Nikolai Gogol is usually overshadowed by other great Russian writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Chekhov and even Pushkin despite the fact that Gogol was as talented as them. Some well read Indians (and other well read readers) might remember Gogol from the book ‘The Namesake’ which pretty much revolves around Gogol’s most famous short story, ‘The Overcoat.’ Some may as a result have even read this particular story. Gogol is known for his short stories yet some of his other works like ‘ The Inspector General’ are as thematically varied and critical as his short stories.
‘Dead Souls‘ is one of his ‘other works’, a novel in fact that encompasses Gogol’s vision to depict ‘all of Russia’ in it. Reading the ‘Dead Souls‘ can be difficult as it has layers of meaning that can be unearthed slowly with every other reading. Yet at the same time it is very rewarding as the novel reveals a clear image of the 19th century Russia and Gogol’s own thoughts about his own country.
‘Dead Souls‘ was classified by Gogol as a ‘poema’ (a poem) rather than a novel as he believed that a poem and an epic poem to be precise could take in all of life. The novel has two parts. The 2nd part was burnt by Gogol himself and only fragments (which are still comprehensible) are left. The poema’s hero is Chichikov who goes to the fictitious town of N to buy ‘dead souls.’ Souls (dusha) in Russian also meant the serfs. 19th century Russia was still predominantly agricultural which was controlled by landlords who had serfs for themselves. It was in a way a feudal agricultural society. At that point of time, serfs that died were still counted as alive until the next census was taken which would happen every 10 years. Chichikov’s idea was to buy these ‘dead souls’ from the various landowners like Manilov, Korobochka,Nozdrev,Sobakevich and Plyushkin and use them as a mortgage to buy land and then himself become a landowner which would enable him to buy actual living serfs and gradually pay the loan as well. Chichikov’s methods were not entirely legal. Instead, he was taking advantage of the loopholes in the Russian law system to further his own interests.
This plot summary completely oversimplifies the story. The layers of meaning emerge only when one peruses the novel and sees Gogol’s critique of contemporary Russia in a satirical manner, how Chichikov convinces the 5 landlords in part 1 to sell their dead serfs, how hellish the entire legal and bureaucratic system is in provincial Russia, how beautifully Gogol merges this human misery with the vast, endless, limitless landscape of his beloved Russia. One of the major highlights of the novel or the ‘poema’ is the skillful juxtaposition of the wretchedness and corruption of the Russians with the beauty of the Russian landscape. Another major highlight is the numerous similes like that of the ‘troika’, the journey, the road, the unique comparison of the men of the town of N with flies at the governor’s ball in chapter 1 itself. The novel is full of numerous new possibilities that the reader will discover. S/he will discover the Russia of Gogol’s time with all its ugliness and artificial glamour and rich natural beauty . The reader will get acquainted with certain typical Russian character portraits in Chichikov and in the guise of the many landlords.
‘Dead Souls‘ may not be the easiest to read with a unique narrative style ( the naive narrator which shows Gogol’s use of the skaz), the numerous digressions (the most lyrical of these are addressed to Russia itself), the detailed descriptions etc. but giving up on this novel will be like giving up a chance to experience Russia itself.