Friday, June 13, 2008

Dead Souls - let us harness a scoundrel

Lest I make Dead Souls sound more humanistic than it really is, I'll turn to the flies. They're everywhere in Dead Souls, as part of the scenery, and in comparisons, beginning with serfs dying like flies. The first extended simile in the novel goes like this (we're at a ball):

"Everywhere one looked black frock coats flitted and darted by, singly and in clusters, as flies dart over a white, gleaming loaf of refined sugar in the summer season on a sultry July day, as an aged housekeeper standing at an open window cleaves and divides the loaf into glittering irregular lumps..." (Ch. 1, p. 8) The lumps are then distributed to children. Doesn't that sound nice. But still, the people at the party are like flies.

This is aside from all of the other places where people are compared to animals, or animals are compared to people. There's generosity here, though. Everyone is ridiculous. We're all in it together. Not a hint of nihilism, but just the way people are. That's the great source of comedy in the novel - go ahead, laugh at everyone. They'll laugh at you, too.

I was complaining a while ago about Scott and Dickens and their dullish virtuous heroes. Gogol (or "Gogol") is entirely on my side:

"There is a turn, and a place, and a time for everything! But, just the same, we have not taken a man of virtue for our hero, after all. And one may even explain why he hasn't been taken. Because it's high time to give a rest to the poor man of virtue; because the phrase 'man of virtue' is formed all too glibly and idly by all lips; because the man of virtue has been turned into a hack and there isn't a writer who doesn't ride him hard, urging him on with a whip or whatever else comes to his hand; because they have overworked the man of virtue to such an extent that now there isn't even a shadow of virtue about him, and there is nothing but skin and bones left of him instead of flesh and blood; because it is only through hypocrisy that they trot out the man of virtue; because the man of virtue isn't held in much respect. No, it's high time, at last, to put an actual scoundrel in harness! And so let us harness a scoundrel." (Ch. 11 , p. 224).

Ho ho! Dickens has to figure out how to make the "man of virtue" real in his world, which has its resemblance to Gogol's. Gogol knows he doesn't belong, and instead gives us Nozdrev, who wants to bet on everything, for example, that he once drank seventeen bottles of champagne; or cultivated Manilov, who names his children Themistoclius and Alcides; or the lieutenant who loves his boots so much that he stays up late "lifting now this foot and now the other and inspecting the deftly and wondrously turned heel of each boot." (Ch. 7, p. 149)

Greatest Novel of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century.


  1. You write: "people are compared to animals, or animals are compared to people." People are considered to be animals because they are alive and are not minerals or vegetables. I have met some very loving and valiant non-human animals,especially dogs. They shouldn't be disparaged. With regard to flies, if children ingest food that has been contaminated by flies, they risk having fly larvae (maggots) as parasites in their stomachs.

  2. Your comment is very amusing. The last sentence is especially good.

    I wonder who you are? Thanks for stopping by.

  3. "We have not taken a man of virtue for our hero..."

    Wasn't that an understatment?!

    Or was it?