top of page
  • Alan X

Poshlism, Dead Souls, and the Contemporary World

The definition of Poshlost, as defined by Nabokov, is someone who is "not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, and the falsely attractive." Poshlost is not uncommon in the picaresque novel Dead Souls; Gogol carefully examines Poshlism through the lens of Chichikov, our uniquely Russian "hero." Throughout the course of the novel, Chichikov, who seemed to have mastered the fine art of flattery, travels to the estates of different landowners, with the sole objective of swindling his way to a fortune. Gogol's meticulous attention to detail and careful examination of poshlism is brought to life through his creative style and masterful depiction of Chichikov and the landowners. From Manilov, the well-mannered daydreamer who has succumbed to ennui, to Sobakevich, a perfect medium-sized bear whose room is filled with "full-length engravings of Greek generals," each character in the story is a representation of a specific type of poshlost in 19th century Russia. However, a reader cannot overlook the modern relevance of Dead Souls, that there is still value to Gogol's examination of Poshlism in the contemporary world. People still pretend to have greater merit than they possess, and this tendency to impress, which is deeply rooted in human nature, leads to materialism, conformism, and philistinism.

Chichikov's final goal is to acquire wealth, but to qualify as a businessman, Chichikov first has to own a buy-and-sell enterprise. However, Chichikov does not sell goods; to profit, he sells his personality to different landowners. The secret to Chichikov's effective deal-making lies in his ability to code-switch and adjust to different situations. When he first arrived in the provincial capital, he visited all the officials in town. When conversing with the governor, Chichikov hinted "that entering his province was like velvet everywhere and that those governments which appoint wise senior officials are worthy of great praise." When Chichikov visited Manilov's estate, he appeared to be civil and polite, and both "friends" spent a long time complimenting each other, to a point where "there is no telling how far the mutual outpouring of sentiments on the part of both friends would have gone." On the contrary, Chichikov becomes short- tempered, bad-mannered, and impatient when conversing with the second landowner, Nastasya Petrovna. This breach of etiquette reveals Chichikov's true character; he lives in a world of deception and he is falsely civil. This insincerity is a characteristic of poshlost.

Chichikov's "masterplan" is also a blatant display of poshlost. According to Nabokov, poshlost suggests that the "acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser." This is exactly what Chichikov believes in; he travels to the provincial capital for only one reason: to amass a huge fortune. However, he is not the diligent, hard-working type, so he takes a shortcut and becomes fully dedicated to buying non-existent things; the dead serfs still counted as living on the census. In Dead Souls, happiness is purchasable; Chichikov focuses on material possessions; his wealth and prosperity come at the expense of dead people. As a result, the large peasant masses are unable to afford happiness, they live at the bottom of society, and the limited supply of happiness is distributed unevenly among the masses.

Gogol used specific examples to show how characters embody poshlost. Characteristics of poshlost ooze out of every pore of the landowners' bodies; their mere existence defines poshlost. Manilov, the landowner who appears to treat all people with excessive respect, has many characteristics of poshlost. Manilov's English garden reveals his anglophilic tendencies. Not to mention his children's greek mythological names, and the "little mounds of ash that had been knocked out of pipes" on his window sill, which had been "arranged, not without care, in very attractive little rows." Even his own name symbolizes "an inactive chatterbox, an author of tempting, attractive, but not feasible projects." His anglophilia, vulgarity, and urge to conform are all characteristics of a full-time philistine who embodies poshlism. There’s also the landowner Sobakevich, who closely resembles a medium-sized bear and has a habit of treading on people's toes. Everything in his house bore a resemblance to the owner; the room is filled with "full-length engravings of Greek generals," which are just as "healthy and sturdy" as Sobakevich; the "pot-bellied walnut bureau on four ridiculous legs" looked like a perfect bear, the chairs and tables also had "profoundly cumbersome and unsettling" qualities, just like Sobakevich. When Chichikov offered to pay eighty kopecks per soul, he vehemently enumerated the praiseworthy qualities of the dead serfs as if they are still living. His unwillingness to distinguish between dead and living beings reveals his lack of spirituality, a key trait of poshlism.

Characters in Dead Souls fully embody poshlism; it's their religion and their way of life. While poshlism was once an untranslatable word, it is vividly depicted in Gogol's satire. Gogol examined many types of poshlism in Dead Souls to point out this societal flaw's pervasiveness in the 19th century. One cannot fail to notice the ongoing presence of poshlism in our contemporary world; public figures like Donald Trump embody poshlost. His hair, spray tan, narcissism, faux-politeness, misogynistic behavior, TV show, oversized suit, and fondness for external glitter are perfect examples of poshlost. In addition, the media is unable to resist Donald Trump, he is on the cover of newspapers, and he is always trending on social media platforms. Consequently, poshlism has become widespread; it is no longer a uniquely Russian concept, and we must realize that it has a ubiquitous influence on the contemporary world.

Poshlism has severe consequences; in Dead Souls, worthiness is measured by a person's rankings, how many serfs a landowner possesses, and how much money a person has in his bank account. Gogol's picaresque novel serves as a reminder for the younger generation; Chichikov is the product of a society dominated by poshlism — a breeding ground for materialism, philistinism, conformism, and vulgarity. These values shape our personal identity, and it will lead to a misguided sense of self-worth. Isn't there a bit of Chichikov in you?


bottom of page