A socially adept newcomer fluidly inserts himself into an unnamed Russian town, conquering first the drinkers, then the dignitaries. All find him amiable, estimable, agreeable. But what exactly is Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov up to?--something that will soon throw the town "into utter perplexity."
After more than a week of entertainment and "passing the time, as they say, very pleasantly," he gets down to business--heading off to call on some landowners. More pleasantries ensue before Chichikov reveals his bizarre plan. He'd like to buy the souls of peasants who have died since the last census. The first landowner looks carefully to see if he's mad, but spots no outward signs. In fact, the scheme is innovative but by no means bonkers. Even though Chichikov will be taxed on the supposed serfs, he will be able to count them as his property and gain the reputation of a gentleman owner. His first victim is happy to give up his souls for free--less tax burden for him. The second, however, knows Chichikov must be up to something, and the third has his servants rough him up. Nonetheless, he prospers.
Dead Souls is a feverish anatomy of Russian society (the book was first published in 1842) and human wiles. Its author tosses off thousands of sublime epigrams--including, "However stupid a fool's words may be, they are sometimes enough to confound an intelligent man," and is equally adept at yearning satire: "Where is he," Gogol interrupts the action, "who, in the native tongue of our Russian soul, could speak to us this all-powerful word: forward? who, knowing all the forces and qualities, and all the depths of our nature, could, by one magic gesture, point the Russian man towards a lofty life?" Flannery O'Connor, another writer of dark genius, declared Gogol "necessary along with the light." Though he was hardly the first to envision property as theft, his blend of comic, fantastic moralism is sui generis.--Kerry Fried
Lively and funny ... Nabokov gleefully consigned all existing translations of Dead Souls
to the fire, save for Guerney's. -- The New York Times Book Review, Ken Kalfus
Novel by Nikolay Gogol, published in Russian as Myortvye dushi in 1842. Considered one of the world's finest satires, this picaresque work traces the adventures of the social-climbing Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a dismissed civil servant out to seek his fortune. It is admired not only for its enduring comic portraits but also for its sense of moral purpose. In the Russia of the novel, landowners must pay taxes on dead serfs until a new census removes them from the tax rolls. Chichikov sets off to buy dead serfs--thus relieving their owners of a tax burden--and mortgaging them to acquire funds to create his own estate. He charms his way into the homes of several influential landowners and puts forth his strange proposal, but he neglects to tell them the real purpose behind his plan. Gogol draws on broad Russian character types for his portraits of landowners. These comic descriptions make up some of the finest scenes in the novel. Eventually, rumors spread about Chichikov, and he is discovered and arrested. His crafty lawyer defends him by interweaving every scandal in the province with his client's deeds; the embarrassed officials offer to drop the entire matter if Chichikov leaves town, which he gladly does. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
This newly revised, edited presentation of Gogol's classic 1842 novel about a mysterious con man and his victims will enjoy the attention of new audiences who will find this version a welcome, revealing alternative to most. Still important for any high school literary collection. -- Midwest Book Review