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Do you think Dead Souls has a plot? Does a novel need a plot to have a greater significance or meaning? If so, what is it about a cohesive story line that allows for readers to extract meaning from it? If not, what are the elements of a story (specifically Dead Souls) that make it meaningful? And please consider the concept of the “picaresque novel” as you wonder aloud: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picaresque.

For more on Gogol’s laughter through tears check out Charlie Chaplin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiyPgtYiGxI&feature=related

18 Responses to “Gogol’s Dead Souls”

  1. Margaret Fulford says:

    I agree with Brandt in that a plot does not need to necessarily follow the typical rising action, climax, conclusion model that is so familiar to us; instead, as Gogol and other authors have displayed in their works of literature, a plot can be simply a story with perhaps an underlying structure, motive or aptly-named “plot device.” Chichikov’s quest to acquire the “dead souls” is all that is necessary in terms of background motive for Gogol to have the excuse to introduce all of his eccentric characters. While the novel is named for the dead souls and the plot is driven on by this story, I do not think that Gogol’s main goal was to talk about that “plot.” He spends far more time describing the characters and having fun manipulating them and making them human, eccentric, and irrefutably Russian. He wished to describe and display the Russian countryside, and Chichikov’s quest is little more than a reason that he came up with to do so.

  2. Vanda Gaidamovic says:

    At the first glimpse one can think that the storyline lacks an unfolding series of actions, and thus, the plot seems to be missing. Yet if the plot can be defined as a coherent link connecting various miniature elements of the story, and if that single link is a protagonist, Chichikov in this case – then this novel has a plot. The author is sketching very accurate and vivid portraits of the secondary characters, and together they form one logical entity, like beads, and the string keeping them tightly related is Chichikov.
    A piece of literature does not necessarily have to have a plot. One of the most remarkable books I have read was a collection of short stories by Bruno Schultz, ‘The Cinnamon stores’, in which the anachronistic order of the stories made the impression of a static collection of altered and embellished childhood memories, an album of random snapshots cut off from their original context, rather than a fluent, dynamic unfolding ‘video’ history. Yet the recurring characters added the sense of unity and enabled to engage in curious anticipation, just like the novel with the clearly identifiable plot.
    I agree with Katherine as to the extent to which Dead Souls resembles features of the picaresque novel. While Chichikov and Picaro certainly share common characteristics, such as the element of unsettledness, amorality, fraud, Dead Souls seem to me much more bitter and darker than other works of this type.

  3. Laura Howard says:

    With a main character, a setting, supporting characters, and a conflict, Dead Souls definitely has a plot. Whether or not a novel needs a plot is a different and difficult question altogether. As I try to think of different novels I’ve read and whether or not they have a plot, my first thought comes to My Antonia, by Willa Cather. Though it was a while since I read the book, I remember characters and settings, but cannot remember a conflict, which makes me think that possibly there was no conflict, or that the conflict was not expressed very clearly, or that the conflict was not dramatic at all.
    The reason that Dead Souls, then, is a meaningful story is that it has a very clear conflict. The “hero” is on a mission, but some people are keen to prevent him from achieving his goal. The landowners, both bumbling and suspicious, along with the gossipy townsfolk, come together to question his actions and in doing so provide intrigue in addition to the conflict. The reader is entranced by the story – he or she wants to know: will the “hero” come out the winner? The answer should be “yes”, because in most picaresque novels, the reader is meant to be rooting for the “hero”. This is surely the case in Tom Jones. In Chichkov’s case, however, I am not sure if I am on his side. I am not familiar with the Russian way of life, which makes it difficult for me to interpret the characters and their actions. The way Gogol describes Chichikov, for instance, leads me to uncertainty about whether his “wheelings and dealings” are actually legitimate and not suspicious activities. Hopefully, more in-depth discussion of the novel will make these uncertainties more clear.

  4. Katherine Burdine says:

    Does Dead Souls have a plot? Yes, of course. The hero wanders the countryside with a specific goal in mind, and the plot centers on the means he employs to go about pursuing his goal. It is true that this novel lacks some features commonly found in such works; for one the reader begins the book in media res and only at the end of volume I does she get a clear picture of what Chichikov is actually up to and why. There are no passages dedicated specifically to plot exposition.

