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Book Discussion Group: Dead Souls

Find out what the group is currently reading, when the next meeting will take place, and what previous books have been read.

Dead Souls

Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol, is a satirical examination of 1800's Russian nobility and society. The work is often called Gogol's greatest. It is also considered a Russian prose poem. In post-Napoleonic Russia, landowners owned serfs who worked the land. A man's wealth was not only determined by the amount of land he had, but also by the number of souls he owned. Tchitchikov, the protagonist, and proclaimed hero of the story decides to purchase dead souls in order to become rich. Because a census is taken every year, he can buy the souls cheaper and then claim the dead souls as his own. The novel follows the exploits of Tchitchikov as he travels throughout the Russian countryside in the quest to buy souls from wealthy landowners.

Nikolai Gogol



Nikolay Gogol, in full Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol   (born March 19 [March 31, New Style], 1809, Sorochintsy, near Poltava, Ukraine, Russian Empire [now in Ukraine]—died February 21 [March 4], 1852, Moscow, Russia), Ukrainian-born Russian humorist, dramatist, and novelist, whose novel Myortvye dushi (Dead Souls) and whose short story “Shinel” (“The Overcoat”) are considered the foundations of the great 19th-century tradition of Russian realism.

"Nikolay Gogol". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015


Like English literature's most eccentric novel, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Gogol's Dead Souls continues both to impress and perplex. Dead Souls, like Tristram Shandy, comes early in its country's novel tradition, in Gogol's case, taking pride of place as Russia's first great novel. Both are regarded as comic masterworks that achieve their dazzling effects by challenging and extending novelistic boundaries. Both books, viewed by contemporaries with dismay, have proven to be far from outlandish exceptions to the rules, however, but have found themselves more and more regarded from the perspective of literary modernism on fiction's main track in their astonishing verbal display and radical redefinition of plot and character. Dead Souls in particular is an attempt to extend to the Russian tradition a conception of the novel wide enough to encompass the innovations of Cervantes in Don Quixote by making the novel serve as a massive, imaginative criticism of life.

Like so much in Russian literary history, Pushkin provided the initial genesis for Gogol's masterpiece. Having achieved notoriety with his collections of sharply depicted scenes of Ukrainian life (Village Evenings Near Dikanka, 1831–32) and as a dramatist, Gogol met Pushkin in 1835. Pushkin encouraged the younger writer to test his talents against the more extended challenge of the novel. As Gogol recalled in "An Author's Confession," Pushkin urged him to undertake a longer work: "He gave me a plot of his own, which he himself had wanted to make into something of a long poem, and which, as he put it, he would not have given to anyone else. This was the plot of Dead Souls." Pushkin had suggested the means for Gogol to supply a panoramic portrait of Russian life and behavior through his characteristic grotesque comic lens. The suggested plot is based on a curious loophole in the Russian tax law under serfdom. Every 10 years landowners were required to supply a census of their "souls," or male serfs, and pay a poll tax on the numbers provided. If serfs died before the next census, the landowner still was financially liable for the valuation based on the original number. If a swindler purchased these "dead souls" (at a discount to relieve a landowner's tax burden), he could then use these "holdings" as collateral to secure a mortgage on property, becoming in effect a person of landed wealth based on his title to no longer existent but still precious "souls." Such an ironic situation gave Gogol a ready means with which to sardonically survey and criticize Russian customs and behavior. The grotesque trading in dead souls commented on an institution that treated living humans as chattel, and even more devilishly called into question who were in fact the deader souls, the departed serfs or the living gentry, enclosed by a stifling conventionality. By dramatizing the swindlers's trafficking in dead serfs, Gogol had a narrative means with which to portray a virtually inexhaustible supply of characters and potentially grotesque situations. "I began to write with no definite plan in mind," Gogol recalled, "without knowing exactly what my hero was to represent. I only thought that this odd project … would lead to the creation of diverse personalities and my own inclination toward the comic would bring on amusing situations that I could alternate with pathos." Pushkin's narrative anecdote, however, grew in Gogol's handling from an extended satirical attack on Russian mores and traits to a national and comic prose epic that outgrew the strictures of the conventional novel.