Book Review: Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Dead Souls

A man who seeks to buy dead souls…it certainly draws your attention when you hear the premise of this book, especially considering it was written in 1842, and is considered one of the first great Russian novels.

Being a massive fan of Dostoyevsky, I picked up this novel partially because I heard it compared to his writing. I would categorize it more as a satirical version of Dostoyevsky’s novels. And it may just be a new favorite for me.

Release: 1842

Page Count: 402

Format: Audiobook/Ebook

Synopsis: The mysterious man Chichikov arrives in the countryside of Russia with a strange proposal to the local serf owners. Many of the owners are still paying taxes on serfs who have died, until the next censous is taken. Chichikov offers to buy the dead souls, though no one can figure out exactly why…

Review

There is nothing I enjoy more in books than characters which truly interest me. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are good people, as pretty much every character in this book is a horrible human being. The book examines the Russian society, making fun of the hierarchy of a feudal system including serfs and inheritance. Power is mostly judged by owning land and serfs. The characters are absurd, spoiled, wealthy individuals who act in their own interest with little understanding or care of anything outside their limited perspective.

Chichikov is an antihero, a man who takes advantage of men’s lust for money and convenience in exchange for his own benefit. He is a scoundrel. A quick spoiler is that he is buying souls because he can take out a loan on each of the “serfs,” pocket the money, and then escape. In a sense, it is a get-rich-quick scheme. He takes advantage of everyone’s weakness, changing as he understands how people want him to act. He is kind of a horrible person.

And yet Gogol challenges us as a reader. He says we would “do well to probe YOUR OWN souls, and to put to YOURSELVES the solemn question, ‘Is there not in ME an element of Chichikov?'” We would all love to get free money (whether we would or wouldn’t actually listen to our conscious concerning the source of free money). We all want to be comfortable in life, and work is hard. We also (whether we realize it or not) tend to change our behavior around different people depending how it will benefit us. We’re casual with friends, more formal with an old grandparent or college professor. We all adapt to changes and situations.

My one and only criticism of this book is one I have for all of Russian literature and it is 100% me just being petty. I really find it difficult to read all the ridiculously long names. Like Tientietnikov or Korobochka. I switched between audiobook and Ebook in reading this novel, and I can say I enjoyed the audiobook more because I didn’t stumble over the new names every time I read it, and instead had someone able to pronounce it for me.

The characters Chichikov meets all kind of fit into stereotypes, exaggerated caricatures of possible land-owners in Russia. Some examples are Korobochka as a noisy widow and Plyushkin as stingy and depressed. Each has this perfect balance between realism and ridiculousness. When reading the characters, I was struck by their similarities to Shakespeare’s humorous characters, like Plyushkin reminded me a bit of Malvolio from Twelfth Night.

Spoiler! The story rather ends with Chichikov being caught and arrested, only to be pardoned and escaping into the land. Who knows what he will be up to next?

I really enjoyed this book, as it examines deeper corruption and issues in 19th century Russia while also speaking to still relatable human faults. It gets five stars from me, and I will definitely be looking into reading more of Gogol’s works.

Have you heard of this author or the book? Does it look interesting to you? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

  1. I expect by now you know that Chichikov was not arrested. In stead he senses that thinks have gone wrong and leaves town after much harangue with Selifan and Petrushka (names are not a problem, I am a Professor of Russian Lit, language and culture at the U. of Utah). Funny that the quite irrelevant comments about the wheel by two peasants on the novel’s first page turns up at the beginning of the last chapter since it needs to be fixed before Chichikov can leave. Since I have too much to say in this space, I would recommend that you read Nabokov’s book on Gogol, especially the section on the novel and the discussion of the Russian phenomenon called “pushlost,” with many definitions, but one most apt perhaps is “self-satisfied mediocrity,” or “the acme of happiness is purchasable and the purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser.” Very appropriate for TV ads in the U.S.

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  2. I took on “Dead Souls” for a book discussion group. I wish I had at least skimmed the work beforehand. If I had, I would have chosen another novel. I found Gogol’s writing to be turgid and exhausting. He goes on and on about the physical environments the main character is in, none of which contributes to the story’s development. The characters, even Chichikov, are one dimensional and sketchily developed. The infrequent dialogue portions are like oases in a desert of extraneous details of unimportant artifacts. I skipped many pages in frustration and impatience to get to at least a minor development that advanced the story. The story itself is so thin that I found it depressing to think I had to read the entire story in order to discuss it. I had seen the Danny Kaye film “The Inspector General” which is based on a story by Gogol. I would have been better off reviewing that story. At least it had humor, something else “Deal Souls” lacks.

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      1. “The Inspector General” was not based on “Dead Souls” although it had something of the same objective of attacking pomposity and corruption.

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  4. Great review! Russian is my native language, but even I don’t like reading lengthy Russian names 🙂 Can’t really say they are similar – maybe only their endings are similar? Thankfully, there are lots of abbreviations as you speak them, and they are not as difficult to pronounce as they seem to be when they are written down.

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    1. I would love to learn Russian and read these novels in their original language! It’s a pity I don’t have enough time with learning Chinese right now too. Definitely someday! And I agree with the pronunciation. I listened to this partially as an audiobook and it really helped to hear the pronunciation as I saw the names’ writing.

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      1. Russian sounds like nothing in comparison to Chinese! I think it is one thing to learn a standard single alphabet in the process of learning some language, even if the letters are different from English, as is the case with Russian, but it is an entirely different thing to start learning a language which has two or more alphabets or no alphabet per se at all but just a multitude of characters. And I am not even saying anything about pronunciation and different grammatical rules. I am learning some adopted “Chinese” characters for my Japanese course and they are already giving me nightmares.

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  5. This has been on my list for years but last time I was out and about it wasn’t in the shop so I settled for some Leskov instead. Russian reading really works for the older nights.

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    1. Thank you! It’s a strange book, because it is able to examine darker topics in a humorous way. I definitely didn’t find it to be a dark book, but then I might just be used to reading too many serious books so this one feels hilarious.

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