    No, I do not believe that a novel needs a cohesive plot in order to be meaningful. Images, symbols, characterizations, and the presentation of ideas all serve to give a text meaning, whether or not they are attached to a cohesive plot. Different kinds of internal logic can link a book together. Similar motifs, a repeating image, the logic of a certain character can all lent a text cohesion absent a traditional plot.

    I can see the similarities between Dead Souls and the picaresque novel. Chichikov shares many of the characteristics of the picaro. He wanders, and the point of his quest is very slow to clarify. On his travels he meets a fascinating cast of characters. He is of questionable moral standing, unscrupulous if not worse. On the other hand, Dead Souls is rather less lighthearted than your average picaresque tale. The satire is biting and there is a distinct flavor of the grotesque.

  5. Melody Wang says:

    Dead Soul certainly has a plot, and just as Romany has noted, it is only that the narrative arrangement of the events in the Dead Souls is not ordered chronologically. Despite the episodic structure of the novel, a prominent element of a picaresque literary genre, the novel still provide a general framework for the exposition of various characterizations, themes, goal, and etc. I understand the novel to be episodic in that there are many sub-plots which ultimately enhances the work’s unity. More specifically speaking, even though there are often narrative digressions and seemingly inconsequential details that temporarily divert from the chronological course of Chichikov’s journey; Chichikov’s successive encounters with different landowners still serves as a general ground for the entire novel, hence possessing an unity. Furthermore, the plot of Deal Soul is especially significant in the sense that it gives the author/narrator more flexibility and variety with their chronology and subject matters. For instance, the narrator in Deal Soul is free to intrude into the narrative and address the reader directly. In the beginning of Chapter VI, the narrator suspends the epic account of “our hero,” and moves to his own autobiographical anecdote of his youthful days. Essentially speaking, the narrator is conscious of asserting his own voice and personality into the novel.

  6. Bryanna Kleber says:

    In the Introduction to Dead Souls, which was written by one of the translators, Richard Pevear, we are told that Gogol designed the title page for the first edition. The largest and most prominent thing that Gogol included on this page was the word, “Poema,” the Russian word for narrative poem. A narrative poem, by definition, is a writing that has a plot. Thus, we know that Gogol intended for Dead Souls to have a plot.
    How well he followed that description is arguably questionable with regards to what we have read thus read. Thus far, we have gotten a plethora of character analysis and sketching. Everybody who Chichikov encounters and meets with is described by the narrator. This follows the style that we witnessed in Gogol’s two shorter stories, The Nose and The Overcoat. Both of these stories were used to paint pictures of the characteristics of people and society.
    A plot is introduced when Chichikov begins to attempt to acquire dead souls. He has a reason for wanting them, and he sets out to accomplish this goal of his. But, in his attempts to do this, many more characters are introduced and illustrated. The plot is very drawn out and slow moving, which makes it fade away and become less noticeable. It takes second priority to the characters. I don’t think that the main goal of Gogol was to develop a plot for Dead Souls. I think the plot that developed sort of came as a by product of what he really wanted to do, which was develop characters.

  7. Benjamin Kingstone says:

    In their introduction of Dead Souls, Peaver and Volokhonsky discuss at length the title page that Gogol created for the novel’s first publication. The word, “Poema,”leaping out of the background–“in the largest letters of all” (vii)– illustrated Gogol’s intention that his work be considered as a narrative poem.
    Given the literary figures that likely inspired Gogol, this seems apt. Nabokov frequently mentioned to his students how Gogol aspired to create an Odyssey for Chichikov. Dead Souls more closely resembles the something like Don Quixote. Both narratives–The Odyssey and Don Quixote–have plots. They are linear and episodic, but they have a basic forward momentum through cycles of events. Gogol’s ability to one, parody the genre, and two, entertain us, is inspiring. The encounters between characters reveals so much about the quirky qualities of each (like “poshlost” with Chichikov as attempts to buy his way into aristocracy). It is difficult, of course, to take seriously, but I think Gogol’s goal was a lighter one (if you neglect the fact that he burnt the second half of the novel and left us with an unfinished product).

