Susanne Fusso
Designing Dead Souls

The townspeople are compared to a schoolboy whom his mischievous friends have awakened by sruffing a paper filled with snuff—a 'hussar'—up his nose. The schoolboy's awakening and momentary confusion is followed by a flash of heightened perception. This perception is at first limited to his immediate surroundings but gradually takes in such a detailed view from the window that he would seem to be endowed with a temporary clairvoyance, only to return to the most immediate and intimate location, his own nose:
He can't understand where he is, who he is, what has happened to him, and only after a moment does he begin to make out the walls lit up by the slanting rays of the sun, the laughter of his comrades, who have hidden themselves in the corners, and the new morning looking in the window, with the awakened forest resounding with thousands of bird voices, and the illuminated creek, which here and there disappears in twists and turns between the slender reeds and is strewn with bare little boys, who beckon their friends to come swimming, and only then does he finally feel that a hussar is sitting in his nose. (6: 189)
A version of this sequence (unconsciousness—heightened consciousness—self-consciousness) is reflected in the reception of the dead-souls mystery of the townspeople, who are awakened out of their sleep of moral complacency. In the course of their quest for meaning, their vague, buried guilt for past misdeeds becomes actively disturbing, if still strangely ephemeral: 'Everyone suddenly found in himself such sins as had never even existed' (6: 193).

Like Chichikov's 'dead souls,' Gogol's Dead Souls presents a surface of normality. The novel seemed to its original audience, and has continued to seem, like a representation of everyday life. The kaleidoscope of names and details, combined with the narrator's assertions about the universality of the character types he describes, gives a surface impression of a faithfully observed world. The distortions and exaggerations in style, character, and plot, however, soon set the reader adrift from the mundane and familiar. One of Gogol's contemporaries expressed the sense of chronological disorientation: 'Sometimes you think he is describing some distant past, known to us in legends; but meanwhile a conversation about 1812, [an allusion to] the governor-general, and other passages show that he wanted to depict Russia in its present-day aspect.' The narrator anticipates that the ambiguity of his hero will produce in the reader the same reaction that 'dead souls' produced in the townspeople: an urgent desire for a final, simple solution, 'a conclusive definition by a single feature' ('zakliuchitel'noe opredelenie odnoi chertoiu'; 6: 241). This he refuses to give; instead we are offered another parable, the virtually uninterpretable tale of Kifa Mokievich and Mokii Kifovich, followed by a troika speeding off into the distance, taking our desire for completion with it.

The narrator of Dead Souls insists that his readers find themselves in his parable: 'Now the current generation sees everything clearly; it is amazed at the errors, laughs at the folly, of its ancestors, not perceiving that this chronicle has been inscribed by heavenly fire, that each letter in it cries out that from every quarter a piercing finger is pointed at it, at it, at the current generation' (6: 211). Jesus, too, ties the fulfillment of his prophecy to its contemporary audience: 'Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled' (Luke 21: 32). In both cases, the effect of the pointed finger is not to isolate the message in time but to render it timeless; each successive generation of readers is intended to include itself among the current generation. For the parable to be turned inward upon its hearers, it must remain enigmatic. There are mysterious hints throughout Dead Souls that Chichikov, the inveterate con man, will be redeemed. These hints necessarily provoke the question How could he possibly be redeemed? Because he is not alone in his crimes but is constantly portrayed as a member of a collective, the question becomes How can they be redeemed? and, ultimately, How can we?

The promissory closure of Dead Souls protects the status of the text as a parable or riddle that eternally escapes the last word.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.