Nikolai Gogol was a satirical master, as seen in Petersburg Tales (1840s). A collection of short stories of surrealist wit.
But it was Dead Souls (1842) that really put him on the map of literary greats. And as a satirical genius of his era.
He described his book as an “epic poem in prose” and it’s an intriguing read. Different, for modern readers, but still a landmark work of fiction.
Dead Souls and the Pursuit of Satire
Gogol relied on the grotesque to create proto-surrealist literary landscapes, which you can read in short stories such as The Nose (1836).
He was ahead of his time, really, and produced some biting satirical works on the nature of life (particularly in Russia).
And his most famous work is about corruption and human folly.
Dead Souls was published in 1842. In Russia, up until the Emancipation Reform of 1861, landowners could own serfs and make them farm their land. They were, essentially, the wealthy landowner’s property.
Slavery. It’s a situation you’d think most modern business owners would use now if there weren’t laws blocking it.
But our modern minimum wage is a type of slavery as it is, stopping most people from savings, higher education, and a better life.
Despite the book’s age, there’s a lot of prescient social commentary going on here. Not least in pointing out how the wealthy often let money go to their head, resulting in obnoxious, morally bankrupt behaviours.
That’s what Dead Souls ties into.
It’s described as picaresque. It’s a novel whose anti-hero, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, lives by his manipulative wat. He’s corrupt, yet appealing! The narrator in the book describes him here:
“In the britchka was seated such a gentleman—a man who, though not handsome, was not ill-favoured, not over-fat, and not over-thin. Also, though not over-elderly, he was not over-young.”
Chichikov is a social-climbing swindler. A dismissed and disgraced civil servant who’s now out to get his fortune at whatever cost.
He comes across various wealthy people and attempts to do them over.
For these people he meets, Gogol provides a generalised description of many of them. This is to typify the middle-aristocracy in Russian during the writer’s era. In chapter four there’s Nozdrev, a landowner.
“Nozdrev’s face will be familiar to the reader, seeing that every one must have encountered many such.”
The title Dead Souls is a nod to dead serfs and how expendable these people were viewed. But also how so many characters in the books are just dead souls—empty vessels channelling self-absorbed goals.
Chichikov, and the estate owners he comes to swindle, personify the Russian term “poshlost” (по́шлость).
There’s no direct translation into English, but it roughly means a very negative characteristic. Poshlost was described by Vladmir Alexandrov in 1991 as meaning “pretty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity.”
Basically, in England we’d tall them a “smug tosser” or some such. A toff. Unpleasant terms, sure, but people overrun by haughtiness are very unpleasant.
And the terms represent the problems with pretentiousness and taking false significance from social standing and perceived achievements.
The goals of the characters in Dead Souls are self-serving, at the cost of the serfs around them. Chichikov wants them in pursuit of wealth.
He does this by talking to estate owners and purchasing the souls of the serfs who have died since the last Russian census check.
They’re alive on paper (for now). And whilst they are, he can mortgage them on to get loaded. And many of the estate owners go along with his request, despite its weirdness, as they also see a chance for profit.
Many of the estate owners appear lifeless in their situation, concerned merely with acquiring more wealth. They have nothing else to say. They are without personality, whereas many of the dead serfs are recalled as lively, talented, and with something to offer society.
The tragedy being, in their death, this is lost to the world.
Gogol seemed to be on course for a redemptive arc for Chichikov, as the character gradually gains a greater moral understanding over the course of the work.
But Dead Souls, famously, cuts off mid sentence in its closing stages.
“Everything will fail until each of us begins to feel that just as at the time when the people rose and took up arms against their enemies, so likewise he must rise up against wrongdoing. As a Russian, as one bound to you by kinship, by consanguinity, I am now turning to you. I am turning to those of you who have some understanding of what constitutes nobleness of thought. I invite you to remember the duty that awaits a person in whatever position he occupies.”
Those are some of the final lines. Gogol intended this to be a trilogy lampooning the Russian socioeconomic system, but as it stands alone it’s a fascinating bit of writing.
Now part history lesson, you learn about life back in 19th century Russia.
But the satirical take on the peasants, as it were, shows that public opinions were starting to shift in Russia. And some respect for human life had to prevail.
That kicked in just short of 20 years later in the 1861 reforms, but the book now stands as a reminder of the problems with greed and a superiority complex.
Such corrupt and individualistic behaviours in capitalist societies are now the norm.
Examples are everywhere. Minimum wage employees having to wear nappies at work as they’re not allowed toilet breaks. Amazon staff having to urinate in plastic bottles instead of taking proper breaks. And all of them receiving such low wages they often have to live off foodbanks.
Jeff Bezos now talks of finding intergalactic alien geniuses to enhance our world as part of his billion dollar space trekking.
You can’t help but wonder if he should offer opportunity to his thousands of minimum wage employees to find the hidden talents they possess.
But why bother doing that? These people are expendable. And that’s part of Dead Souls’s message as a comedic tragedy—the pomposity of wealth and the damage it causes.
Whilst there are more appropriate modern books to read about all of that (What About Me? by Paul Verhaeghe or Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman), it still laid important groundwork for satire and mocking a corrupt and exploitative system.
Dead Souls as an Abandoned Trilogy
Gogol intended Dead Souls to be a trilogy, but burned the manuscript for the second instalment shortly before his death in 1852.
This is something of a Russian literary tradition, it seems, as Mikhail Bulgakov did the same with his manuscript for The Master and Margarita. He later changed his mind and had to type the whole thing out again from memory.
Gogol was only 42 when he died, which means we lost a lot of other great books from his satirical master.
We presume he was aiming for some moral lesson with the story, teaching Russian readers a lesson about basic ethics.
But in its incomplete state (the first book ending abruptly mid-sentence, as it does) it hasn’t lost any of its influence or resonance.
There are quite a lot of theatrical interpretations of the book, such as this one from Sofia in Bulgaria.
There are also other cultural nods to the books, such as the Joy Division song Dead Souls written by Ian Curtis.
In that, he appears tortured by a recurring dream of a former life he can’t escape. Gogol meets Joy Division? A bit as fitting a macabre combination as you’ll ever find.