Franz Kafka

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Nikolai Gogol's 'Dead Souls': Russia and Poshlost, the picaresque odissey of Chichikov

In his 'Dead Souls', Nikolai Gogol recounts the journey of a small bourgeois, Chichikov, through remote provinces of eighteen-century Russia, in his quest for the acquisition of dead serfs' names that were still registered in the census as taxable assets for their proprietors' accounts. While the story line is well known and the satirical and merciless rendering of Russian society paints a vivid fresco that is not bound to fall into oblivion anytime soon, there's still much to research, in order to unearth the complexities  of this "epic poem in Prose" and bring them to light.

Chichikov in the house of M.me Korobochka.
With the exception of the protagonist, none of the characters that we encounter along the way are truly alive: neither Sobakevich, Manilov, Korobochka, Nozdryov, nor any of the other grotesque silhouettes, not even the tragic Plyushkin perhaps; they only appear real - in their neurotic habits, in the exterior, whimsical toiling of their pathetic daily struggles - thanks to the narrator's astonishing, golden craftsmanship. In Gogol's majestic depiction, only mother nature is intrinsically alive: the animals, the eternal steppe, the boundless skies... Chichikov alone is engaged in a quest to change his own destiny, albeit through cheat, deceive, greed, cynicism. He indeed cherished the right aspirations  of forming his own family, achieving social recognition, prestige and wealth - himself, a cast-out with no familiar or social ties, lacking means and opportunities.

It is believed that Gogol intended to offer his anti-hero a possibility of redemption in the second part of 'Dead Souls', the continuation that he had envisioned in his literary design, whose manuscript was burnt by the author in the crepuscular days of his life. If we rule out the hypothesis of some sort of dissatisfaction of strictly literary nature, then the act of burning itself was indeed the missing conclusion of this masterpiece - perfectly unfinished. 

Could Chichikov have only encountered absurdity, nothingness and 'poshlost', for no truly meaningful or noteworthy things existed amongst the community of men or within the grasp of human existence? Burning the manuscript, was it an artistic statement in itself? Or was it only an act of human despair, at the time the end was closing down on the writer's body? No one will ever know, at least not until the very moment a soul reaches out to grim death.

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