Breeding Revelry

This is the hardest paper of my collegiate career. It didn’t help that I waited until the night before the six-paged-analysis was due to put the keys to typing. But I had been digesting Gogol’s book and its meaning for months after leaving Russia’s soil. The result is below:

The rebels of society have always been used by authors as vehicles to communicate a culture’s unspoken norms, customs, and values.  In Gogol’s Dead Souls, Chichikov appears to represent a characteristic rebel: a man who fervently pursues a means of circumventing the social ladder in hopes of climbing the fast route to success.

 However, upon closer examination, Chichikov is revealed to be merely average, a man into whose shoes any being could easily fall.  Admonishing one against the ills of society, a society that bred and created the likes of Chichikov, Gogol uses the poem to show how any man, nurtured in the bust of Russian society, can easily evolve into a Chichikov–highlighting the inherent faults of the culture that nurtured and welcomed with outstretched arms this sad creature. 

It seems apt to begin at the end.  In his speech to the “official ranks”(390) of the Town of N, the prince, disgusted by the quickly crumbling city as pervading corruption and dishonesty rears its head,  acknowledges the Russian culture’s role in the dissolution of its people’s souls.  “The dishonest practice of accepting bribes has become a need and a necessity even for people who were not born to dishonesty” (392). 

The system itself breeds the deceit of one’s soul.  Recognizing the cyclical and ongoing evolution of man into dissident at the hands of the culture he noted, “the very people who hitherto were honest will become dishonest, and the very ones who are found worthy of trust will deceive and sell out” (390).  Negating the argument that some people are merely born deceitful or corrupt, and using the theory that evil is nurtured and not merely one’s nature, Gogol allows the prince to reveal how anyone can become Chichikov, the man who once bellowed from the rooftops of Russian society and now tottered as a ghost of his former self, with a soul so “demolished”(390) that “from it a new one could be built”(390) but would not.  Instead his very soul lay dead, utterly abandoned and devoid of life. 

Exactly how did Russia and its culture mold the man into this beast, the wretched creature now laid hopeless in its gutters?  In his pursuit of the Russian dream of land ownership, of respect, and of title—a dream marred into his heart when he was but a child, Chichikov sold his soul for a gamble with success—a decision that Gogol suggests is prevalent throughout Russian society.  To truly understand how Gogol blames Russian culture and its obsession with status with Chichikov’s eventual ruin, one must examine how the notions of success—at any cost—were first introduced to our hero. 

 “Life, at its beginning, looked upon him somewhat sourly, inhospitably. . .not one friend, not one childhood companion” (229), the author writes of boy Chichikov.  Images of happiness and joy did fill his childhood.  Instead his past life, “of which he barely preserved a pale memory”(229) was full of admonishments with his father, “an ailing man”(229) who bade him “Do not lie, obey your elders, keep virtue in your heart”(229), cementing such commandments with the painful twisting of Chichikov’s ears “by [his] nails”(229).  After a brutal first few years, the child, still impressionable and longing to be loved, was placed under the care of a female relative. 

Here, as his father offered his final words to Chichikov, began the child’s first session in Russian Culture 101: “. . .[P]lease your teachers and superiors. . .then even if you don’t succeed in your studies. . .you will still do well and get ahead of everybody” (230).  The father with his advice (230) thrust Chichikov into the rat race of society everyone is either an ally or an enemy.  Thus, little Chichikov learned the preferences of each of his respected teachers, appeasing each teacher according to his taste, yielding much success.  “All the while he was at school, he was in excellent repute, and at graduation he received full honors in all subjects”(232) despite his lack of academic talents and special abilities.  “Don’t keep company with your schoolmates. . .but if you do, then keep company with the richer ones, on the chance that they may be useful to you”(230), the father also droned.  

