“Dead Souls,” written by Gogol in the years 1837-8 and published in 1842, is the greatest humorous novel in the Russian language. It is the most popular book in Russia, and its appeal is world-wide. Even those who have but the remotest idea of Russia and Russian life are frankly amused when they read it. Because of its literary form it has been likened to Don Quixote, Gil Blas, Tom Jones, for it is the story of the adventures of a man wandering from house to house and town to town along the ways of his country. But it has a deeper human appeal than any of these volumes. It is more broadly humorous, but it is also more tender, more serious. Though it is largely a satire there is not a line of cynicism in the book, not a sneer, not a phrase inspired by the author’s vanity or by selfish indifference to the life of the outside world. It was in reality a passionate expression of Gogol’s love of his country, and though it is so pleasant to read, the writing of it broke Gogol’s heart. In his black grief he even burned the whole of the volume that was to have been the sequel to Dead Souls—what is sometimes referred to as the second part.

In one of the wonderful conversations given in Turgeniev’s Smoke, there is an occasion when some one says that if you speak to an Englishman the conversation sooner or later comes to sport, if to a Frenchman sooner or later to woman, and that when you speak to a Russian the conversation always comes round to Russia—is she not a wonderful country, what a destiny her people have, will they not work out in Russia something entirely new, and so on. This is a true observation. Russia is the beloved theme of the Russians. All Russians have opinions about their own country; Russians more than people of other nationality live for their country, are ready to suffer for it, feel personal joy or pain, happiness or grief, according to its daily history. Anxiety as to what Russia will become, love of Russia, these are the master instincts of Russian writers.

So there is scarcely a novel in the Russian language that has not a national character. Dead Souls is no exception to the rule. Indeed, if asked which Russian novel was the most characteristically national, it would be necessary to answer—this novel of Gogol, not Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Turgeniev’s Virgin Soil, or Dostoieffsky’s Brothers Karamazof, but Gogol’s Dead Souls.

Dead Souls is Russia herself. The characters have become national types. Tchichikof, Nozdref, Manilof, Sobakevitch, Pliushkin, Korobotchkina, are more alluded to by Russians than Mr. Pickwick, Squire Western, Falstaff, Micawber, are by us. The sayings of Gogol have become proverbs—such sentences as: “Love us when we are dirty, for every one will love us when we are clean.” The ideas set forth by him have become national ideas. The passage at the end of Chapter XI is one of the most famous in Russian literature: “Oh troika, oh bird-troika, who first thought of you? Only a jolly people could have given birth to you.…” From this passage and what follows the troika has been taken as a symbol of the national life of Russia. Readers of the Brothers Karamazof remember how the idea is discussed during the great trial at the end of the book. The troika is a sledge or cart drawn by three galloping horses—one horse between the shafts, the others one on each side of him; the side-horses are the wings of the chariot in Gogol’s figure. The troika is characteristic of the wild hearty type of the Russian people, their prodigality, recklessness and generosity.

Dead Souls is at first hearing a somewhat terrifying title for a book, but when it is explained it is robbed of all terror. All depends on the fact that in the days of serfdom the serfs were referred to as souls, and you reckoned the importance of a man’s estate by the number of “souls” on it. Thus you said of a man, “He has a big estate of several thousand souls,” or of another, “Oh, he is in a poor way, he has only a few souls; they are terribly ill-fed, and mortgaged even then.” Dead souls are dead serfs. Tchichikof, the hero of the novel, hit on an ingenious plan for making money. He went about from landowner to landowner, inquiring how many souls had died since the last census, and persuading the Russian squires to make them over to him on paper. Serfs who were dead were no use to the squire, even though in a technical sense they did still exist and could be legally transferred. Tchichikof drew up deeds of sale and purchased several thousand dead souls, hoping to be able to raise money on the security of these souls. His dream was to have an estate of his own with a fine complect of live serfs. By telling the stories of his adventures Gogol unveils a picture of Russia.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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