “father of Russian’s Golden Age of realism,” and what this actually means, we’ll discuss in an upcoming episode. Thanks for tuning in as we begin our journey through the mind and works of Nikolai Gogol.

As we learned in the first episode of “Dead Souls Demystified,” Gogol began his literary career as a young high school student. Although he had already begun to establish himself as a young man with a talent for writing and performing, Gogol hit a few roadblocks while on the road to literary greatness. While in school, he published an epic narrative poem entitled “Hanz Kuechelgarten” that was, on the whole, badly received. Shortly after this “disaster,” Gogol met Alexander Pushkin in 1831, and this newfound friendship had strong influences on the future of Gogol’s literary career. At the time, Gogol was working on Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which was greatly influenced by his new friendship with Pushkin, and, once published, became his breakthrough into literary stardom. From 1834-1835, Gogol worked as a full time professor of World History at the University of St. Petersburg, but this, it turned out, was not meant to be, and has been deemed a “failure.” Instead, Gogol realized his talents were best utilized in the literary world, and quickly turned to writing full-time. During this time, he published “Mirgorod,” “St. Petersburg Stories,” “The Nose” (which was later turned into an opera), “Diary of a Madman,” “The Overcoat” – which has been deemed one of the greatest short stories ever written –, and “The Inspector General,” which, published in 1836, caused so much controversy that Nikolai had to flee to Rome for 12 years. Gogol once said that “the prophet finds no honor in his homeland,” and hence, while in Rome, he wrote “Dead Souls,” which is the focus of this series of podcasts. This novel has been seen by many as the first ‘modern’ Russian novel, and as a call for the reform and freedom for serfs (although, as we’ll see, this was much to Gogol’s frustration). The widespread political responses to “Dead Souls” prompted Gogol to write more political-themed works to express his individual views. In 1942, the first edition of his collected works was published, and this more-or-less established him as one of the most popular Russian writers of the time. For the remaining decade of his life after the publication of “Dead Souls,” Gogol struggled with continuing the story and exploring the fall and redemption of the main character, Chichikov. This final decade of his life, culminating in a young death at the age of 42, will be the subject of the next episode of this series. Thanks for stopping by!

Gogol’s written works were characterized for their uses of caricature and imagination, and strongly influenced many writers that preceded him, such as Dostoevsky, but Gogol himself was often misunderstood. He, as with many other prominent authors, was very sensitive, and dealt internally with moral and religious issues for the greater part of his life. These feelings were only worsened as his status as a great literary figure intensified, and criticism from his peers began coming in from all sides. To cope with these feelings of insecurity and confusion, Gogol turned to religion at the end of his life. After making a pilgrimage to Jeruselum in 1848, Gogol developed a very intense relationship with a fanatical spiritual elder, Matvey Konstantinovsky. As a result of this new relationship, Gogol fell under the belief that many of his imaginative works had lead him toward the path of a sinful life, and was even convinced by Father Konstantinovsky to burn the second part of “Dead Souls” that he had so laboriously dedicated these last few years to working on. Shortly following this drastic – and regrettable – act, in 1852, Gogol fasted himself to death in Moscow.