Capturing the ‘Elusive Particularities”: Chagall Illustrates Gogol
In his illustrations of Nikolai Gogol’s novel, Dead Souls (1842), Chagall draws our attention to the characters, managing to bring out, with a few suggestive lines, their various idiosyncrasies. This illustration of “Manilov and Chichikov on the Threshold” is an excellent example of Chagall’s talent. The scene above occurs in the second chapter of Dead Souls, as Chichikov (our rather nondescript but cunning middle-aged protagonist) pays a visit to Manilov, a landowner outside a small town. Chichikov is hoping persuade Manilov to sell him the rights to his “dead souls,” the deceased serfs whose names are still listed as belonging to Manilov. Chichikov, who is secretly hoping to make a profit from this transaction, is careful to charm and flatter Manilov. Manilov, as it happens, is equally eager to please his guest Chichikov, and the obsequious antics of the two men are recorded wryly and hilariously by Gogol.
Gogol, just before offering a characterization of Manilov, confesses:
“It is much easier to portray large-size characters: just whirl your arm and fling paint on the canvas, dark scorching eyes, beetling brows, a furrow-creased forehead–and the portrait is done; but now all these gentlemen, who are so many in the world, who resemble each other so much, yet, once you look closer, you see many most elusive particularities–these gentlemen are terribly difficult to portray” (Dead Souls, 20).
Any illustrator might struggle with the same difficulty, but Chagall’s choice of exactly what moment to capture is brilliant. He chooses the instant in which Manilov and Chichikov cannot decide who should enter into Manilov’s drawing room first. Each man defers to the other with such politeness that they are in danger of remaining in the doorway forever. Chagall captures the absurdity of this scene wonderfully. The man on the left is Chichikov, the more urbane and sophisticated of the two. We see him in the middle of a self-conscious gesture of politeness: head bowed, eyebrows arched, extending his arm toward Manilov with the utmost respect and deference.
Manilov, on the right, seems a much cruder sort of person at first glance, but he too tends toward flattery in every interaction. Gogol describes Manilov as having absolutely no interests and hardly any original thoughts. He only strives to imitate upper-class manners, and thus this fawning behavior is a deeply ingrained habit in him. As the cruder and less sophisticated of the pair, Manilov takes great pleasure being fussed over by Chichikov. Chagall depicts him open-mouthed, mid-speech—absolutely delighted to be flattered by his guest. Chagall seems to have captured the spirit of the whole interaction in this one instance; it is clear from their facial expressions that both men are putting on a social pretense of friendship, when neither really likes the other. For Chichikov, this behavior is a means to an end, while for Manilov, it is a habit he has cultivated for the sake of appearance. But the two “friends” realize they cannot linger on the threshold forever, arguing about who is more worthy of entering the drawing room first. They eventually make the slightly undignified choice of going through the door together sideways, “squeezing each other slightly.”
Chagall’s etched lines–especially those in the facial expressions—evoke the contrast between the urbane flatterer and the simple-minded, yet no less pretentious landowner. It’s through portraying these details that Gogol and Chagall overcome the difficulty of portraying “small-sized” characters—those without “dark scorching eyes,” those who can only be captured by their “elusive particularities.” Gogol manages to give us a wonderfully full characterization of these seemingly minor characters through the smallest of descriptive details about each of them. And similarly, Chagall in a single etching manages to capture the smooth unctuousness of Chichikov, the crude pretentiousness of Manilov, and the utter absurdity of the whole scene.
Sophy Schulman – St. John’s College Student