One of the themes of Scarlet and Black is the exposure of an ambitious man and this is also brilliantly done in Gogol’s Dead Souls. Seen as one of the most important novels not just in Russian literature but beyond because although it is described as a poem it is ground breaking because it was the first major novel to come out of Russia and feels as fresh as fiction being written today. It was never really finished because of the author’s death and what you get is a complete first part and then some idea of what would have happened to the character as he developed him.
An ambitious man, Chichikov picks a small provincial town where a handful of rich landowners live to launch his plan to buy the lists of their dead peasants – the dead souls – so that while they still remain on the official census he can build himself up to be a gentleman owning hundreds of souls. He ingratiates himself with the landowners by runs into trouble when they start talking to each other but Chichikov seems so much more worldly wise and oils the wheels of bureaucracy with money that book one ends with him seeming to be triumphant. Book two includes the theme of repentance but just like Sorel in Scarlet and Black the regrets only come when the world has come crashing down and he ends up with nothing. It is interesting to see that the bribes that the clerks and officials take were a feature of Russian politics then and to some extent never really went away.
Is it well written?
I always believed that Dead Souls was mainly set in St Petersburg because of its reputation of Gogol’s description of the old Russian capital but in fact most of the action takes place in the country and the descriptions not just of places but also the various landowners he comes across sets up some of the literary stereotypes that crop up again in places like Dostoyevsky’s work. It is sometimes heavy going, because after all it conforms to the 19th century techniques of explaining all at the risk of the pace of the story, but is well worth reading if you are interested in Russian history and literature.
Should it be read?
Without a doubt if you ever go onto read anything by some of the Russian greats in literature this book and author are either name checked directly or the influence on the style is in evidence. This book had such a powerful effect on Russian literature and is at the same time a cutting satire on greed and the social ambitions of the wealthy that is remains relevant to a readership today.
The obvious next destination is Dostoyevsky, Pushkin’s Onegin, Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time and because of the similarities Scarlet and Black by Stendhal.
Version read – Penguin Classics paperback