Teaching Chichikov to screen his associates for motives besides companionship, he acquired an aptness for gaining the favor of those in the realm of power—something he fluidly uses as a means of gaining entry into the homes and hearts of the wealthy in the town.  The final and most important commandment from Chichikov’s father was “above all keep ad save your kopeck: it is the most reliable thing in the world” (230).  Having offered his son his words of wisdom, the father departed, never to be seen alive again.  Chichikov took these words of advice to heart.  “While still a child he knew how to deny himself everything” (231).  Thus began the souring of his soul.  After the completion of school, the boy who had turned into a “young man of rather attractive appearance” (232) set his eyes on higher pursuits.  With his kopeck hidden “stingily. . .both to himself and others” (233), he hungrily “pictured. . .a life of every comfort, of every sort of prosperity; carriages, an excellently furnished house, taste dinners—this was what constantly hovered in his head”(233).  With his Russian father’s words of wisdom nudged heavily into the recesses of his mind and with his dream of riches firmly intact, the quest for success pushed Chichikov into realms he could not have imagined in his wildest dreams. 

 In striking similarity to the young lady with whom his carriage crosses, the Chichikov prior to his acceptance of the injustices of life, damningly obvious in Russian society, could have been saved from becoming the “trash” (92) that he so brutally condemns the young woman to be.  Stating that although “she’s like a child now. . .she says what she likes, she laughs when she wants. . .[that] anything can be made of her”(92),  he knows that that she will not emerge with the “fresh” (91), “transparent whiteness” that so enchants Chichikov with its purity and simplicity.  Instead the gentleman, in a haunting metaphor of his own personal transformation, states that ‘she’ll start running around on memorized instructions,, she’ll start racking her brains thinking up with whom, and how, and for what length of time she should speak, how to look at whom, she’ll be afraid every moment of saying more than in necessary, she’ll finally get confused, and in the end she’ll finally start lying all her life, and the result will be devil knows what!’ (92). Blaming the change on the girls’ “mamas and aunties”(91) just as one could easily place the state of Chichikov’s shriveling soul into the hands of his father, Gogol highlights, again, the cyclical nature of such metamorphic behavior. 

After graduation, Chichikov began working at a post in the treasury.  With his vision of the house, the carriage, and the prosperity yet in tow, he “displayed unheard-of self-denial, patience and restriction of needs” (234).  This was not enough.  Despite gaining the attention of the others, he failed to capture the interest of “his superior” (234), a man known for his “stony insensibility and unshakeableness” (232).  Determined, young Chichikov once again turned to the admonitions of his father for help.  Seeking to please the superior in any way possible, Chichikov,after many failed attempts at flattery, learned of the ugly daughter of the superior who currently lived at home.  Within no time he wooed her, won over the superior, and was finally able to climb from the dungeons of clerk hood into the realm of management.  One step closer to his dream, and firmly over the line that separated the good from the bad, Chichikov’s soul took a pounding. 

As he manipulated the emotions of a man, arguably to receive the promotion he undoubtedly deserved, Chichikov grew one step closer to being labeled a dissident, a rebel, and one without a soul.  Classifying the experience as “the most difficult threshold he had to cross” (236), Chichikov voraciously eyed his dreams once more, proving that absolutely nothing and no one could stand in his way.  Now among the upper ranks, Chichikov finally allowed himself a taste of what his future wealth would supply.  “[Extricating] himself from the stern law of temperance and his own implacable self-denial” (237), Chichikov indulged himself in the riches acquired out of bribery.  Of course, this corruption arrested him, as it would again and again, until finally Chichikov was driven into a new town, with his dream and black soul dragging sternly behind.

