Book Reviews/Dead Souls

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Dead Souls is a novel by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Along with Gogol's short stories, it is considered a masterpiece. Although it is primarily concerned with Russian society during the early 19th century, Gogol's wit and fresh prose make it a joy to read today.

Recommended translation: Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls. Ed. Susanne Fusso. Trans. Bernard G. Guerney. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.

Deadsoulscover.jpg
Dead Souls
by Nikolai Gogol
Course Metadata
SchoolLanguage and Literature
DepartmentLiterary Studies

Introduction to Dead Souls[edit | edit source]

Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls is a satire that exposes the corrupt "underbelly" of Russian nineteenth century society. On a superficial level, the title refers to the book’s plot, where the main character Chichikov sets out to amass serfs, or souls, to his name. In order to do so, he buys the names of dead peasants off of landowners who are still being taxed for them because censuses were taken once every few years, resulting in a list congruous with the previous census in his name. On a more philosophical level, the title refers to the morality or lack thereof of the characters the reader meets within the novel. Their actions, though consistent with societal expectations, are corrupt, showing how fraudulent Russian society really is, and Gogol has the reader question the ultimate ethicalness of the Russian 19th century world.

Original Publication Cover by Nikolai Gogol

Plot[edit | edit source]

The novel begins with Chichikov coming to the town of N--. He is welcomed by everyone, who think he is a model person, and is invited to various social gatherings. He begins roaming around the countryside with his coach driver, Selifan, looking for land owners to buy dead serfs from. The land owners are presented as comedic and simple caricatures, with much of the novel's humor derived from interactions with them. The first land owner, Manilov, is so friendly he takes on a farcical air; Korobochka is a widow out of touch with the world; Nozdrev is deceitful; and Sobakevich is an adroit business man who knows no morals. Even Pliushkin, the most tragic of the land owners, is first introduced in a comic fashion: Chichikov mistakes him for an old, female serf.) The plot is considered very circular because of the visits to the land owners

Despite distrust and greed somewhat hampering Chichikov's acquisition of the dead souls, he returns to the village after meeting with Pliushkin, having amassed four hundred dead souls. Once back, he promptly resumes festivities with the people. Eventually, however, rumors begin to spread about Chichikov when they realize all the serfs he bought were dead. Some conjecture that he wants to run away from with the governor's daughter, while others think he is Napoleon or a war veteran who lost his leg in disguise, revealing the backwardness of the townspeople. Chichikov is at first blissfully unaware of the people's gossip; when it comes to his attention he quickly leaves town.

During the final chapter much of Chichikov's life is revealed. He was a studious and hardworking student with a knack for money, and after graduation works several government jobs. The real reason for the acquisition of dead souls is also revealed: the more serfs one has in Russia at this time, the greater their social standing. It is, in other words, a get rich quick scheme. The novel ends on an uncertain note, as it is unclear where Chichikov will go or what he plans to do next.

Character Descriptions[edit | edit source]

Chichikov: The protagonist of the novel. The driving force of his story is his desire to obtain dead souls from serf owners in the region. His past and motivations for collecting dead souls remain a mystery for much of the novel. He is cordially greeted when he arrives in the town of N-- and impresses the residents there. Although at first he appears warm and honest to the reader as well, as the narrative goes on he appears to become more and more superficial. His name is derived from the Russian word for "sneeze."

Selifan: Chichikov's carriage driver. He is portrayed as dimwitted and lazy and is also of a lower social standing than many of the other characters in the novel.

Manilov: The first serf owner Chichikov visits. He is both nice and welcoming to a fault, as well as being highly sentimental. His name means "to lure, attract, or beckon" in Russian.

The Widow Korobochka: The second serf owner Chichikov visits. She is an old widow and very shrewd in her ways. She is hesitant to sell Chichikov the serfs because she is afraid dead souls actually sell for much more than what Chichikov is offering. Her name means "little box" in Russian.

Nozdrev: The third serf owner. He is superficial and a dilettante, in addition to being incredibly two-faced. Gogol asserts that everyone knows someone who has similar characteristics as Nozdrev. Nozdrev is also the Russian word for "nostril."

Sobakevich: The fourth serf owner. He is a quiet and resourceful man who tries to sell Chichikov dead souls the instant he thinks he can make a profit from him. His name means "dog" in Russian.

Plyushkin: The fifth and final serf owner. Chichikov thinks he is a serf when he first sees him. He has a troubled past: his older daughter eloped with a soldier, his wife and younger daughter are dead, and his son, against Plyushkin's wishes, joined the military. His farm has fallen into disrepair and because of this Chichikov is able to buy a multitude of serfs from him.

Major Themes[edit | edit source]

Artificiality vs. Nature: While on the surface many characters act in certain ways, they rarely show their true colors, preferring instead to present to the world masks they wear. Chichikov, for instance, appears as a nice, charming man to many of the town's residents, but in actuality he arguably feels none of those emotions. He is simply doing this to get on their good side like the social climber he is. Characters like the two-faced Nozdrev and the other land owners are similar in this regard, as they only let their true feelings show when no one is around. Nozdrev even puts on different masks for when he is with different people, playing to what each person wants to hear.