  8. Brandt Silver-Korn says:

    Like some have already stated, I do believe that there is a plot to Gogol’s Dead Souls, and it is Chichikov’s repeated attempts at acquiring dead souls. A plot does not necessarily have to have a rising action, climax, etc…but rather, must have some underlying story or purpose that provides structure. Like Romany says, this structure need not be chronological. To me, this simple structure allows Gogol to pursue a unique agenda without evoking a sense of chaos. Since the structure is very cohesive (as Beyer mentions), we can focus on the peripheral elements that must have been the Gogol’s intent (I do not imagine many read through Dead Souls with the “plot” of acquiring dead souls as the primary focus.) So what are these peripheral (or not so peripheral since we are to focus on them) elements? I think Dead Souls is a combination of the Picaresque novel and the Psychological novel (something Alexandra mentioned). On the one hand, we certainly have a “rogue” “hero” in a “satirical” setting as Chichikov is driven by an absurd concept that throughout his journey, allows for an ironically realistic and mocking depiction of various individuals. The bubbly and oh so willing to please Manilov, the hilariously vile and hypocritical Nozdryov, etc…But at the same time, it is a psychological novel on two levels as we 1) are spurned by our own curiosity to try and understand what is going on in Chichikov’s head and figure out what his motives are, and 2) make sense of the narrator’s own forced interaction with us, the reader. I do not think the responsibility of the “greater significance or meaning” falls in the hands of the plot, but rather the novel itself. If an author can inject significance with an absurd plot line, it seems to me all the more intriguing.

  9. Kelsey says:

    Most novels and stories are plot-driven, with the plot the most important structural element and attention grabber. In “Dead Souls”, Gogol is writing a different sort of book. Out of all the elements that compose a novel, the plot in “Dead Souls” is a low priority compared to description, characters, and flow of language, among other things. “Dead Souls'” plot proceeds at such a slow pace that we realize that that’s not what we’re supposed to be paying attention too, that the point is to enjoy the rest of the writing. If this were a normal novel, we would have known why Chichikov is buying dead souls by the second chapter at the latest. I think once you figure out that the plot is not going to provide the interest and drive in the story, “Dead Souls” is a great read- there is so much depth to character, landscape, and situation descriptions not to mention a dastardly portrayal of what Gogol may have thought of his contemporary Russia. Once I started thinking of it as more of a prose-poem and less of a novel, “Dead Souls” was more understandable and enjoyable.

  10. Emily de Koning says:

    I agree with Anna, Sarah and Rouan that there does not seem to be an apparent plot to this story, instead we are lead through a series of episodes in which our hero has as distinct goal in mind. The leading thread of this story is Chichikov’s attempts to buy souls from the various people he encounters. The ambiguous nature of our hero’ true intentions also draw a reader into the development of the action.

    I personally do not believe that at plot is essential to a novel; rather, in some tales the characters themselves become the story. So it is in this case where we are introduced to a series of strange and fascinating characters. It is also interesting to observe how the setting of each of the homes reflects their owner. When Chichikov visits Sobakevich the narrator, upon describing the setting of the room, says “everything was solid, clumsy in the highest degree, and bore some strange resemblance to the master of the house himself;” We see this trend repeat itself every time Chichokov visits someone’s home; the objects, their physical appearance and state, and the house itself reveal to us the nature of the characters even before they are introduced, the home becomes is a mirror of its owner.

  11. Russell Jacobs says:

    So far, the novel’s plot is composed of a series of interactions between Chichikov and the landowners of the greater “Town of N.” area. Chichikov moves from estate to estate attempting to buy up dead souls, which drives the mysterious undertone of his personal story, and although I’m certainly curious as to how he’s going to turn a profit, that might not be the most compelling narrative in “Dead Souls.” The really vibrant pieces are the vignettes themselves in which we get humorous, immensely detailed character portraits of the town’s outlying estate owners. “Dead Souls” seems itself, like Chichikov’s list of “dead souls,” to be a catalog of the various types of Russians, caricatured no doubt, but incredibly rich and probably reflective of what Gogol sees as real contemporary characteristics. The narrator makes constant appeals to the reader’s understanding of the various “types” of Russians and represents their quirks and other qualities. I think that Gogol, through these portraits, is attempting to make a broader portrait of Russia (and, of course, “the russian”). He gives the town and the inn the Russian equivalent of an “anywhere USA” feel, describing the establishment in which Chichikov lodges in terms of features that “every traveler knows very well” and states that the town N. “yielded in nothing to other provincial towns” describing the physical environment as incredibly varied to the point of being non-specific (“clustered together” in some places, “wide as a field” in others). Chichikov, too, eludes specific description; he is “not handsome, but also not bad-looking, neither too fat nor too thin; you could not have said he was old, yet neither was he all that young.” The landowners, by contrast, are incredibly rich in their rendering. We get to see their flaws, their most grotesque and quirky qualities. The walls of their houses are filled, variously, with portraits from Russian and Greek history that give the landowners further depth. The whole thing seems to be gradually composing a statement about the human soul (meaning who a person is). Is the title implying in some thinly veiled double entendre that all of the characters in the novel are “dead souls?” That seems a simplification, perhaps. So far Chichikov’s singular moment of reverence for another character has come when a nondescript female rides by him and inspires awe simply by not having any locked-in qualities yet. Are Russians, to Gogol, too laden with experiences and history? These are the questions the “survey”-like construction of “Dead Souls” facilitates the exploration of, in my opinion.