Gogol begins the novel with the hero’s arrival to the town of N.  Portrayed as neither “handsome”(1) nor “bad-looking”(1), neither “old”(1) nor “young”(1) “neither too fat nor too thin”(1), Gogol’s vague, very bland depiction of Chichikov renders him universal.  By not limiting the hero to a definite weight, age, or look, Gogol makes the character aptly any man.  Defined immediately by the vehicle in which he arrives, Chichikov is categorized as a “gentlem[a]n of the middling sort”(Gogol, 1), a rung occupied by “bachelors”.  By classifying men according to their weight, Gogol reveals the cultural association between one’s appearance and one’s status.  He associates the “slim”(11) man with frivolity, philandering, and inevitable poverty, citing the slim man’s lust for the finer things in life and his propensity for instant gratification as deadly flaws.  By associating this man, the one who follows his heart and his loins with the ‘have nots’, the author asks as a joker, sarcastically highlighting the way society deems his flighty lifestyle and avid search for passion and love as “unreliable” and one that will end in despair.  Casting off the veil of the narrator, one could easily argue that if Russian society valued passion, the pursuit of happiness beyond the superficial and tangible, that this man would not lie at the bottom of the bourgeoisie, but would stand firmly at the top.           

However, in Russia, as Gogol’s narrator reveals, one’s status is defined not by one’s internal contentment but by the metric of one’s title and one’s property.  Comically heralding the Russian ability to distinguish the difference between a “landowner with two hundred souls”(47) and a “landowner with three hundred”(47), he communicates of the epic importance of rank in Russian society.  Continuing to marvel at how one’s status and its appreciation have been drilled in Russian culture, he details the way in which a man who is a vision of confidence, regality, and “pride” (47) dissolves into “grain of sand”(47) when someone of a rank “a bit above him” enters the room.   Using this metric, Gogol favors the “fat” man. Described humorously as the man seated smugly in the corner of a room at a ball, backing away from the ladies that the “slim” man so adores, this lifeless blob is characterized by his grounded thinking and actions.  Not attractive, with a face that is “plump and round, some even had warts on them” (11), this man has the distinct gift of occupying a position “firmly” (11) and “reliably”(11), a factor that distinguishes him from his skinnier counterparts.  His patience and ability to manage money and property is praised as Gogol classifies him as having multiple houses and serfs galore, all a man could possibly need to “[live and live well]”(11).  But what of this man’s soul? 

Gogol coyly reveals the internal state of “fat” man through his through a metaphorical discussion of this sort of gentleman’s taste for food.  Stating boldly that “to him. . .gentlemen of the grand sort mean decidedly nothing” (59), citing their inability to truly enjoy any meal “without first sending a pill into their mouths” (59).  These men who’ve scrimped and scurried their way to the upper rung of society only to sit there miserably alone and incapable of enjoying their great lives look downward in envy at the middling man so desperately vying for the “fat” man’s position.  Gogol jests that “more than one gentleman of the grand sort would instantly sacrifice half of his peasant souls and half of its estates, mortgaged and unmortgaged. . .only so as to have a stomach such as a gentleman of the middle sort” (59). 

Suggesting the common motif of life not always being what it seems, this man that is heralded and paraded before Russian society as the role model, the dream, what every boy should aim to be and what every woman should hope to marry is incomplete.  Sadly, “no amount of money” (60) can quench this lust for the intangible value “that the middling sort happens to have” (60).  In this passage, food represents one’s zest for life, one’s soul, the very thing that the middling sort offers up for sale as he vigilantly tries to reach the status of the “fat” man, unbeknownst to him a status even more miserable than his own.  Bored with life, devoid of passion, and seeking no more, this man longs for the day of his past, when he, too, was scampering up the ladder of society, eagerly pouncing on one opportunity after the next.  With these days long gone, the “fat” man, having sold his soul for the opportunity to sit atop his perch, stares longingly down below, realizing that life at the top is hardly what it seems. 

Distinguished by his apparent lack of a wife and children, given the size of his “britza” or ride, Chichikov is immediately relegated to the realm of the “retired lieutenant colonels, staff captains” (1), and “landowners” (1) with a not impressive, nor shameful one hundred souls.  This middling gentleman, who operates in the purgatory status –cursed with a “rank neither too low nor too high” (10) is the most tormented man of all. 

