Gogol’s “Dead Souls”: a comic inferno

A preamble
I first read Dead Souls when, as a teenager, I developed a mania for 19th century Russian literature, and determined to read everything I could lay my hands on. The version I read then was the work of an anonymous translator, and probably one of the many versions that had been so mercilessly attacked by Nabokov as “worthless”. Nabokov did, however, praise the translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, a revised version of which is still available. Since Nabokov’s critique, a good many well-received translations have appeared. I re-read Dead Souls a few years ago in the highly rated modern translation by Robert Maguire published by Penguin Classics. This third and latest reading was in response to a mini-group-read organized by Richard, who blogs in Caravana de Recuerdos, and by Scott, who blogs in Six Words for a Hat. I have, till now, deliberately avoided reading their posts on Dead Souls until I had put my own reactions down on paper – or, at least, on computer screen. I’ll remedy that once I have posted this.

The translation I read this time round was the older version published by Penguin Classics, by David Magarshack. All quoted passages in this post are taken from this translation.


Anyone familiar with 19th century literature will know the landscape. An unutterably dreary, drab little town, somewhere in the provinces, miles from anywhere, riddled with filth and poverty and decay and corruption, and stinking of moral stagnation and decay. It is the place from which any person of sensitivity longs to escape – like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; those who don’t, like Chekhov’s Ionych, become embroiled in the corruption; or, like Dr Ragin in Chekhov’s “Ward 6”, become victims of it. It is this town that forms the grey setting of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is this town we see collapsing into psychopathic violence and an almost apocalyptic disorder in Dostoyevsky’s Demons; and it is this town also that is revealed in Tolstoy’s Resurrection as containing behind its shallow façades of faux-respectability the most unutterable institutionalised cruelties. Meanwhile in Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, this town seems to stand for Hell itself, from which no-one can ultimately escape. This town is as much a landscape of the mind as it is a real landscape, and it looms large in Russian literature.

The earliest appearance of this town, as far as my admittedly limited reading allows me to judge, is in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector. And it reappears in the novel Dead Souls. In the play, an ordinary man, at a loose end and unable to pay his hotel bill, is mistaken by the corrupt town officials for an inspector, and is larded with all sorts of bribes; by the time the truth is realised, he is away with his gains. And even as we’re laughing, the mayor of the town breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to tell us directly, the audience, that we are laughing at ourselves: we all inhabit this Town of the Mind. In Dead Souls, which Gogol referred to as a “poem” rather than as a novel, we once again have a visitor from outside, who causes consternation. But it is not the outsider, Chichikov, who seems at first to be the centre of the reader’s attention: it is the rather eccentric narrator. Chichikov is described, and yet not described, so that we, the reader, get no mental picture of him:

The gentleman in the carriage is neither too fat, nor too thin; he cannot be said to be old, but he was not too young either.

And having given us this piece of non-description, the narrator veers off for no apparent reason to tell us about two peasants speaking about Chichikov’s carriage. What they say is not quite nonsensical, but it doesn’t really seem to make much sense either:

“Lord,” said one of them to the other, “what a wheel! What do you say? Would a wheel like that, if put to it, ever get to Moscow or wouldn’t it?” “It would all right,” replied the other. “But it wouldn’t get to Kazan, would it?” “No, it wouldn’t get to Kazan,”” replied the other. That was the end of the conversation.

The narrator is in no rush to move things along. We are given a leisurely account, seemingly overloaded with utterly irrelevant detail, of the filthy inn, and of the people working there; and then, of the town itself. The details the narrator fixes upon tend towards the eccentric, or even the downright bizarre; much of what he says seems like non-sequiturs. And when the narrator uses a simile or a metaphor, the image takes on a life of its own, quite overwhelming that which it purports to describe:

As he entered the ballroom, Chichikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, dazzled by the blaze of candles, the lamps, the ladies’ gowns. Everything was flooded in light. Black frock-coats glided and flitted about singly or in swarms here and there like so many flies on a sparkling white sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper chops or breaks it up into glittering lumps in front of an open window, the children gather and look on, watching with interest the movements of her rough hands raising and lowering the hammer, while the aerial squadrons of flies, borne on the light breeze, fly in boldly, just as if they owned the place and, taking advantage of the old woman’s feeble eyesight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty lumps in small groups or in swarms.