This theme is prevalent in other Russian works from this time period, such as Eugene Onegin. The difference here is that Gogol seems to be saying nothing is truly natural when it comes to Russia. There are hardly any characters in the book who do not pander to another's liking and reveal who they truly are.


Greed: All of the land owners who Chichikov goes to in order to purchase dead souls bargain with him over the selling price. This might not seem too important until one realizes that by giving away these dead souls, for which they are taxed but receive none of the benefits they would from a living serf, they would be benefiting themselves. Gogol, then, takes greed to the extreme; the characters here are so greedy they are only hurting themselves. By bringing attention to this, Gogol critiques and satirizes another part of Russian society, pointing out the foolhardiness in parts of daily life that some Russians assume are perfectly fine.


Materialism: Description is favored over plot in this book. Though this may irk some, there is a good reason behind this choice in design: Gogol wanted to emphasize character's possessions, the same way they try to emphasize them. In 19th century Russia, one's social standing meant everything, and this social standing was determined by one's possessions. It is for this reason that Chichikov desires those dead souls so very much. By placing descriptions of the things people own above plot in terms of significance, Gogol satirizes the need to show off one's wealth and property and reveals the pitfalls in considering one's possessions the most important things in life.


Gossip: A very common motif in the novel. In later chapters of the book, it takes on a significant role, to the point where it is gossip that ends Chichikov's plans. Village people gossip with one another about Chichikov and his past, creating pasts for him so absurd they are humorous. Some think that Chichikov is Napoleon in disguise, trying to make a new life for himself. One man even states that Chichikov is an old war veteran who lost his leg in the war. When other men point out that Chichikov does not have a wooden leg, the man backs down, but others' ideas are still just as ridiculous.

In this way the backwardness of the townspeople is revealed. Though they fancy themselves smart and capable individuals, they are all irrational in their conjectures and crave gossip. Though on the surface the townspeople might look innocuous and even welcoming, deep down they cannot escape their backwater country roots, and eventually these inevitably come to light.

Composition History[edit | edit source]

Gogol first referenced the work that would become Dead Souls in a letter to his friend Alexander Pushkin in 1835. At this point in time he was already an established novelist, having published short story collections to much acclaim like Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and Arabesques. He referred to it as “a very long novel” and continued to work on the novel intermittently while also writing other work like his short stories “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” and traveling around Europe (Gogol, 278). Much of Dead Souls was written during his time in Rome. After much work, the novel was finally published in 1842. Gogol had meant the book that was published to be the first part in a modern rendering of Dante’s Divine Comedy, roughly corresponding to the Inferno. He continued work on the project, but gradually he fell into a slump as he experienced a creative decline. In 1852, Gogol slipped into depression and burned his manuscripts, including what was to be the sequel to Dead Souls. Gogol died nine days later, but luckily some pieces of the manuscript he had been working on survived.

Publication History[edit | edit source]

The first edition of Dead Souls was printed in Moscow and published in Russia in 1842. An English translation by D.J. Hogarth followed later that year; this translation is currently in the public domain. Bernard Guilbert Guerney translated the novel into English again in 1942, was revised in 1948, and was published by the New York Readers' Club.

Literary Significance[edit | edit source]

Dead Souls: A Poem came under scrutiny for its title, which was deemed heretical, prompting Nikolai Gogol to change it to The Adventures of Chichikov: Dead Souls. The work is considered to be a novel, yet Gogol calls it a poema, perhaps for its philosophical qualities and musings on the state of the Russian Empire. Anne Lounsbury, however, states that poema is “an ambiguous generic label that in his day generally signified a long work in verse, epic or mock epic” (Lounsbury, 125.) Gogol may in fact be deriding his contemporaries, depicting a bleak and grotesque rather than a romanticized version of the Russian provincial townships and the supposedly erudite people that inhabit them.

Lounsbery also notes that “Gogol’s career coincided with the period when Russian literature moved decisively out of the aristocratic and semiprivate sphere of the salons and into the broader and far less predictable realm of print” (Lounsbery, 127.) Dead Souls therefore is significant for its wider audience; its distribution exceeded high society and went towards the literate mercantile and provincial gentry. It was received at the time with mixed opinions, as book reviewers, used to romantic novels filled with virtuous heroes modeled after the Russian skazka, or fairy tale, criticized the lack of plot and excessive detail. It is precisely this description-centric aspect of the work that distinguishes it from the preceding literary tradition; Gogol emphasizes the characters’ material possessions just as they themselves do. Almost fifty years later, in 1886, a book review in the New York Times (see References) described it as Gogol’s masterpiece, a work that perfectly encapsulates the Russian condition in the provincial townships. According to the book review, Alexander Pushkin, clearly aware of the disparaging social criticism remarked, “It is the picture of the universal platitude of the country (Russia.)” Furthermore, when Gogol read the work aloud to him, he supposedly burst into tears and said, “The sad thing, our poor Russia!” Such pity-evoking depictions of the Russian Empire influenced writers such as Turgenev, who according to this 1886 book review “sang the same” themes, but in a more refined manner: “It is a tender minor on the part of [Turgenev], exquisite in its delicacy, intoned with a broken heart, while Gogol howls it, if you like in the major key, with many a joke and a quibble.” This theme of discussing the errors within Russian society such as its materialism, its gossipy nature and its corruption (one only has to look at Chichikov’s rise to prominence to see this element) is an integral part of the Russian literary tradition; it is Gogol's manner in addressing the question that is unique.