He can literally touch the next rung on the ladder of society, can smell the sweet scent of wealth and success, and can even taste the riches that just beyond his reach.  Unlike the “slim”(11) man, whose pursuits seem paralyzed by the fairer sex and is content with his nominal and fleeting, “light”(11) and “airy”(11) existence,  the “middling”(1) man has the opportunity to set his feet firmly into the ground and learn from the likes of the “fat”.  His status grants him entrance into the circles of the elite, but he is distinctly separate from the haves–while they may welcome this middle man into their parties, their banquets, and perhaps even their homes, the middle man is constantly the center of attention, where the “fat”(11) eye him with curiosity, seeking to either send this ambitious middling down into the gutters of society or pull him out of his wretched status and claim him as their own.  As mentioned to in the previous paragraph, the appetite of the middling man is his greatest weapon.  Even the authors “admit[s]. . .he is quite envious of the appetite and stomach of this sort of people”  (60).  Due to his transitory rank, this man develops an appetite unlike any other.  His hunger for change and thirst for improvement drive him to insatiability.  “But gentlemen of the middling sort, those who order ham at one station, suckling pig at another, a hunk of sturgeon. . .and then sit down to table as if nothing had happened. . .these gentleman indeed enjoy an enviable gift from heaven!” (59).  Some deem it a gift, others a curse.  Chichikov would certainly deem it one of the latter.

                In the relentless quest to rise to the top, Chichikov employs all of the skills learned during his years trekking through Russian culture.  Upon arrival to the town, he did exactly what he hoped the young girl in the carriage would avoid.  “He inquired with extreme precision” (6) the names of every “single important official”(6) and landowner.  Reminiscent of his boyish days of sidling up to the wealthier boys in class, he gains the favor of these individuals by “manag[ing] very artfully to flatter each of them” (9).  Having flattered each, he selected the ones that would be of the most aid to him and his plan and “succeeded in charming them completely” (13).  Upon visit to each of these landowners’ home, one learns that these landowners represent so much more than mere pawns in Chichikov’s plan.  As he encounters each landowner individually, they offer Chichikov his last chance at redemption as they reflect the images of what he could easily become if left to his own devices.  Manilov, Korobochka, and Nozdryov, in particular, serve as powerful warnings, if only Chichikov would hearken their discrete messages.

The first landowner that Chichikov visits is Manilov.  Described as having “eyes as sweet as sugar”, Manilov represents Chichikov’s love of flattery.  Following his father’s suggestion to please his teachers and superiors, Chichikov learned at a very young age the power of flattery.  Manilov is a pleaser, to the extreme.  Gogol describes the landowner as “fine” (21) but notes that his “agreeableness had. . .too much sugar in it” (21).  While pleasing is a valuable tool when applied lightly, the slathering of flattery is dismissed as a mere guise, and is not effective.  It gives the impression that one is simply a slithering snake anxiously seeking to please his way into one’s heart and soul.  This suspicion and utter disregard of such a man is revealed when the narrator states “At the first moment of conversation with him, you cannot help saying: ‘What an agreeable and kindly man!’ The next moment you do not say anything, and the third moment you say: ‘Devil knows what this is”—and walk away” (21).  Though Chichikov is much slicker in his approach, his similarity with poor, sweet, brainless Manilov cannot be ignored.  Chichikov, in the very beginning of the story is heralded for his ability to please and flatter each of the officials he encounters.  He robotically compares the “province” (9) to “paradise”(9) before the governor, offers underlings the address of “Your Excellency”(9) and manages to say something equally flattering to the police chief “about the town sentries” (9).  He even manages to flatter the wife of the governor, stating “some compliment most fitting for a middle-aged man of a rank nether too low nor too high” (10).  With Manilov, Chichikov has met his match.  Offering a warped, exaggerated depiction of Chichikov, this man is so prone to pleasing, he can’t bear to utter a word of his own accord, or state thoughts that aren’t tinged with compliments or pleasantries, in fear of causing offense or conflict.  “You will never get from him any sort of lively or even merely provoking word” (21) for he is a dead soul, one who traded in his capacity to think and speak and act with vigor and passion for the opportunity to climb the social ladder and become a landowner.  A warped caricature of Chichikov and the shameless pleaser he could become, Manilov provides a fun-house mirror version of our hero, and forebodes of the soul-less existence that awaits.

