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Book Review

The Thought-compelling Grotesque – Dead Souls

The Thought-compelling Grotesque – Dead Souls


Written by: Nikolina Todorović
Translated by: Mihajlo Stojković


Two novels (…) will in some way draw two clear lines of European literature, and both of them have the ironic discourse at their foundation. One is drawn from the aforementioned Cervantes, harboring the figure of the grotesque which determines the structure of the novel, and which will several centuries later influence Gogol’s renowned novel Dead Souls, for Kafka to finally bring that poetry form to its apex.

This introductory quote by literature theorist Edin Pobrić speaks of two novels stemming from the renaissance which will highly influence the further development of literature. We are of course thinking about Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Cervantes’ novel, as we see in the quote, will find its adherents in Gogol’s and Kafka’s works, while Rabelais’ novel, which is characterized by the festive perception of the world, will reach its peak in the novels of Dostoevsky. Tvrtko Kulenović states the following regarding the two aforementioned novels:

The Spanish renaissance novel is Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”, just as the French renaissance novel is Rabelais’ “Gargantua and Pantagruel”. It is true that the former appeared significantly earlier than the latter. In the meantime, the renaissance has become more “serious”, and ponderous, but that is not the basis for the great difference between the two works, time is in no condition to cover such large a difference. (…) The French author, says Jean Cassou, battles satire by sword “it refutes stupidity and tyranny, and serves human freedom (…)” But Cervantes’ irony is something different: “It manifests and projects itself because not in a single moment in this genius adventure can the reader hold on to a conclusion, an answer, or take somebody’s side

Namely, it is a fact that both of the aforementioned novels are connected to the notion of the grotesque, however, what these two novels are explicitly different in is irony – the irony present in Don Quixote, and which cannot be discussed in Rabelais’ work, for the sole reason because Rabelais introduced a festive uniting experience in his novel, and hence there can be no mention of the ironic distance in his work. Additionally, Rabelais’ grotesque borders the burlesque, while the grotesque in Don Quixote borders caricature. Laughter is also an important subject, Rabelais’ laughter, owing to the festive perception, is cheerful and open, while laughter with the knight with the long face is a muffled one,a laugh containing humor, but that humor is eerie.. As we read Don Quixote, we realize that many things about the subject of our laughter are in fact gruesome.

To complete the resemblance, Sobakevitch’s long frockcoat and baggy trousers were of the precise colour of a bear’s hide, while, when shuffling across the floor, he made a criss-cross motion of the legs, and had, in addition, a constant habit of treading upon his companion’s toes. (…) Of his habit of treading upon other people’s toes Chichikov had become fully aware; wherefore he stepped cautiously, and, throughout, allowed his host to take the lead. As a matter of fact, Sobakevitch himself seemed conscious of his failing, for at intervals he would inquire: “I hope I have not hurt you?” and Chichikov, with a word of thanks, would reply that as yet he had sustained no injury.

However, it is certainly not the presence of comedy which makes these two descriptions grotesque. Above all else, something that the grotesque contains in itself is comical, and the novel Dead Souls is full of such examples, but the absolute comical cannot contain the grotesque. This further implies how we must observe the grotesque entirely from its elementary logic, and so we must also do the same for the comical and laughter in the grotesque descriptions. Surely, the best description of the reader’s experience of evolution while reading Dead Souls is provided by Mirko Magarašević:

By reading Gogol, we first laugh, then we take it seriously, and finally – if we try to fathom it out further and further we turn grim: the dreaded is but a step away from there.

In translation: that is how things are regarding laughter in Dead Souls because, even though we have the material for a comical situation, we are aware that that comical is only a step away from the tragic, and that it is truly laughter that is built in the sphere of the unusual and the gruesome or, more specifically – a muffled, frozen laughter. If we look deeper, it is certainly a mocking sneer which almost suggests that a chill will soon pass through us for what we were just laughing at because we are but a step away from laughter to the dreaded:

The so called “gallows humor” is closely related to the grotesque. The laughter we react with to a thief’s statement, who they are taking to the gallows on Monday: “still, this week is off to a good start.”

If we take into consideration the content of the novel, we could say that Dead Souls is a burlesque-grotesque narrated novel about the fate of a con artist and a world with a foot too deep into the material. Gogol is all the more a great author precisely because he uses his book to make his readers ponder a world in which it is possible for the plot of the novel to happen. Gogol’s world is an upside down one – it is a grotesque world because the tragic and comic elements merge in it, and by merging the two we produce the notion of disharmony and deformity.