  12. Romany Redman says:

    Yes, Dead Souls has a plot, but the ostensible plot is not chronological. The reader learns only in the end of part one as explanation for Chichikov’s character of his origin’s and history in different government services.However, the plot development of the reader’s relationship to the question of human morality progresses in a premeditated way.
    Initially, the author’s preface primes his audience for a tale about the “commonplace Russian individual” with a “purpose of demonstrating our national weaknesses and short comings”, followed with a call for reader critique and participation in the tale, in considering the actions of the protagonist and minor characters and analyzing their behaviors. Before we know it, we ourselves are caught up in the events related to Chichikov’s backwards quest for wealth. We are both curious to know the outcomes of the agreements and the results of the ridiculous abduction allegations as well as thrown back and forth between conspiracy theories and doubts of Chichikov’s intentions. Carried away by the detailed caricatures and ironic descriptions, the reader begins to overlook the absurdity of the original premise: buying dead souls! Just as soon as this transition seems to have been made complete, Gogol knocks us back with a renewed description of Chichikov’s plans as well as a moral challenge: “Is there not in ME an element of Chichikov?”, ultimately the climax of this social commentary.

  13. Flora Weeks says:

    I agree with much of what has already been said about there being an underlying, slow-developing plot of Chichikov’s collection of dead souls. However, since this is not the main focus of the novel, and not something I imagine Gogol was intending as a device to draw readers into the book, it is still relevant to ask what a novel is without a plot. I, personally, tend to believe that a novel needs a plot in order to be a novel, largely because it is the progress along this plotline that creates suspense and prompts the reader to continue. Even if the plotline doesn’t present greater meaning, it is likely to be the entertainment factor that keeps the book interesting. One other aspect of a good novel, that brings entertainment value and meaning is character development. When an author allows the reader to get to know the character well and relate to the character, the reader is much more likely to extract meaning from the novel. What is hard in Dead Souls is that even though we see Chichikov interacting with a number of people, and learn that he is an “agreeable” man, we know nothing about his back-story, or why he wants to purchase dead souls. However, by not allowing readers to learn more about Chichikov from the beginning, we get to know him more as a “picaresque” hero. He is an outsider, who has a unique mission, and unique view of society. This allows the reader to clearly see the humor and corruption in common society.

  14. Juan Machado says:

    I think it’s possible to see Dead Souls not only as a picaresque novel, but also as a picturesque novel, where picturesque is defined as “resembling or worthy of a picture or painting; having the qualities of a picture or painting.” There seems to be no cohesive plot in the novel, but one could summarize the action in the work as the adventures of an unlikely hero on an unlikely quest (the picaresque element). On these adventures, however, Chichikov and the reader explore this provincial village that remains unnamed and learn about its officials and landowners in minute detail (the picturesque element). Gogol describes the character’s physical and behavior attributes in such great detail that the reader, even a reader in the 21st century, believes he has a very good understanding of what life in a Russian provincial town at the time was like. This portrayal strikes the reader as realistic, but it’s impossible to tell how accurate Gogol’s “painting” is, considering that he spent most of his life outside of Russia.

