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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.4 (2001) 365-388

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Chichikov's Chest:
Reality, Representation, and Infectious Storytelling in Dead Souls

John Lutz

But not such is the lot and different is the fate of the writer who has dared to bring out all the things that are before man's eyes at every minute, yet which his unheeding eyes see not--all that fearsome, overwhelming, slimy morass of minutiae that have bogged down our life, all that lurks within the cold, fragmented, workaday characters with which our earthly path, at times bitter and dreary, swarms. (Gogol, 128-29) 1

After finally convincing Korobochka to sell her dead serfs, Chichikov opens up his traveling chest to draw up the deed of purchase. The description that follows provides a detailed examination of its contents that discloses the narrator's anxiety about not providing a complete and thorough enough representation of his subject that will satisfy his readers. Suggesting that the description is a concession to the inquisitiveness of those readers who would want to know "even the plan and interior arrangement of this chest" (Gogol, 50), the narrator proceeds to describe every object that can be found in it. With its various compartments, narrow divisions, partitioned receptacles, lids, old ticket stubs, toiletries, and calling cards, Chichikov's chest can be viewed as a figure for the novel itself. Like the various receptacles that fit within each other and the plethora of disparate objects which fill the chest, Dead Souls contains stories within stories and subtle depictions of character and psychological motivation that derive their evocative power and immediacy from a meticulous cataloging of the social world. This compulsion to make an inventory of every object in the surrounding environment is a response to profound disturbances in the ideological representations of Russia's social world, a response which reveals a basic impulse driving the narrative to provide order and meaning to the complex and contradictory social reality that Russia had become as a result of Western cultural influences and fundamental changes taking place in its socioeconomic foundations. [End Page 365]

When Dead Souls was published in 1842, the emancipation of the serfs was only nineteen years in the future, and both industry and an internal market were beginning to develop. In addition, the early nineteenth century had witnessed a movement toward a unified domestic market that was hampered by geographic obstacles and poor forms of transportation (Dixon, 246). The economic development of Russian society was characterized by a blending of new forms with old ones, which created a permanent condition of social and economic instability. The radical indeterminacy of the object-world in Dead Souls arises out of the fundamental instability of a socioeconomic order still saddled with the legacy of the rigid and undemocratic feudal institutions that held sway under the Tsarist bureaucracy yet simultaneously under the influence of the cultural and economic forces of Western capitalism and the "everlasting uncertainty and agitation" (Marx, 38) that characterize their entrance onto the stage of history. The unique aesthetic form that Gogol pioneers in Dead Souls has its basis in the uneven economic development of Russian society. Despite its apparent solidity, Gogol's object-world dissolves into a plenitude of disorganized and fragmented things whose social meanings retain their stability only for an instant before being swept away by a textual process that continually undermines their inner cohesiveness. Becoming "antiquated before they can ossify" (Marx, 38), the social meanings attributed to objects in Gogol's universe are constantly "profaned" by the restless dissatisfaction with representation and the relentless revolutionizing of the written word that characterize the motivating force of the narrative.

During the latter half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the volume of Russian trade increased dramatically. As Edward C. Thaden aptly summarizes this process: "[i]mproved communications, population growth and the entrepreneurial initiative of a minority of Russian peasants, landowners, and merchants increased agricultural production as well as domestic and foreign trade" (32). However, by 1810 Russia had experienced a...