We can take the disharmonious and deformity as the main characteristics of the grotesque. Moreover, it is necessary to define another term related to the grotesque – caricature. The analysis of caricature, which is closely related to the characters in Dead Souls, will lead us to the contention of Dead Souls being a grotesque novel which incites pondering. Owing to that, Tvrtko Kulenović states the following:

Gogol’s novel is not a tragedy, but it is more “dark” than Dostoevsky’s novel, it is not ideological, but it is philosophical in a certain merciless excluding kind of way. Gogol’s work is not about the people, it is about caricatures, it is about the “gallery of characters” which includes Chichikov, the likable combiner and fraud whom the author literary shapes and terms “a harnessed scoundrel”

Namely, as previously mentioned, Chichikov is the one enabling the notion of the grotesque in the novel Dead Souls.Chichikov appears, with his attributes, strikingly grotesque, especially if we take into account his ability, which Kulenović rightfully calls rotten – the ability to adapt to all people and every situation. Chichikov knows exactly what to say to people and how to entice them. The situations from the beginning of the novel are notable, where Chichikov manages to get on the good side of the city dignitaries during his very first visit.

Manilov — a man still in his prime, and possessed of a pair of eyes which, sweet as sugar, blinked whenever he laughed — find himself unable to make enough of his enchanter. (…) No matter what the conversation chanced to be about, he always contrived to maintain his part in the same. Did the discourse turn upon horse-breeding, upon horse-breeding he happened to be peculiarly well-qualified to speak (…) Did a reference occur to virtue, concerning virtue he hastened to deliver himself in a way which brought tears to every eye.

The same applies for the other characters, they are by no means moral nor do they rule over any ethical norms. They forget that they have a spirit that must be fed if they do not want become shadows. They are, to put it briefly, made from nature like people are, but they made caricatures out of themselves. Taking the nobleman Nozdrev as an example, by all means one of the most grotesque caricatures of this novel, the following quote should be read as one of the most bitter omnipresent truths:

The more he became friendly with a man, the sooner would he insult him, and be ready to spread calumnies as to his reputation. Yet all the while he would consider himself the insulted one’s friend, and, should he meet him again, would greet him in the most amicable style possible, and say, “You rascal, why have you given up coming to see me.” (…) Some may say that characters of his type have become extinct, that Nozdrevs no longer exist. Alas! such as say this will be wrong; for many a day must pass before the Nozdrevs will have disappeared from our ken. Everywhere they are to be seen in our midst—the only difference between the new and the old being a difference of garments. Persons of superficial observation are apt to consider that a man clad in a different coat is quite a different person from what he used to be.

Another notable example of the grotesque in the novel Dead Souls is the part where Chichikov visits General Betrishev asking for dead souls from him.:

“Well, I have thought of a plan. If you will hand me over all the dead souls on your estate—hand them over to me exactly as though they were still alive, and were purchasable property—I will offer them to the old man, and then he will leave me his fortune.”

At this point the General burst into a roar of laughter such as few can ever have heard. Half-dressed, he subsided into a chair, threw back his head, and guffawed until he came near to choking. In fact, the house shook with his merriment, so much so that the butler and his daughter came running into the room in alarm. (…)

“Those dead souls, eh? Why, in return for the jest I will give you some land as well. Yes, you can take the whole graveyard if you like. Ha, ha, ha!

It is clear from this example how gruesome Chichikov’s proposal is. It is gruesome to the point that it overpowers the General’s thunderous laughter. Namely, the readers recognize the grotesque in that laughter because they are directed at Chichikov’s undertaking, and it is he who encites chills.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that the characters in the novel were not stunned by what Chichikov asked of them. The grotesque is also seen in their stunned reactions:

“But may I ask HOW you desire to purchase those peasants?” asked Manilov. “With land, or merely as souls for transferment — that is to say, by themselves, and without any land?”

“I want the peasants themselves only,” replied Chichikov. “And I want dead ones at that.”

“What?—Excuse me, but I am a trifle deaf. Really, your words sound most strange!”

“All that I am proposing to do,” replied Chichikov, “is to purchase the dead peasants who, at the last census, were returned by you as alive.”

