Comparison Essay on Dead Souls and Taras Bulba

I. The great achievement of prose of the XIX century (from the 1840s to the 1890s) was Russian Realism, which is represented by many great Russian writers and Nikolai Gogol is not the last in this list. It is often mentioned that after 1830 Pushkin turned more and more to prose, although being the greatest poet of the time. However, the writer who established really innovating novelistic and narrative tradition in Russian literary culture was Gogol. Gogol’s example, combined with the authoritative literary pronouncements of the greatest literary critic of the period, V. G. Belinsky, proved prose to be the literary medium of the future. Later, the great Russian novelist  (and not the worst philosopher of religious thought) Dostoevsky have said, referring to himself and his fellow Realists, “We have all come out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat”” (meaning the famous story by Gogol, “Shynel” or Overcoat).

Vladimir Nabokov highly esteemed Gogol as a great Russian (in no case Ukrainian, he is sure, in spite of the fact that Nikolaj Gogol-Ianovski originates from Ukraine, Mirgorod, and his world outlook is obviously marked by Ukrainian national tradition) novelist, dramatist, satirist, and founder of the so-called critical realism in Russian literature, best-known for his novel “Mertvye Dushy” (1842, Dead Souls). Praising the imaginative power and linguistic playfulness of the writer’s latest works (“Shynel” or Overcoat, “Mertvye Dushy” etc), Nabokov states that Gogol is everything but the romantic folklore novelist.

Actually, there can be defined two main periods in Gogol’s writing: conservative romantic and vernacular idealism of the Ukrainian past (which we find in Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and Taras Bulba) and the next evolutionary period of modernistic urban life reflection with all its psychological abnormality and deviations. If to believe Nabokov, in the mature age Gogol was ashamed of the playful artificialness of his early works; and as for the famous Russian critic, it is a dreadful nightmare even to imagine Gogol scribbling Ukrainian folkloristic novels volume by volume… Had he chosen this path, the world would have never heard his name. So, let’s compare these two antagonistic periods of Gogol’s writing corresponding to the most vividly representative works of his: “Taras Bulba” and “Dead Souls”.

II. Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, the book of Ukrainian folklore stories, which appeared in 1831-32, was Gogol’s breakthrough work (Gogol had greatly admired Pushkin, and he used in this work the same narrative device as Pushkin did in his Tales of Belkin). It showed his skill in mixing fantastic and demonic ideas of his people with macabre, and at the same time he said something crucial about the Russian and Ukrainian (ignoring Nabokov’s imperialistic snobbism, it is important to mark Gogol’s Ukrainian roots) character.

After failure as an assistant lecturer of world history at the University of St. Petersburg (1834-35), Gogol became a full-time writer. Under the title Mirgorod (1835) Gogol published a new collection of his stories, also inspired by Ukrainian vernacular culture, beginning with “Old-World Landowners”, which described the decay of the old way of life.

The book also included the famous historical tale (poem in prose) “Taras Bulba”, which according to many literary critics showed the influence of W.Scott and L.Stern. However, it is rather ignorant not to take into account the original Ukrainian novelistic tradition, which is widely based on folklore (Gulak-Artemovski, Kvitka-Osnovjanenko and many other writers of Ukrainian romanticism are evidently folkloristic). The protagonist of “Taras Bulba” is a strong, heroic character, absolutely non-typical for Gogol’s later cavalcade of bureaucrats, lunatics, swindlers, and losers, numerously represented on the pages of “Dead Souls”.

In 1569, dominion over the right-coast Ukraine passed to Poland.  The Polish lords (lyahy) promptly tried stamping out Ukrainian culture by savagely exploiting the peasantry, outlawing the Ukrainian language and imposing Catholicism (Unia) and Papal supremacy on the Orthodox population.  In response, Ukrainian male peasants flocked to join the military groups known as the Cossacks. They founded the Zaporizhian Sitch on the Hortycya Island.

The Cossacks, essentially a wild cross between mercenary crusaders and highwaymen, became the focus of resistance to the Poles, the Turks and the Crimean Tatars. Gogol’s novel tells the story of the old and wise warrior Taras Bulba who, with his sons Ostap and Andrij, sallies forth to join the Sitch. Gogol’s incontestably romantic adventure was as much a propaganda piece for his own time as an elegy for a way of life that had passed.  In “Taras Bulba” we meet conservative Gogol, who has just arrived to Petersburg and is not yet sophisticated in the city life. He is shocked by the corruption and moral decay of the city dwellers. He craves for the Golden Age of his people’s history and this age, he thinks, was the glorious times of the Zaporizhian Sitch.

“Taras Bulba” is a remarkable example of the early romantic Gogol (if to call Gogol the writer’s texts). However, this novel works on both levels (historical and pshycological, more typical for the later Gogol’s works) and is surely one of the most exciting masterpieces in world literature. Set sometime between the mid-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century, Gogol’s epic tale recounts both a bloody Cossack revolt against the Poles (led by the bold Taras Bulba of Ukrainian folk mythology) and the trials of Taras Bulba’s two sons.

As Robert Kaplan (translator) writes, “[Taras Bulba] has a Kiplingesque gusto . . . that makes it a pleasure to read, but central to its theme is an unredemptive, darkly evil violence that is far beyond anything that Kipling ever touched on. We need more works like Taras Bulba to better understand the emotional wellsprings of the threat we face today in places like the Middle East and Central Asia.” (Jane Grayson and Faith Wigzell; p.18). And the critic John Cournos has noted, “A clue to all Russian realism may be found in a Russian critic’s observation about Gogol: ‘Seldom has nature created a man so romantic in bent, yet so masterly in portraying all that is unromantic in life.’(The Rise of Prose: Nikolai Gogol).