Whew! But we aren’t finished yet:

Already satiated by the abundant summer, which sets up dainty dishes for them on every step, they fly in…

And so on for another few hundred words, the reality this image has been set up to elucidate by now more or less forgotten. It is fair to say, I think, that I have never come across a narrative voice quite like this one. Dickens too loved eccentricity, and one often wonders about the sanity of some of his characters; but here, one is left wondering about the sanity of the narrator himself.

In the second chapter, Chichikov sets off to visit local landowners. The landowners and their estates are all described by that same affable but seemingly demented narrative voice. And what that voice tells us is just as bizarre as the voice itself. These elements of the bizarre are dropped in as if they were perfectly reasonable and everyday. For instance, Chichikov, having lost his way on a stormy night, and his carriage having overturned, is put up by elderly widow, who sees to his comfort:

“Take the gentleman’s coat and underwear and dry them first in front of the fire as you used to for your late master, and afterwards have them well brushed and beaten.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Fetinya, spreading a sheet over the featherbed and laying down the pillows.

“Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,” said the old lady. “Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.”

As the novel progresses, an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters appears – each bizarre and eccentric beyond the bounds of sanity. There’s the impossibly effusive Manilov; the bear-like, deliberate, and somewhat madly methodical Sobakevich; the disgustingly filthy and threadbare Plyushkov, surely the most grotesque and repulsive of all literary misers; and Nozdryov, the colourful braggart, bully and compulsive liar – except, of course, no-one outside a Gogol novel could lie with quite such uninhibited flamboyance and gusto. Chichikov visits these landlords to buy from them, at as cheap a price as he can, serfs (or, not to put too fine a gloss on it, slaves, which is what they were) – serfs who are dead, the “dead souls” of the title, but who are still listed from the last official census as being alive, and for whom, consequently, the landowner is continuing to pay taxes. When Chichikov’s curious business activities are known, the town is in turmoil. All sorts of strange stories start up, and are believed: it becomes common knowledge, for instance, that Chichikov had been planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter (shameless hussy that she is!) A meeting of worthies discuss who Chichikov may be. The postmaster knows: Chichikov is none other than Captain Kopeikin! And who is this Captain Kopeikin? The postmaster launches on a long story – fully reproduced, in all its Gogolian bizarreness – of a Captain Kopeikin who had lost an arm and a leg in the 1812 campaign. Only after the story has progressed through several pages does someone think of mentioning that Chichikov has both arms and both legs. The postmaster admits that he was wrong, and sits down; Kopeikin is not mentioned again. Why the postmaster had thought Kopeikin was Chichikov in the first place is not explained.

The pace of the narration is slow – for modern readers, perhaps, too slow for a comedy: but it is in the narrator’s eccentric voice that so much of the comedy resides – a voice apparently gentle and friendly and even reasonable, and yet, we suspect, utterly insane. And for that voice to establish itself, a slowness of pace is required. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds at a leisurely pace, and that leisurely pace may perhaps suggest a certain gentleness: but the sheer bizarre nature of the content, full of mad non-sequiturs and irrelevant and often grotesque details, belies any sense of the gentle. Gogol had seemingly intended this narrative to be the first part of a trilogy that was to reflect Dante’s vision of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise: what we see here is no less than Gogol’s vision of Inferno itself. The Dead Souls of the title are not merely the dead peasants.

