“Many entered earnestly into Chichikov’s predicament, and the difficulty of relocating such an enormous number of peasants awed them exceedingly; there was great fear that a riot might break out among such restless folks as Chichikov’s peasants. To this the police chief observed that there was no need to fear a riot, that the power of the district captain of police was there to avert it, that the captain of police had no need to go himself, but in his place could merely send his peaked cap, and this peaked cap alone would drive the peasants all the way to the place of settlement. Many offered opinions as to how to eradicate the riotous spirit that possessed Chichikov’s peasants.”
Throughout the world of literature, readers are often directed towards archetypal characters: Childe Harold, Falstaff, Iago, Richard Lovelace and Yossarian. Really, Gogol’s Chichikov should be added to the list, for he is epitome of a schemer.
Nothing prepared me for the humour in Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. Gogol satirizes every level of society in these pages through the escapades of his wily anti-hero, Chichikov. At the time the novel was written, the first part of the 19th century, and prior to the so-called Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, Russian serfs or ‘souls’ belonged to a landowner. The value of an estate was measured by the number of serfs attached to it–they did after all provide free labour and hence the lifestyles of their ‘masters’ depended on it. This was a great deal for the landowners.
Now not every serf ‘counted’ in this system of wealth calculation. Women and children didn’t count, and that meant that only adult male serfs counted towards the estate’s wealth calculation. The females served as breeding pods for more serfs and hence more wealth accumulation. But this system doesn’t stop there: serfs were required to rent plots of land from the landowner, and this rent was frequently paid “in kind” by the labour from the serfs’ trade or skills.
Furthermore, the landowners didn’t have to pay taxes, but the serfs did, and one of the landowner’s jobs was to collect these taxes levied on the ‘souls’ on the estate. The amount due was calculated according to the number of ‘souls’ at the last census. Since years passed between census calculations (the translator notes that the seventh census was 1815 and the eighth census was 1833) , a fair number of serfs could die in between one census and the next, but the landowner would be still be responsible for the yearly tax on each registered serf until the next census–even though the serf was dead and wasn’t there to pay it. So in other words, if several dozen serfs died in-between census years, they represented an annual tax burden for the landowner until the next census rolled around and the names of the dead were removed.
And this brings us to Gogol’s satiric masterpiece. In Dead Souls, Chichikov’s scheme is simple–or at least he thinks it is. He arrives in a provincial town with the plan to ingratiate himself with the local gentry and then after he learns who are the more substantial families, he intends to approach them and offer to buy their dead serfs (the Dead Souls of the title). He expects to borrow money from the government based on the number of serfs he owns, and the fact that these are dead serfs won’t influence the loan as long at it’s nailed down before the next census. So he wants to buy all these serfs in order to appear as a man of substance–the fact that they are dead is a matter of…well.. .great convenience for Chichikov.
While there’s a great deal of humour to be found in Chichikov’s misadventures, the novel is also a blistering commentary on a society that functions in this fashion and denigrates peasants to the lowest form of denominator–a number.
Like many a schemer, the plans sounds great, and as we would say these days–a win-win situation, but in the enactment of the plan, Chichikov, who expects to pick up the ownership of these dead serfs for a song, must deal with greed, the foibles of human nature, and all manner of landowners.
If you enjoyed the character of Oblomov, then chances are you will chuckle at Chichikov’s antics. Schemers make wonderful subjects for novels as we so often become emotionally invested in the plot. In Dead Souls, Chichikov has to really hustle to get his bills of sale for these long-buried serfs. He meets decent thrifty landowners, terrible exploitative landowners and even one completely insane wildman, Nozdryov, who causes all sorts of trouble. There’s a great deal of dark humour to be found in the fact that Chichikov’s heart sinks when he meets a responsible landowner who takes care of his serfs–versus his glee when he discovers a landowner whose serfs are dying like flies. Some of the very best parts of this excellent novel take place when Chichikov finds himself bargaining over the worth of dead peasants with a landlord who decides to strike a hard bargain. As Chichikov’s schemes takes place, the action becomes increasingly more demented until it reaches the point of insanity.
A note on the translation: my Vintage paperback of Dead Souls is translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. In all honesty, I haven’t read any other translations of this novel, so I have no point of comparison. That said, this translation is as smooth as silk. The excellent introduction is written by Pevear, and there’s also a Translators’ Note which includes details of the serf system and also a chart of the ranking system of imperial civil service. Pevear and Volokhonsky–a husband and wife team not only consistently produce some of the best, vibrant translations of Russian literature–but they’ve also managed to revive interest in neglected classics.
My edition includes volumes one and two of Dead Souls, and the translators explain that Gogol struggled for years over volume two and died (in 1852) still not happy with its many revisions. He burned a couple of the versions and only fragmentary chapters survived. Volume two does not reach the levels of satiric genius of volume one. But throughout there’s a mischievous, lively sense of humour as Gogol finds so much to poke fun at in Russian society.