But this statement does not cover the whole ground, for it is easy to see in almost all of Gogol’s work his “free Cossack soul” trying to break through the wall of gloomy and non-heroic ‘today’ like some ancient demon, essentially Dionysian. So, through the years, this novel sounds at once as a reproach, a protest, and a challenge, ever calling for joy, ancient joy, that is no more with us. This wide interpretation lies far beyond previously often-uttered accusation of vernacular populist romanticism.

Nikolai Gogol searched for the joy and sadness in the Ukrainian songs he loved so much. Ukrainian was to Gogol the language of the soul, and it was in Ukrainian songs rather than in old chronicles, of which he was not a little contemptuous, that he read the history of his people. So, here in this novel the writer’s intention is not the historical but rather the psychological picture of his people. Hence no one (even Nabokov) has the right to accuse Gogol of Ukrainian culture profanation as if following the modern literary trend of his time.

Indeed, so great was his enthusiasm for his own land that after collecting material for many years, the year 1833 finds him at work on a history of ‘poor Ukraine’, a work planned to take up six volumes; and writing to a friend at this time he promises to say much in it that has not been said before him. However, Gogol never wrote either his history of Little Russia (Malorosiya) or his universal history, he didn’t become Ukrainian Balzac but is often called Ukrainian Goffman or Poe.

Apart from several brief studies not always reliable, the result of his many years application to his scholarly projects was this brief epic in prose, Homeric in mood (The Rise of Prose: Nikolai Gogol). The sense of intense living, ‘living dangerously” – to cite Nietzsche – the recognition of courage as the greatest virtue, the God in man, inspired Gogol, living in times which tended toward grey monotony, with admiration for his more fortunate forefathers, who lived in a poetic time, when everything was won with the sword, when every one in his turn strove to be an active being and not a spectator. In “Taras Bulba” we find the people of action, and “Dead Souls” gives us the gallery of people of things.

Russia! Russia! I see you now, from my wondrous, beautiful past I behold you! How wretched, dispersed and uncomfortable everything is about you…

(Nikolai Gogol)

III. Gogol began working on “Dead Souls” in 1835. The plot and the main idea of the story was suggested to Gogol by Pushkin who seemed to have understood Gogol as a writer quite well. Pushkin felt that the idea of a man travelling all over the Russian Impire buying up the ownership rights to serfs who had died (‘mertvye dushy’) would allow Gogol to make at once the literary success. In fact, it was an opportunity to introduce a multitude of characters, varied settings, mountains of detail, and the scope within which to be able to elaborate the anecdotal story of the work to his heart’s content and to reveal all the sins of his contemporary. Gogol had big ideas of becoming a scriptor of his age a sort of Balzac…

For the next six years, he devoted almost all of his creative energy to “Dead Souls”. His compulsive craftsmanship is evident in that the entire work was revised at least five times; the author stated that some passages had been rewritten as many as twenty times. He felt that this novel should be his best one.Unfortunately, only the first part of Dead Souls, twelve chapters in all, was completed by Gogol. The second part, as we know it, (some chapters of which are often published with the first part) is a recreation from various sources of what Gogol might have done with the continuation of his work. Influenced by the fanatical priest Father Konstantinovskii, he burned what he actually had already written for the second part of the novel just nine days before his death.

The situation from which the novel develops is based upon a scheme which theoretically was possible in Gogol’s day. The government had a policy of loaning money to landowners, feeling that this class was its strongest support. Lands owned, however, were measured not in acres, but by the number of “souls” (serfs, or here, mertvye dushy) residing on them. De facto, landowners were serf owners… The government was ready to accept the land (that is, the serfs) of an individual as collateral for a loan. Thus, a method was required by which the holdings of an individual landowner could be established at any given time.

This method stated that an individual possessed the number of ‘souls’ recorded as such that belong to him/her in the most recent population census. The census was taken every ten years, which meant that near the end of the ten-year cycle almost every landowner would have some serfs who were not recorded in the preceding census because they had recently been born, and some serfs still recorded even though they had died long ago since the last census. In “Dead Souls”, the main character, Chichikov, schemes to buy from the serf holders a number of those “souls” who had died but were still counted as living until the next census.

An absurd situation becomes possible: dead souls are sold as being alive people, which ar estil able to work. “It’s cheap at the price. A rogue would cheat you, sell you some worthless rubbish instead of souls, but mine are as juicy as ripe nuts, all picked – they are all either craftsmen or sturdy peasants”, – Sobakievich boasts to his weird buyer (Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich). Once Chichikov had a number of such souls, he would apply to the government bank for a loan, using the “souls” as his collateral.

With this low-interest loan in hand he would then buy and work an actual country estate, eventually paying back the loan and purchasing living souls to work the land. Well, passing the whole plot, it is imporatnt to state Gogol’s idea of small marginal people actually decaying in their small towns and farms. The Russia of small towns is the country of odd and irreversibly narrow-minded people. What Gogol proves is that these small landowners are actually dead… They have burried themselves alive in their dirty stinking flea-bitten houses.

Contrudicting the wide-sprea yet contested idea of Gogol’s evolution as a writer, it is possible to say that either completing histoical heroic plot or conveying contemporary decayed society, Gogol’s intention stays the same – to show the depth of a human soul and how this soul can be filled with live brightness of heroism or by dead wickedness and miserable oddity.
Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich. Taras Bulba and Other Tales. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library//

Nikolay Gogol: Text and Context, ed. by Jane Grayson and Faith Wigzell (1989).

N. V. Nabokov: Nicolai Gogol, 1944.

The Rise of Prose: Nikolai Gogol//

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