The second landowner Chichikov meets is Korobochka.  Our hero haphazardly stumbles upon her property during a bad storm that renders Chichikov’s britza worthless.  After offering the gentleman and his servant and horses a night’s rest, Korobochka reveals her incredible likeness to our hero with her incredible thriftiness.  “The roubles all go into one little bag, the half-roubles into another, the quarter-roubles into a third, though to all appearances there is nothing but underwear, and night jackets, and spools of thread” (42).  Such a depiction conjures up like images of the hero as a child: “Of the fifty kopecks his father had given him, he did not spend even one; on the contrary, that same year he already made additions to them, showing a resourcefulness that was almost extraordinary”  (231).  Quite similar to the bags of roubles Korobochka kept stowed away, “when he had accumulated as much as five roubles, he sewed up the little bag and started saving in another one”(231).  Korobochka is the only person that adamantly questions Chichikov about his use for the goods, which absolutely drives him mad.  When these two business savvy individuals collide, the image is haunting.  Only after he scares her into submission and promises to purchase “farm products” (52) from her does she half-heartedly agree.  It is no coincidence that the landowner most similar to Chichikov brings about his demise.  Korobochka, seeking to ensure that she wasn’t bamboozled out of the selling price of dead souls, heads into town, revealing the true nature of our dear “hero”(228) and his affairs to the world.  The old hag is a mirror image of Chichikov’s thriftiness–exaggerated, distorted, and grown old, with a dead soul from avidly chasing the dollar at all costs. 

Chichikov lied about his title upon entry into the town of N.  He lied about his interests in the dead souls, he lied about his past, and he even lied about his future.  Thus, it seems fitting for our hero to encounter a landowner who inclination towards falsity surpasses his own.  Nozdryov caricatures Chichikov’s aptness toward lies.  Of course, this landowner lays at the far-reaches of the spectrum.  “. . .he would pour out such a wicked pack of lies that he would finally become ashamed of himself.  And he lied absolutely without any need: he would suddenly tell about a horse he had of some blue or pink color, or similar nonsense, so that his listeners would all finally walk away, saying: ‘Well, brother, it seems you’ve started talking through your hat’” (70).  Nozdryov is a warped exaggeration of Chichikov, highlighting his tendency toward lying.  Warning of the demise that awaits such a man that carelessly enters into the realm of the untruth, this landowner,too, foreshadows Chichikov imminent demise.  Nozdryov, with his soul deadened to the pangs of remorse or guilt from untruth, mirrors the lack of the soul Chichikov will have once his adventures end.

Through Gogol’s depictions of the landowners that bear the same epic flaws that eventually cause Chichikov’s ruin, he suggests that such traits were not limited to our poor hero, but occur and breed naturally in Russian society.  Coupled with Chichikov’s fervent pursuit of wealth, these flaws festered and decomposed and evolved into lethal tools used to demolish our hero’s soul.  But is it of any fault of Chichikov’s?  Simply seeking to reach the dream placed in his hand by Mother Russia and seeking to rise through impermeable ranks that can only be weathered in corruption and deceit, who or what can one truly blame for his ruin?  He was a smart kid–one of great practicality and pristine discipline—a fine a citizen as any.  Returning to the end, where the prince stands calmly before the slew of officials, all of whom are guilty of countless crimes by the mere occupation of current position, one must ask who or what is truly the blame for the corrosion of Chichikov’s soul?  The prince responds, “But let us leave aside who is the more to blame.  The point is that is the time for us to save our country; that our country is perishing. . .” (392).  In the introduction to Dead Souls, Gogol is cited as stating the purpose of the poema or novel is to “show all of Russia—at least from one side” (ix).  Through use of Chichikov as the fallen hero, Gogol reveals that  Chichikov lives within us all.  One must not regard him as a rebel or dissident, but a being nurtured and molded by Mother Russia herself. 

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