Manilov dropped his pipe on the floor, and sat gaping. Yes, the two friends who had just been discussing the joys of camaraderie sat staring at one another like the portraits which, of old, used to hang on opposite sides of a mirror.

It is impossible to shake the feeling how all the characters in this novel are grotesque in a dark and intimidating way, from the most frightened to the naive, the wise men and the unscrupulous because they are no more than a caricature. Manilov’s mouth agape and the long fixed looks of the two is a unique grotesque scene. Additionally, Chichikov’s scheme of gathering dead souls from the noblemen, while those souls are still referred to as alive because they have not yet been taken out of the book of life, is a clear metaphor for evil:

The non-existent ruling the world is what is evil: everyone knows that dead souls do not exist, but everyone behaves as they do so as to fulfill their little goals, and the fulfillment of those goals brought the invasion of the great evil

We live today with that great evil which was a foreseeable one for Gogol. That evil is none other than the rule of the external, the rule of that which, based on all sensibility, has absolutely no meaning, of that which we subjugated ourselves to and gave complete reign to (money is the best example of it). Kulenović also noticed that the inner norms will start to degrade, and the outer norms will grow to a phantasmagoric dimension.

With one notable grotesque in Dead Souls, Gogol radicalized the reality in which we live in today Manilov owns a pavilion for thought enclosed in a In a separate enclosure on his land. The aforementioned great grotesque suggests that the space for thought is not within us, within our minds, but if everything in the world is placed beyond us – why not thought as well?

The presence of the grotesque in Dead Souls is extremely important because it allows us to see the world through new eyes, and not just any world, but the world in which we live in at present.

The emotion we feel while reading Dead Souls is equal to what we feel every day in this spacious world.  The gallery of Gogol’s characters is a gallery of petty frauds and people with twisted ambitions. Owing to that, Dead souls is like a continuation of a picaresque novel about cunning and burlesque people travelling the world. Consequently, analysing the grotesque in Dead Souls is best finished with Chichikov’s fate which Gogol splendidly described as follows:

“Your Highness, I say that I will not leave this room until you have accorded me mercy!” cried Chichikov as he clung to the Prince’s leg with such tenacity that, frock coat and all, he began to be dragged along the floor.

“Away with him, I say!” once more the Prince exclaimed with the sort of indefinable aversion which one feels at the sight of a repulsive insect which he cannot summon up the courage to crush with his boot. So convulsively did the Prince shudder that Chichikov, clinging to his leg, received a kick on the nose. Yet still the prisoner retained his hold; until at length a couple of burly gendarmes tore him away and, grasping his arms, hurried him—pale, dishevelled, and in that strange, half-conscious condition into which a man sinks when he sees before him only the dark, terrible figure of death, the phantom which is so abhorrent to all our natures—from the building…

This description infers Kafka’s grotesque, one of Gogol’s successors: what are the options of a man who has by his sinister actions become one in the line of versatile caricatures, only to finish as some repulsive insect under the boot of a merciless system.

It is an undeniable fact that Gogol’s works are read as classics today. However, we must not forget that they are classics because every era and every new age is legitimised by them. Our time too is legitimised before Gogol, and most of all before Dead Souls and The Government Inspector.

Nikolina Todorović, Born in 1995 in Sarajevo. Student of Comparative literature master studies in Sarajevo. Graduated in 2018 with her Bachelor thesis “The Grotesque in Gogol’s Novel Dead Souls and play The Government Inspector”. Graduated from the Music high school in Sarajevo and therefore acquired the vocation of General Course Musician. One of her occupations are solo singing and performing various musical genres. She writes poetry, prose and essays. She published her work in all the more notable regional websites and journals. Furthermore, her poetry was incorporated in a few collaborative poetry collections of young authors and authoresses. She is currently occupied with the research for her Master’s thesis “Memory and Photography in Literature”

Translator Mihajlo Stojković – was born on the 20th of March 1998 in Pozarevac where he graduated from the High School of Economics and Commerce. Despite the fact it being a vocational school, he decided to continue his education at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, where he is currently a third-year student of the English Department. He participated and was a finalist in the English Department Short Story Competition. Upon finishing his studies, he wish to become an English language teacher and eventually write a book.

Translation edited by: Aleksandra Stojković



This article was published in March of 2019, within the Russian Libartes topic.

Read the other texts published in the Book Review section.

This article was originally published in Serbian and you can read it here. Translated into English by Mihajlo Stojković.

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