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In Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, the character flaws and business dealings of two landowners illustrate the novel’s message about human values. The first two characters with which the reader becomes acquainted, Manilov and Korobochka, display disregard for the well-being of others. Manilov’s lack of concern stems from a careless attitude, but Korobochka is a blatantly selfish recluse. The author symbolically portrays these traits in his descriptions of the two estates, the two landowners, and their reactions to Chichikov’s proposal. This symbolism is aimed at guiding the reader to a conclusion about the importance of concerning oneself with those who surround us.
Manilov’s careless stupidity is characterized in Chichikov’s travels to “Manilovka.” The directions that Manilov gives to Chichikov are far from being correct, which thoroughly frustrates Chichikov. In fact, as the narrator points out, “had it not been for two muzhiks they met, things would hardly have gone well for them” (19). This is symbolic of Manilov’s character, and leads the reader to believe that he is extremely careless in his dealings with others. Although simple in nature, this representation of Manilov is quite effective. The author plays on the assumption that his audience would naturally be more careful when providing directions to an out-of-town guest of honor. The reader can place himself in Chichikov’s position and completely understand the frustration that he must have been feeling.
We also read about Manilov’s house, in which “something is eternally lacking” (22). For example, some of the rooms in the house don’t have furniture in them at all. In the rooms that do, there is fine furniture lying around without upholstery. Gogol’s description of the house paints a picture of careless neglect. The reader can assume that the entire estate is in similar disarray and this plays on the developing impressions of Manilov. The reader begins to see Manilov as a lazy and ineffective landowner. This mismanagement is due to the dreamily careless nature of Manilov himself. The narrator points out that the misguided landowner was not occupied at all with the management of his estate. He rarely went out into the fields, and “management somehow took care of itself” (22). The reader quickly becomes acquainted with a landowner who is constantly lost in thought, although no one seems to know what about. Manilov “manages” his estate while smoking a pipe on the back porch, where he comes up with whimsical projects that never advance further than being spoken about.
Manilov and his wife seem to be living in some fantasy world where they assume the roles of a happily married couple; however, in doing so they neglect the duties of running a household. We read that the cooking is done “stupidly and witlessly”, all the servants are “slovenly and drunk”, and the housekeeper is a “thief” (23). And yet, amid all of this inefficiency, we learn that Manilov and his wife spend a lot of time in town trying to meet new educated people. Perhaps, it is suggested, their time would be better spent at home re-organizing their estate’s affairs. It is this lack of concern and effort that characterizes Manilov’s whole life. He does not even know how many peasants he owns, or how many have died since the last census. He is failing miserably at running his estate, and yet he seems ignorant about this important problem. By describing the negative characteristics of Manilov, Gogol teaches his audience about the importance of working to organize one’s life. In this manner, the author masterfully points out the effects of Manilov’s neglectful character, and thus allows the reader to pick up on Gogol’s lesson.
Manilov’s reaction to Chichikov’s proposal is also characteristic of his whimsical stupidity: the whole process seems ridiculous. Manilov begins by insisting on several unnecessary formalities which he has mentally linked with “doing business.” We read about the scatterbrained replies to Chichikov’s inquiries about the census reports, and then later of Manilov’s confused silence: “so he remained with gaping mouth for the course of several minutes” (31,32). He is so stumped that Chichikov is forced to walk him through the process. However, it should be noted that he never really gives Manilov a good explanation for his design. After a while, Chichikov simply tells Manilov that the whole proposition is a “good thing.” Manilov’s reply perfectly shows his ignorant personality: “Ah, if it’s good, that’s another matter: I have nothing against it” (33).
All that was required of Chichikov was to say that it was a good thing, and Manilov agrees without hesitation. He readily gives away his “dead souls” simply for the sake of friendship. From this, the reader can draw the conclusion that Manilov does not always consider the ramifications of his decisions on those for whom he is responsible. In Chichikov’s ordeal with Manilov, Gogol shows his audience the basic characteristics of an ignorant and neglectful person. This makes it possible for the readers to identify and avoid similar traits in their own lives.
Korobochka, unlike Manilov, does think through her decisions, but she has a different character flaw that hinders her ability to be considerate of others. Just as the road to Manilovka is symbolic of the landowner Manilov, we can again see symbolism in Chichikov’s travels; this time, he is on his way to Korobochka’s estate. This section of our main character’s travels is far more inconvenient than his first: whereas only Chichikov’s patience was strained on the way to Manilov’s, he encounters physical discomfort on his way to Korobochka’s. The dark, rainy, and muddy weather through which Chichikov must travel is a foreboding symbol of the estate to which they are riding. Even as they approach the estate itself, the weary travelers cannot see their destination. The author has created a dark and miserable atmosphere which will surround Korobochka and her estate during the entire visit. The reader is led to believe that this is an unpleasant estate – a condition for which the landowner is ultimately responsible.
We learn a great deal about Korobochka’s character through her first interactions with Chichikov. She seems to be the opposite of the landowner Manilov. He is described as amiable and pleasant, and we learn that he is willing to give part of his estate in return for friendship. Korobochka, in contrast, is a secluded widow who is ignorant of the world around her. This is evidenced by her inability to name her neighboring landowners. She is obviously not interested in aiding a needy stranger, unless there is something to be gained in return. For example, even knowing that the weather is terrible, Korobochka refuses to open her home to strangers in need of shelter until she hears that Chichikov is a “nobleman” (41). The rather indifferent attitude with which she greeted her visitors immediately disappears, and the services of her hired help are offered to Chichikov. The housekeeper is asked to make a bed and then to take the guest’s clothes, “dry them first in front of the fire” (44), and then brush them off. The only thing that changes Korobochka’s mind is her perception of the lost traveler. She would not entertain a common person, but a nobleman is worth the effort. It is obvious to the reader that Gogol believes that kindness should be shown irrespective of social class.
It is this stale goodness that continues to reveal itself in Korobochka’s business dealings with Chichikov. Like Manilov, Korobochka does not fully comprehend what Chichikov is proposing. Even after explaining the process in great detail, she is hesitant to sell her “dead souls.” We read that she is at first concerned about what the benefit, or harm, to her might be. Her thought process is, however, quite different than her actual words. She wonders about the profitability of the proposal, but feigns ignorance in business dealings in order to provide a source for her hesitancy (50,51). Similar to the way in which Manilov readily gives up his “dead souls” for the sake of friendship, Korobochka immediately agrees to sell her “dead souls” once she is made to believe that Chichikov is a government contractor (52). She even pointedly extends an even greater degree of hospitality to Chichikov once she believes this lie, offering him food and an extended stay at her estate (55). This illustrates Korobochka’s main concern in life, and her main character flaw: she cannot see the purpose in helping others if it does not bring her some sort of tangible benefit. The author states it perfectly by saying that she has separated herself from society by being “inaccessibly fenced off behind the walls of her aristocratic house” (56). This fence of selfishness that Korobochka has built up obstructs her vision of the world around her and makes it impossible for her to care about the well-being of others.
The need to display concern for others is a message that can be seen throughout all of Chichikov’s travels, and it is the symbolic descriptions of Manilov and Korobochka that clarify this central message for the readers. Both landowners display a disregard for the well-being of those around them. Manilov and Korobochka base their evaluations of Chichikov’s proposal on personal considerations. One is concerned with gaining a friend for himself, and the other is concerned with forming a potentially lucrative alliance with a nobleman. In both cases, the author effectively guides the reader to the conclusion that the missing element in both of the landowners’ logic is a consideration for the wider consequences of their decisions.
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