by Michael Niewodowski
#101 Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)
Nikolay Gogol went completely mad as he was writing Dead Souls. After reading the novel, this makes a lot of sense to me. It starts out as a humorous, biting satire, but spirals off into near incomprehensibleness in the second part. There are huge chunks of text missing, and the book ends unfinished- literally in mid-sentence. Gogol died of self-inflicted starvation before he finished the novel.
In Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels the Russian countryside purchasing the deeds to dead serfs from rich landowners. Chichikov has discovered a bureaucratic loophole that can help him to get rich by mortgaging the deeds to the dead serfs before the government realizes that they are dead; the dead souls are more valuable to him than the living serfs. The satire is that the Russia would place more value on dead serfs than live ones.
Class distinction and inequality is an oft-used theme in literature. Nowhere is it better satirized than in Dead Souls. A lot has been said and written in the last few years about this issue: the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has targeted the top 1% of earners in the United States (those making over $500,000 a year). I grew up in an upper-middle class family, now I am somewhere in the middle-lower-middle class to upper-lower-middle class range; each range has its own advantages and problems. It is interesting to see how much attention society places on this issue, but apparently it is nothing new: “we have men so wise and adroit that they will speak to a landowner possessing but two hundred serf-souls in a way altogether different from that in which they will to one who possesses three hundred of them; while to him who possesses three hundred of them they will again speak not in the same way as they would with him that has five hundred souls…in brief, even if you were to go up to a million, you would find different shadings for each category.” (Dead Souls, p. 57). I think that most Americans in the “99%” would find themselves just as uncomfortable in the bottom 1% (making $2500 or less per year) as the top 1% would be. Most of the populace in Gogol’s Russia would have fallen into this category of extremely poor.
This will sound base and unconnected, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Russian literature is for the wonderful Russian character names. Besides Chichikov, there are characters named Athanassii Vassilievich Murazov, Fedor Fedorovich Lenitzin, and Alexander Dmitrievich Betrischev. Some of the names from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are even more fun: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, etc. If I ever write a novel, I will be sure to have a character with a great Russian name.
I think that the “Occupy Wall Street” people would learn a lot from reading Dead Souls and the information about Gogol; sometimes I worry that if they are too successful we’ll all have our exact income percentage projected on our foreheads. According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Gogol’s intention for Dead Souls was to “rekindle the noble yet dormant core of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that was its destiny…he no longer wanted to write about Russia: he wanted to save it” (p. 112). If we become too obsessed with fixing class inequality, we could, like Gogol, go stark raving mad.