Originally published in 1842; approx. 142,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.
Regarded as the first great masterpiece of Russian literature, Dead Souls mixes realism and symbolism for a vivid and highly original portrait of Russian life.
Chichikov, a mysterious stranger, arrives in a provincial town with a bizarre but seductive proposition for local landowners. He proposes to buy the names of their serfs who have died but who are still registered on the census, saving their owners from paying tax on them. But what collateral will Chichikov receive for these "souls"?
Full of larger-than-life Dickensian characters - rogues and scoundrels, landowners and serfs, conniving petty officials, and the wily antihero Chichikov - Dead Souls is a devastating comic satire on social hypocrisy.
I often refer to Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel when contrasting the literary touchstones of various countries:
As each national literature has appropriated the form of the novel, it has taken up different concerns—worries about ill-conceived marriages crossing boundaries of social class, for example, are not as prominent a part of nineteenth-century Russian novels as of nineteenth-century English novels, but exactly who is English and who isn't is not as central a theme in English novels as exactly who is Russian is a theme of Russian novels.
Dead Souls was Nikolai Gogol's last book (he died while writing it), but by some accounts, the first great Russian novel (predating the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy). I have seen Gogol referred to as the "Russian Dickens," which is understandable after reading Dead Souls: he fills the book with archetypes who border on caricatures, the most interesting of which is the main character, Chichikov, a poshlost with a scheme to buy "dead souls" from wealthy landowners. These dead souls are the names of serfs who've died since the last census, but remain on the rolls and thus continue to incur taxes. The names are thus nothing but a liability to their owners. Chichikov's scheme for transferring them to himself is a clever one. Gogol uses it to satirize the upper classes: no one can figure out how Chichikov will benefit from buying dead serfs, and so they naturally assume he's trying to get one over on them.
"In everything the will of God, madam," said Chichikov with a sigh. "Against the divine wisdom it is not for us to rebel. Pray hand them over to me, Nastasia Petrovna."
"Hand over whom?"
"The dead peasants."
"But how could I do that?"
"Quite simply. Sell them to me, and I will give you some money in exchange."
"But how am I to sell them to you? I scarcely understand what you mean. Am I to dig them up again from the ground?"
Chichikov perceived that the old lady was altogether at sea, and that he must explain the matter; wherefore in a few words he informed her that the transfer or purchase of the souls in question would take place merely on paper—that the said souls would be listed as still alive.
"And what good would they be to you?" asked his hostess, staring at him with her eyes distended.
"That is MY affair."
"But they are DEAD souls."
"Who said they were not? The mere fact of their being dead entails upon you a loss as dead as the souls, for you have to continue paying tax upon them, whereas MY plan is to relieve you both of the tax and of the resultant trouble. NOW do you understand? And I will not only do as I say, but also hand you over fifteen roubles per soul. Is that clear enough?"
"Yes—but I do not know," said his hostess diffidently. "You see, never before have I sold dead souls."
"Quite so. It would be a surprising thing if you had. But surely you do not think that these dead souls are in the least worth keeping?"
"Oh, no, indeed! Why should they be worth keeping? I am sure they are not so. The only thing which troubles me is the fact that they are DEAD."
"She seems a truly obstinate old woman!" was Chichikov's inward comment. "Look here, madam," he added aloud. "You reason well, but you are simply ruining yourself by continuing to pay the tax upon dead souls as though they were still alive."
"Oh, good sir, do not speak of it!" the lady exclaimed. "Three weeks ago I took a hundred and fifty roubles to that Assessor, and buttered him up, and—"
"Then you see how it is, do you not? Remember that, according to my plan, you will never again have to butter up the Assessor, seeing that it will be I who will be paying for those peasants—I, not YOU, for I shall have taken over the dues upon them, and have transferred them to myself as so many bona fide serfs. Do you understand AT LAST?"
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!
While the premise, and Gogol's satirical touches, made this a promising book, I did not really enjoy it much. One reason is that it's unfinished. Gogol planned for it to be much longer, but died after having finished only part one of three. The latter part of the published work is meandering and drifts away from Chichikov's scheme into the adventures and backgrounds of other characters, many of whom are less interesting. It's almost like reading the first draft of a novel.
Gogol also gets up on a soapbox at times, both to wax purple about prosaic details of Russian life (making it a splendid book for getting a sense of the time and place he's writing about; there may not be a more quintessentially "Russian" book than this) and about the glory of Mother Russia. As described in Peter Boxall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:
The writing of Dead Souls drove Gogol mad. It started off as a humorous idea for a story, the conceit being that Chichikov, a scheming opportunist, would travel through Russia buying up the rights to dead serfs (souls), who had not yet been purged from the census and could therefore - like all chattels - still be mortgaged. As the novel grew, so did Gogol's aspirations; his goal became no less than to rekindle the noble yet dormant core of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that was its destiny. He no longer wanted to write about Russia; he wanted to save it. He was driven into messianic obsession and, having burnt Part Two - twice - after ten years of labor, he committed suicide by starvation.
This is where the novel ultimately falls short. It starts as an intriguing and humorous tale of the eternal trickster, embodied in the amoral personage of Chichikov, but though Gogol described several of Chichikov's ill-fated adventures, we never find out where his schemes will ultimately carry him, nor how the novel is meant to end. The elegies to highways and the weather strain one's patience.
I have found that Russian writers in general just strike me as entirely too serious to be storytellers. Gogol is more of a storyteller than his contemporaries, but I think his grand ambition to write the Great Russian Novel was the undoing both of himself and his intended magnum opus.
Have you read Dead Souls?
Have you read anything else by Nikolai Gogol?
Do you like Russian literature?
Verdict: An unfinished classic of Russian literature, Dead Souls is one of those novels whose influence can be found everywhere, from Gogol's fellow Russian writers to contemporary science fiction. (Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief refers to uploaded minds as "gogols.") That said, while it starts out as a story to appeal to fans of Dickensian farce mixed with social commentary, with a distinctly Russian flavor, Dead Souls is a book that never achieved what Gogol meant it to, and its unfinished state can make it both frustrating and tedious. I might recommend it for fans of Serious Literature. but a page-turner or a satisfying epic it is not.
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