It is hard to imagine how these Dead Souls presented here could be redeemed, as Gogol had intended: it is hard to imagine what Gogol’s Purgatorio and Paradiso may have been like. Gogol never completed his grandiose project. Towards the end of his life (he died when still in his early 40s), he became dangerously insane, developed a sort of religious mania, and seemingly starved himself to death. And, during these last terrible days, he burnt what he had written of the second part of Dead Souls. (There exists a quite horrific painting by Ilya Repin of Gogol burning the manuscript.) Some fragments of this second part have, however, survived, and all modern English editions dutifully include these chapters, but I find them distressingly banal and uninspired. Gogol may have aspired towards redemption, but it seems to me unlikely that his imagination could conceive of anything but the hellish. The rather hellish last days of Gogol’s own life are perhaps not surprising.

What we get in this novel – or this “poem”, as Gogol insisted it to be – is a vision of Hell itself. But things are never simple with Gogol. From our viewpoint, we may think this to be the Hell of a slave-owning society; and yet, Gogol was firmly in favour of serfdom (slavery by another name), and opposed strongly liberal campaigns for emancipation. It is hard, at least for me, to imagine what really went on in that very strange mind of his. I generally try to heed the well-worn advice of “trust the book, not the writer”, but it becomes difficult here to try to put out of mind details of Gogol’s own life and opinions.

In this third reading, the sense of an Inferno seemed more apparent than had previously been the case. It’s a comic Inferno, certainly, but comedy and seriousness are by no means mutually incompatible. Somehow, the comedy renders this Inferno all the more disturbing: as with the farting devils of Dante, the comedy, if anything, intensifies the horror. Here is world that is utterly grotesque, but presented with such vividness and, despite its slow pace, animated with such vitality, that the effect it had on Russian literary culture, and, one suspects, on the Russian mind itself, is tremendous, and can hardly be over-estimated. That drab Gogolian town became for succeeding writers – for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, for Saltykov-Schedrin – the very image of Hell itself. I know of nothing quite like this outside Russian literature: in no other literature that I know of has a physical location become so firmly entrenched as also a moral and psychological landscape. But Gogol could not transcend this landscape, much though he longed to, any more than could the characters of Saltykov-Schedrin’s utterly bleak and desolate novel The Golovlyov Family. This is a Hell in which we still remain trapped.

13 responses to this post.

  1. Too slow for modern readers? Poor, dim modern readers. I feel so sad for them.

    I know of things like this outside of Russian literature. See László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango for a recent example, or almost anything by Sholem Aleichem. Sholem Aleichem kept two pictures at his desk – Mendele Mocher Sforim, father of Yiddish literature, and Nikolai Gogol. The Gogolian town has found a dreary but welcome home throughout Eastern European literature.

    I believe it also found a place (via Dostoevsky) in Yoknapatawpha County, from whence it spread into Latin America and who knows where else.

    So I enjoyed reading you trace its hellish path – the flies alone!

    My own week on Dead Souls is way back in 2008, which hardly seems possible. I even included a pun, I never do that. “Gogol knows this is new. Gogol nose – this is new.”


    • Too slow for modern readers? Poor, dim modern readers. I feel so sad for them.

      Perhaps I was a bit unfair there on modern readers, but, whether one regards “average” as mean, as median, or as mode, one’s confidence in the perspicacity of the average modern reader rarely survives a few minutes’ browse of Amazon “reviews”.

      I had written the above before I had read any other bloggers’ posts on this novel. Having now read your posts on it, I now regret that.

      Indeed, as you say, the landscape of the stagnant provincial town has leaked out of Russian literature (although it is no surprise to discover that Shelom Aleichem so revered Gogol: I’m taking a guess here that Isaac Bashevis Singer also loved Gogol). Possibly it lost some of its Gogolian qualities, and took on different hues. There’s nothing particularly drab or dreary, for instance, about Yoknapatawpha. But yes, elements of that Gogolian landscape do persist.

      And aren’t those flies just wonderful?


  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on May 20, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    I have not yet read this work but your and Richard’s commentary want me to do so slow.

    Interesting what you mention about the pace being slow. I think that as I have gotten older that is not something that bothers me in the least. Agreed with your remark about modern readers having trouble with it. It is really a pity, as the joy is not the destination, it is the journey.