Adaptations[edit | edit source]

Theatre

Mikhail Bulgakov first adapted the novel for the Moscow Art Theatre. The production was directed by Constantin Stanislavski and opened on 28th November, 1932.

Opera

Dead Souls was also turned into an opera in 1976 by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin.

Television

In 1984, it became a television mini-series directed by Mikhail Shveytser.

Radio

In 2006, the novel was aired on the BBC’s Radio 4, incorporating the voices of Mark Heap as Chichikov and Michael Palin as the narrator.

Source: Dead Souls. Wikipedia Encyclopedia. May 14, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Souls.

Study Questions[edit | edit source]

1. What kind of hero is Chichikov? Can he even be called one?

2. Gogol frequently makes detailed lists about inanimate objects. What may be the purpose of such attention on seemingly superfluous matters?

3. What are the satirical elements of the book?

4. What impressions of Russian life do you as the reader get from Dead Souls? Are they positive or negative?

5. Analyze a passage that you found to be thematically rich and apply it to the work's title. What insights do you garner?

6. How does Gogol portray serfs and serfdom?

7. What was serfdom like in Russia when Gogol wrote the book?

8. What does Chichikov value? What does he want from life?

9. What are the types of Russian landlords? Are there any good landlords?

10. Besides serfdom, what else is Gogol criticizing in the novel?

References[edit | edit source]

Manuscripts

Bely, Andrei translated by Christopher Colbath. Gogol’s Artistry. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009.

Fanger, Donald. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Fasso, Susanne and Priscilla Meyer , eds. Essays on Gogol: Logos and the Russian Word. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1992.

Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls. Ed. Susanne Fusso. Trans. Bernard G. Guerney. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996. Print.

Lindstrom, Thaïs S. Nikolay Gogol. New York, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1974.

Lounsbery, Anne. Thin Culture, High Art: Gogol, Hawthorne, and Authorship in Nineteenth-Century Russia and America. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Maguire, Robert A. Exploring Gogol. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Maguire, Robert A. Gogol from the 20th Century: 11 Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Rowe, William Woodin. Through Gogol’s Looking Glass: Reverse Vision, False Focus and Precarious Logic. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1976.


Journal Articles

Brodiansky, Nina. “Gogol and His Characters.” The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 31, No. 76 (December, 1952): 36-57. JSTOR. org. 10 May, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4204403.

Fanger, Donald. “Dead Souls: The Mirror and the Road.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, (June, 1978): 24-47. JSTOR. org. May 14, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2932925.

Freeborn, Richard. “Dead Souls: A Study.” The Slavonic and East European Review , Vol. 49, No. 114 (January, 1971): 18-44. JSTOR. org. 10 May, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4206320.

Futrell, Michael H. “Gogol and Dickens.” The Slavonic and East European Review Vol. 34, No. 83, (June, 1956): 443-459. JSTOR. org. 10 May, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4204752.

Golstein, Vladimir. “Landowners in Dead Souls: Or the Tale of How Gogol Blessed What He Wanted to Curse.” The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer, 1997): 243-257. JSTOR. org. May 14, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/309735.

Snyder, Harry C. “Airborne Imagery in Gogol's Dead Souls.” The Slavic and East European Journal Vol. 23, No. 2, (Summer, 1979): 173-189. JSTOR. org. May 14, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/308110.

Weathers, Winston. “Gogol's Dead Souls: The Degrees of Reality.” College English Vol. 17, No. 3 (December, 1955): 159-164. JSTOR. org. May 14, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/495738.


Web Articles

Byatt, A.S. A Poll Tax on Souls. October 29, 2004. The Guardian. May 10, 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/oct/30/classics.asbyatt.

Kalfus, Ken. Waiting for Gogol. August 4, 1996. The New York Times Book Review. May 10, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/04/books/waiting-for-gogol.html.

Magarshack, David. Books: A Mad Russian. September 16, 1957. Time Magazine. May 14, 2012. http://www.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,809933-1,00.html

New York Times Book Review. Dead Souls: Nikolai Gogol, translated from the Russian and with an introduction by Donald Rayfield. The New York Times Review Books. May 10, 2012 http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/dead-souls/.

New York Times Book Review. Gogol’s Masterpiece. December 19, 1886. The New York Times. May 10, 2012. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F40F16F6355A1A738DDDA00994DA415B8684F0D3

Yarmolinsky, Avrahn. Gogol's Dead Souls Revived in Translation. May 20, 1923. The New York Times Book Review. May 10, 2012 http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA081FFD3B5516738DDDA90A94DD405B838EF1D3