  15. Anna Mackey says:

    I agree with both Sarah and Rouan that the basic plotline is Chichikov’s attempted acquisition of dead souls, and what really elevates the story are his personal interactions with other characters. Gogol even implores the reader to have patience, that although this story might not follow the familiar formula of an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, it is still a “tale, a very long one, which is to expand more widely and vastly later on, as it nears the end that crowns the matter” (16). The tale is expanded through the previously mentioned encounters that illuminate the duel meaning of “dead souls”, as the characters convey the qualities of their own souls such as stupidity, greed, distrust, and volatility. The satirical nature, detailed and seemingly realistic descriptions, and personal characteristics of Chichikov do all seem to fit under the umbrella of a Picaresque novel, and I am interested to see how our protagonist evolves.

  16. Alexandra Siega says:

    I think that the value of Dead Souls derives from Gogol’s innovative combination of humor and psychology. The humor is not as overt as in his short stories, where a great amount of the humor comes from the absolutely absurd and exaggerated plot lines. However, the character descriptions still contain strong elements of tongue and cheek. I found the depiction of Plyushin in Chapter Six absolutely hilarious: I could not stop laughing through the whole of the debate of Plyushkin’s gender, which continued right up until Plyushkin himself had to declare to Chichikov that he was in fact that master of the estate. The reactions of each of the landowners to Chichikov’s proposition (the sale of “dead souls”) are equally entertaining, ranging from the consideration of Chichikov as a savior (Plyushkin) to the violent rejection that turns into a physical fight (Nozdryov).

    Along with Gogol’s humorous style, I am enjoying Dead Souls because of the psychology prevalent in his description of each character, and while I definitely see elements of the picaresque novel, I see many elements of the psychological novel within Dead Souls. I was particularly struck by the great parallel between the characters Chichikov and Pechorin, protagonist of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. The episodic nature of the two novels allows for the evolution of the protagonists’ personalities. In Dead Souls, Chichikov’s evolution directly contrasts with Gogol’s full disclosure of other characters’ traits, mostly before any of the action between Chichikov and the landowner starts. This way, Chichikov’s environment is crystal clear to the reader, which offsets in a dramatic way the mysterious quest of the mysterious protagonist. I view Chichikov similarly to how I viewed Pechorin: as a puzzle. Through each visit, I discover more and more of the missing pieces of Chichikov’s nature as I read on. Hopefully Dead Souls will culminate in a revelation of Chichikov’s true intent; we were not as fortunate to have such insight into Pechorin’s character.

  17. Rouan Yao says:

    There is a plot to the story in the fact that Chichikov has a goal in buying his “dead souls” from landowners, and gets closer (or not) to his goal with each character he visits. In the story, Chichikov’s adventures follow a coherent flow of actions, however simple they may be. However, reading the first six chapters of Gogol’s work, it becomes quickly evident that the plot was not what was originally intended to stand out in this work. Although the initial surprise of Chichikov’s goal is intriguing to the reader, it is not the protagonist’s tact which allures readers to the novel. Rather, the amusement is derived from the comical interpretations of the characters that Chichikov interacts with, each representing another aspect of society on which, as Sarah has previously mentioned, Gogol provides social commentary. The colourful caricatures, which Gogol uses as a backdrop to Chichikov’s odd quest, along with the episodal format which the story takes, show that Dead Souls bears a strong resemblance to the Picturesque Novel.

  18. Sarah Bellingham says:

    There does not seem to be any rising action that I would consider to announce a plotline. However, there is a stream of sequential events that are all tied together by one character with one goal. As Chichikov travels around this rural community searching for “dead souls” to accumulate, his interactions with his various new neighbors (if they can be called that with the distances between them) vary. At least in my opinion, this is where the value of the story so far lies. We see Chichikov use astonishing tact to extricate what he wants out of various characters. His attempts to coerce them, and their reactions to his subtleties, are a reflection on people’s interactions in the read world. We might look at each human encounter as an exchange of sorts: one person wants something, the other reacts to this want by giving or denying what the first asks for. Some of the characters see benefit for Chichikov, so they give him their dead souls. Others see potential benefit for themselves, so they raise the prices. Nozdryov refuses Chichikov the souls, yelling, “I’ll bet my head you’re lying!” to Chichikov’s explanations as to why he needed the souls (77). Therefore, Gogol is giving significance and meaning without even having a typical plotline by means of his social commentary and mockery.

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