Young Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov kept a mouse in his bedroom in a small wooden cage. And everyday he’d take the mouse out and tirelessly train him like a dog, putting the rodent through a series of exercises. On command the mouse learned to stand on his hind legs, lie down, and stand up again. The point of all of Pavlusha’s efforts was to increase the mouse’s value.
This was only one of the childhood events, we learn, that shaped the character of Nikolay Gogol’s hero, who is less hero and more huckster in the great Russian writer’s satirical novel Dead Souls. Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov brings to the pages an inventive if not outlandish scheme to turn himself into a ‘gentleman’ in Tsarist Russia. In the first half of the nineteenth century a true gentleman is identified by his wealth, which is based on the number of serfs, or ‘souls,’ he owns, the number on which he pays taxes. And only when a census is taken, quite infrequently it seems, is he relieved of the burden of paying taxes on any of his serfs who have, in the meantime, died. And this is where Chichikov readily steps in. He looks to buy from the landowners their ‘dead souls,’ a get-rich-quick plan. On paper Chichikov’s newly acquired souls would show him to be a man of means, and become the guaranty he needs in order to acquire lots of land and money, fulfilling his dream.
Toward the end of Chichikov’s tale the author kindly intervenes and says, “And so, let’s harness the rogue,” let’s gain some understanding what made Chichikov turn out this way, fast to take advantage of other men and situations. “From the beginning, life gazed on [Pavlusha] in a rather sour and unwelcoming way, through a small dim window drifted over with snow: there was no friend, no playmate for his childhood!” His parents were of the privilege class but that didn’t seem to be a factor when his father up and took him to a relative in another town, more than two days away. This was where Pavlusha was to stay, to attend the local school. And as the father parted, he gave his young son this advice:
Now Pavlusha, see that you do your lessons, don’t be naughty and stay out of mischief, and most of all, try to please your teachers and superiors. … Don’t treat or offer anyone anything; instead, it’s best to act in such a way that you are the one being treated, and most of all, watch every kopeck and save it: it’s the one thing in this world that’s dependable…. You can do anything and overcome anything in the world with the kopeck.
Chichikov absorbed his father’s words, he took them to heart. At the end of two months of working with the mouse, emboldened by his success, the boy sold the creature “at a very good profit.”
Nikolay Gogol, Dead Souls, translated by Robert A. Maguire, Penguin Classics, 2004 (Dead Souls, Part I, first appeared in Russian in 1842).