December 23rd, 2012


Book Review: Dead Souls, by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

A Russian trickster sets out to pull off a uniquely Russian scam, but unfortunately the novel never went anywhere.

Dead Souls

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.

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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.

My complete list of book reviews.