In Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s 1845 novel “Dead Souls” (Мёртвые души), the main character, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov is on an intriguing business mission. In those days, Russian landowners were taxed per worker employed on their property, even after workers had died. At least until the next census determined the real number of live workers on the property, and the new tax rate to go with it.
Now, Chichikov’s scheme is straightforward: he goes around buying dead souls in order to mimic a mighty landowner on paper, and move up in the societal hierarchy of 19th century urban Russia – like today, centered between St. Petersburg and Moscow. It’s a win-win situation, since the souls selling land owners offload taxable property, as Chichikov is attracting headcount and status.
So as the number of followers, friends, connections, likes, shares and recommendations is quite valuable in the online social hierarchy of the 21st century, there will be a way of monetizing the dead souls idling away in twitterverse and blogosphere. I wonder who’ll be the first to start snatching them up in order to increase online influence.
To give you a good taste of the brilliant dialogues in Dead Souls, read how Chichikov is trying to get an old lady, Nastasia Petrovna Korobotchka, to sell him her 18 dead souls for a good 15 roubles each, “and roubles not in silver, but roubles in good paper currency” – she makes him work really hard for it!
Read Gogol’s complete “Dead Souls” here.
‘ […] However, the old lady still communed with herself. She could see that the transaction would be to her advantage, yet it was one of such a novel and unprecedented nature that she was beginning to fear lest this purchaser of souls intended to cheat her. Certainly he had come from God only knew where, and at the dead of night, too!
“But, sir, I have never in my life sold dead folk—only living ones. Three years ago I transferred two wenches to Protopopov for a hundred roubles apiece, and he thanked me kindly, for they turned out splendid workers—able to make napkins or anything else.
“Yes, but with the living we have nothing to do, damn it! I am asking you only about DEAD folk.”
“Yes, yes, of course. But at first sight I felt afraid lest I should be incurring a loss—lest you should be wishing to outwit me, good sir. You see, the dead souls are worth rather more than you have offered for them.”
“See here, madam. (What a woman it is!) HOW could they be worth more? Think for yourself. They are so much loss to you—so much loss, do you understand? Take any worthless, rubbishy article you like—a piece of old rag, for example. That rag will yet fetch its price, for it can be bought for paper-making. But these dead souls are good for NOTHING AT ALL. Can you name anything that they ARE good for?”
“True, true—they ARE good for nothing. But what troubles me is the fact that they are dead.”
“What a blockhead of a creature!” said Chichikov to himself, for he was beginning to lose patience. “Bless her heart, I may as well be going. She has thrown me into a perfect sweat, the cursed old shrew!”
He took a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped the perspiration from his brow. Yet he need not have flown into such a passion. More than one respected statesman reveals himself, when confronted with a business matter, to be just such another as Madam Korobotchka, in that, once he has got an idea into his head, there is no getting it out of him—you may ply him with daylight-clear arguments, yet they will rebound from his brain as an india-rubber ball rebounds from a flagstone. Nevertheless, wiping away the perspiration, Chichikov resolved to try whether he could not bring her back to the road by another path.
“Madam,” he said, “either you are declining to understand what I say or you are talking for the mere sake of talking. If I hand you over some money—fifteen roubles for each soul, do you understand?—it is MONEY, not something which can be picked up haphazard on the street. For instance, tell me how much you sold your honey for?”
“For twelve roubles per pood.”
“Ah! Then by those words, madam, you have laid a trifling sin upon your soul; for you did NOT sell the honey for twelve roubles.”
“By the Lord God I did!”
“Well, well! Never mind. Honey is only honey. Now, you had collected that stuff, it may be, for a year, and with infinite care and labour. You had fussed after it, you had trotted to and fro, you had duly frozen out the bees, and you had fed them in the cellar throughout the winter. But these dead souls of which I speak are quite another matter, for in this case you have put forth no exertions—it was merely God’s will that they should leave the world, and thus decrease the personnel of your establishment. In the former case you received (so you allege) twelve roubles per pood for your labour; but in this case you will receive money for having done nothing at all. Nor will you receive twelve roubles per item, but FIFTEEN—and roubles not in silver, but roubles in good paper currency.”
That these powerful inducements would certainly cause the old woman to yield Chichikov had not a doubt.
“True,” his hostess replied. “But how strangely business comes to me as a widow! Perhaps I had better wait a little longer, seeing that other buyers might come along, and I might be able to compare prices.”
“For shame, madam! For shame! Think what you are saying. Who else, I would ask, would care to buy those souls? What use could they be to any one?”
“If that is so, they might come in useful to ME,” mused the old woman aloud; after which she sat staring at Chichikov with her mouth open and a face of nervous expectancy as to his possible rejoinder.
“Dead folk useful in a household!” he exclaimed. “Why, what could you do with them? Set them up on poles to frighten away the sparrows from your garden?”
“The Lord save us, but what things you say!” she ejaculated, crossing herself.
“Well, WHAT could you do with them? By this time they are so much bones and earth. That is all there is left of them. Their transfer to myself would be ON PAPER only. Come, come! At least give me an answer.” […]’