Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dead Souls

As you may have noticed, I love Russian literature.  I took a course in college covering about ten Russian authors, which provided me with a sense of the idiomatic Russian style.  The satire, sense of humor, distinct narrative, and dark content are all common characteristics I love.  Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are by far the most well-known of the bunch, but there are so many other marvelous authors that should be equally recognized.  Dostoevsky is my favorite, but Nikolai Gogol is my second love, and I want to share him with you all.

Gogol actually predates Dostoevsky and Tolstoy by a couple decades with his first novel, published in 1835.  In 1842, he produced one of my all-time favorites, Dead Souls.  This novel is a funny yet poignant satire about Serfdom in 19th century Russian.  At this time in history - the same time Gogol dared to write it - a person's status in society was physically counted by the number of serfs he owned.  Serfs were much like the slaves we usually think of today, as they were forced to work the land or do the labor of their owners in bondage.  This inhumane practice was the focus of Gogol's critique.

The humor in Dead Souls can be found frequently throughout the text.  It is written in a typical Russian narrative, in which the narrator acts as the third-person omniscient but periodically breaks into the story with his personal opinions on the matter, most of which are quite funny.  The narrator is not a character in the story and never directly interacts with the people in the story line, but he certainly has a distinct personality.  Sometimes, the narrator drips with irony as he makes a parenthetical comment, such as: "But here let me remark that I do not like engaging the reader's attention in connection with persons of a lower class than himself; for experience has taught me that we do not willingly familiarise ourselves with the lower orders—that it is the custom of the average Russian to yearn exclusively for information concerning persons on the higher rungs of the social ladder."  Other times, the narrator takes a moment to mock the characters in the story, like the very confused Nastasia Petrovna.  Typical of a satire, there is quite a bit of mocking in this story of aristocratic habits.  He illustrates the frivolity and foolishness of many of their actions in his portrayal of them, which is illustrated in Chichikov's very successful use of flattery.

Another amusing facet of the narrative style is the author's characterizations of the people who appear in the story.  In a way, they represent some cliche ideas like "greed" or "wealth," but none of the characters are a bit cliche because of the peculiarities Gogol assigns them.  For example, he offers several entertaining descriptions of people in the opening of the novel.  One gentleman is "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."  In describing another man's outfit, he pauses from the description to comment, "True, bachelors also wear similar gauds, but, in their case, God alone knows who may have manufactured the articles! For my part, I cannot endure them."  One of my favorite characters is Selifan, the oft-drunk coachman who acts as the protagonist's companion.  As you can imagine, the dialogue between these characters is often equally amusing.

Behind the humor, however, is the dark, depressing nature of Serfdom.  The plot of the story is that Chichikov is a poor man working to raise himself up in society.  At this time, landowners were taxed per serf, and the census was often late in being updated, forcing landowners to pay for even the deceased serfs.  Chichikov collects the papers of people's dead serfs ("souls") to add to his collection.  Throughout the exchanges, they are always spoken of as property, never as people.  They are given no respect even in death.  Although I laughed many times in the story, I was eventually overcome by the seriousness of the matter.  The social critique begins to cry out in the text; people were actually treated this badly.  Dead Souls is thus an extremely brave and necessary social critique of the society of its time.  There are many philosophical and meaningful layers found in the text along with the appealing surface of entertainment.  It's brilliant, and I highly recommend it.


Brian Bither said...

I really enjoy your descriptions of the "features" of Russian literature, and would be interested in hearing about what characteristics are common to other cultures' literature as well. Also, I would be curious to see a "list" (you know how I am) of some of the most influential Russian authors of that period.

Amy said...

You got it.