Thursday, June 12, 2008

The ethics of Dead Souls - how many of you are crowded in here?

A corrupt minor official and con man, Chichikov, wants to buy the legal rights to serfs who are deceased but still on the tax rolls (one set of “dead souls” in Dead Souls). He enters a provincial town and visits local landowners, buying their recently deceased serfs. People grow suspicious, and Chichikov flees. That’s the story of Dead Souls.

Dead Souls is overpopulated. A short novel (250 pages or so), it is stuffed with incidental characters. The first page, for example, introduces not just Chichikov, but four other people, only one of whom is ever seen again. There’s a fellow, for example, who wears a bronze pin, shaped like a pistol. Two others have this conversation as Chichikov rolls by:

"'Look at that, will you?' said one muzhik to the other. 'What a wheel! What do you think, would that wheel make it to Moscow, if need be, or wouldn't it?'

'It would,' answered the other.

'But it wouldn't make it to Kazan, I'm thinking - or would it?'

'Not to Kazan, it wouldn't,' the other answered.

And with that the discussion ended."

The novel is so full of people that they spill over into the metaphors Gogol uses to describe anything and everything – see the examples from the last two days. The parody of the epic simile, this abundance of humanity, is directly tied to the ethics of the novel.

Dead Souls is a novel about slavery (other things, too, sure). A later generation of Russian radicals saw it as a realistic attack on the social conditions of serfs, suggesting that they did not actually read the novel. Nevertheless. The plot is about the buying and selling of people, even if the particular people are dead. Chichikov’s attempts to buy dead serfs deeply confuse most of the other characters. The Public Prosecutor and other officials spend most of Chapters 9 and 10 trying to figure out what Chichikov is up to. Some conclude that he is a famous bandit, others that he is Napoleon in disguise, while the women all understand that the “dead souls” business is just a trick to distract the men while Chichikov elopes with the Governor’s daughter.

This confusion is the ethical heart of the book. If Chichikov were buying live serfs – actual people, slaves – to be resettled in a wilderness a thousand miles away, there would be no confusion. Everything would be perfectly legal, and everyone would approve, and even celebrate. They actually do celebrate, in the great scene where the bear-like Sobekevich eats an entire sturgeon (except for the “inedible tail”).

The “reality” of the characters who emerge from the metaphors is just as strong as the reality of most of the characters who exist in the world of the book. In exactly the same way, the dead souls have as much reality as anyone else. They’re not just legal fictions, but actual (“actual”) people.* At the beginning of Chapter 7, Chichikov looks over the list of his purchases:

“All these details imparted a certain air of freshness: it seemed as if these muzhiks had been alive only yesterday. As he gazed long at the names, Chichikov’s spirit was touched and, with a sigh, he uttered: ‘Good heavens, how many of you are crowded in here! What my hearties, have you done in your time? How did you get along?’” (p. 131)

Is this passage about dead souls, or about Dead Souls?

* One could also take this in an entirely different direction. The "actual" characters are no more real than the metaphorical ones. What is a novel if not a long, complicated metaphor?

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