    • Indeed – the destination is not the point. But perhaps we (and I include myself here) do expect comedy, especially comedy of a farcical nature, to move along quickly. To appreciate Gogol, we do need to re-adjust our expectations in this respect.

      This is, indeed, a magnificent work. I know I have said often enough that literature is not a competitive sport, but I don’t really feel inclined to take issue with Tom’s asserton that Dead Souls is the finest of all novels of the first half of the 19th century.


  3. Bravo for this post, Himadri! I was so tickled by that cheeky narrator–a rogue straight out of picaresque fiction only in the guise of a Russian narrator–that I was distracted by the satirical storytelling and less intent on his conception/portrait of a provincial hell. So I agree that it’s a “comic inferno,” but for me the comedy far outweights the hellishness (perhaps I’ll change my mind on subsequent readings). In any event, delighted to add such a fine third voice to the group read mix–will add a link later tonight once I escape some obligations. Cheers!


    • Hello Richard,

      I’m sorry I haven’t yetrespondedto the posts on Dead Souls either in your or in Scott’s blog. I’m afraid we have but one laptop in the house, and our daughter is currently hogging it to revise for her exams! (I do enjoy blogging, and interacting with other blogs, but obviously, there are priorities! 🙂 )

      But yes, the narrator seems to me as engaging a character as any of the others. It really is a narrative voice like no other.


  4. I really like Gogol. I would personally never classify anything of his as ‘slow’. I think he’s pretty funny, and though random at times, it’s always interesting. Like The Nose. There is almost nothing going on in that story, it basically has no ending, it’s totally random and yet it’s so readable. I think the same of Dead Souls, although there’s more seriousness in Dead Souls, it’s still very entertaining. He’s like the Mark Twain of Russian Literature; sometimes genreless, but always readable.


    • Hello Loren, and welcome. Gogol really did have a very weird sense of humour, didn’t he? Quite frequently, I find myself re-reading certain passages just to confirm I had read what I thought I had read.

      His short stories are wonderful too. “The Nose” is marvelous, as is “The Overcoat”. But one I particularly like is the deliberately clumsily titled “How Ivan Ivanovic Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich”.

      I love the humour of Mark Twain as well, but Twain’s humour always seems to me a hearty, warm humour – even when he is being satiric. Gogol’s humour, on the other hand, seems frequently to be on the edge of insanity!
      Cheers for now, Himadri


      • I’ve never read How Ivan Ivanovic Quarreled With Ivan Nikiforovich, but now I must.

        I agree that Gogol seems more insane. I just think they’re both very random in their humor. I particularly like the ending of The Nose, which is no ending at all, but it’s wonderful. I feel like if any other writer tried to do what Gogol does constantly, they’d fail miserably. He really was a brilliant writer.

      • I agree, Gogol was a quite wonderful writer, and his idiosyncratic view of the world was unique. “The Nose” couldn’t really have been written by anyone else! I agree with you about the ending.

        Did you know, by the way, that Shostakovich made an opera out if “The Nose”? I must admit, though, that I don’t really get Shostakovich’s music.

      • That is awesome! I had no idea. Yeah, Shostakovitch is bit beyond me. I think I’ve heard, maybe… two of his songs, but I had a musician tell me that he’s tough as nails to play. I’ll have to go find that song now. Thanks for telling me about it!

  5. Posted by Carwyn Walsh on June 21, 2013 at 3:24 am

    That was a brilliant summation of possibly my favourite Russian novel. The thing that struck me when I first read this book as a teenager was how fresh and accessible the humour in it was for modern readers. I have never read another writer who so effortlessly slips the farcical and ridiculous sides of human nature into his writing like Gogol did. Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed re-entering Gogol’s world again.


    • Thank you for your kind words!

      I really am so glad I read this novel once again. Gogol’s fictional world I find, perhaps, a bit too odd to be described as “welcoming”, but it is extraordinarily vivid and compelling. A very great writer who refuses all attempts at classification. (I love his short stories as well, by the way!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: