Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Translated by Robert A. Maguire

(There’s probably enough discussion of the plot details here to warrant a SPOILER ALERT!)

Sometimes, no matter what you’re currently reading, or what you feel you should read, a book calls to you and you really can’t resist. That’s what happened to me recently, for no apparent reason, with Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. I first read it back in the 1980s during my first phase of heavy Russian reading and absolutely loved it. It’s a book I’ve often thought of re-reading and the itch got me so I picked it up. Back in the day, it was the Penguin Modern Classics Magarshack translations I went for (there wasn’t much choice about then, and I wasn’t thinking so deeply about versions); it was a good read, but I thought I would try the more recent Robert Maguire version, also from Penguin, which seems to be much lauded.

dead souls

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was something of a complex character. Of Ukrainian and Polish descent, he nevertheless wrote in Russian and expressed a deep attachment to the country. He regarded Pushkin as a mentor (he knew the great author briefly) and wrote plays, novels and short stories. “Dead Souls” is often regarded as his masterpiece and it seems to be ingrained into Russian culture. Described in the subtitle as “a poem”, it relates the adventures of one Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, and indeed at one point the title was “The Wanderings of Chichikov” which the censor deemed as less offensive than the title by which we now know it.

We meet Chichikov as he rolls up in the provincial town of N., with his servant Petrushka and coachman Selifan. A middle-aged, middle-class man, somewhat obsessed with his appearance and his personal hygiene, Pavel Ivanovich soon begins to ingratiate himself with the local landowners, paying them visits, flattering them and becoming something of a local celebrity. However, it gradually becomes clear that Chichikov is on a strange mission – he wants to purchase from all the local landowners their ‘dead souls’. A little explanation is needed here – under the social structure of the time, the landowners owned the serfs body and soul (they were not emancipated until later in the century) and paid taxes on each one. If a serf died between two censuses the landowner still had to pay the taxes. Chichikov’s plan is to buy up these ‘deal souls’ for next to nothing, set himself up as a landowner with many (fake) serfs for a small cost, and establish himself with a position and status and money. By sweet-talking the locals, promising to relieve them of unnecessary taxes, he manages to convince several to sell. However, all does not go quite as planned; the landowners become suspicious, fanciful rumours start to spread about Chichikov’s motivations, and he’s ostracised. Flight seems the only sensible solution – but what will Pavel Ivanovich’s next adventure be?

That’s a brief outline of plot, but it doesn’t give a hint of the wonders of this book. Gogol might have come up with a clever idea and an original plot, but they would have been nothing without the wonderful characterisations and the brilliant writing. And “Dead Souls” is nothing if not a vivid and lively portrait of provincial Russia of the time. The small-mindedness of the characters; the trivial and parochial nature of their gatherings; the lack of occupation which leads to endless silly gossip; all of these facets are captured quite brilliantly.

In general we have somehow not been created for representative bodies. In all our gatherings, from the peasants’ village commune to scholarly committees and every other conceivable kind, a pretty fair degree of chaos reigns, unless one head is present to run everything. It is really difficult to say why this is so: evidently our people are so constituted that the only assemblies that have a chance of success are those organized for the purpose of carousing or dining well, as with clubs and all sorts of pleasure gardens in the German style.

And then there’s the sketches of the various landowners: each represents a different aspect of the Russian character as Gogol saw it, all with flaws and all causing problems in the countryside. There’s Manilov, a sentimentalist; Nozdryov, who comes across as friendly and cheery, but is in fact a bully and a cheat; the widow Korobochka, suspicious and insecure, and cause of much of the rumour; and Plyushkin the miser. None of these characters are really happy, none really capable of running their estates properly and none able to make the lives of their serfs better.

And what I sometimes think, really, or so it seems to me, is that the Russian is a lost individual. He wants to accomplish everything and he can’t do anything. You keep on thinking that beginning tomorrow you’ll start a new life. Beginning tomorrow you’ll go on a diet, but no such thing: by the evening of the same day you’ll have gorged yourself to the point where you can only blink your eyes , and your tongue won’t move; there you sit like an owl, staring at everyone, really. And that’s the way we all are.

But central to everything is the magnificent portrayal of Chichikov: a complex man, clever but flawed, characterised by his love of elegant clothing and creature comforts. He dreams of a beautiful house, a beautiful wife and a family, but seems incapable of having the emotions that are needed for such things. He’s motivated by a need to acquire (and the reason for this is explained late in the story by the narrator). A round man with a round face, I couldn’t help visualising him as looking like the portrait of Gogol himself. And despite the fact that he’s a crook, despite the fact he’s trying to cheat the system, you can’t help but love him (well, I couldn’t). You watch helplessly as he digs himself into an impossible hole, knowing he can’t get out of it, and just wish all would go well for him, even though he’s committing a criminal act. Gogol refers to him as the novel’s hero, and he very much is – because despite his trickery, he exposes the hypocrisies and the faults of the provincial landowners who are certainly no better than him (if not worse!)

Image from the Daily Telegraph

Image from the Daily Telegraph

“Dead Souls” is very, very funny in places (I remember laughing out loud during my first reading) but it also has tragic elements. The account of Chichikov’s upbringing explains much; the lives of the serfs are drudgery and bondage; and the Russian Civil Service is crippling in its rigid caste system. Gogol wrote the book when he was living in Rome and the passion of an exile infuses his prose. He often spirals off into passages praising his native land, which oddly enough sit well enough alongside the more humorous observations of its denizens. There is a constant sense of movement in the book, with Chichikov unable to rest in one place for very long, and his carriage rushes through Russia, taking him on his adventures while the landscape flashes past.

What a strange, and alluring, and uplifting, and wonderful something lies lodged in the word ‘road’! And how wonderous it is in itself, this road: a clear day, autumn leaves, cold air… wrapped snug in your travelling coat, hat pulled down over your ears, you will press yourself into a corner as tightly, as cosily as you can! For the last time a shivery chill has run through your limbs, before being replaced by a pleasant warmth. The horses dash on… how seductively drowsiness steals over you and your eyes close fast, and now through your sleep you hear: “Not white the snows”, and the snorting of the horses and the rattling of the wheels, and by now you are snoring…

On this second reading of Gogol’s masterwork, I picked up on a number of themes I probably missed the first time round. There is the humorous use of names (helpfully explained in the notes); constant references to noses (and let’s not forget the author’s great short story, “The Nose”); Chichikov’s obsessions with eau de cologne and a “tail-coat of whortleberry red shot through with a lighter weave”. One of the elements I loved was the way the author/narrator constantly broke off to address the reader; and the wonderful dialogue between two unnamed ladies of the town, known only as Lady Pleasant in All Respects and the Merely Pleasant Lady is not only very, very funny, but surprisingly modern.

The arrival of the visitor woke the little dogs who were sleeping in the sun: shaggy Adele, who was constantly getting entangled in her own coat, and the darling little Potpourri with his delicate and slender legs. Both dogs were barking, and carried the ringlets of their curled-up tails into the hall, where the visitor was divesting herself of her cloak, whereupon she proved to be wearing a dress of fashionable design and colour, with the long tails of some animal round her neck. The scent of jasmine wafted through the entire room. No sooner had the Lady Pleasant in All Respects learned of the arrival of the Merely Pleasant Lady than she ran out into the hall. The ladies clasped each other’s hands, kissed and screamed the way institute girls scream when they meet soon after their graduation, before their mammas have had occasion to explain to them that the father of one is poorer and of lower rank than the other’s.

Gogol, of course, famously burned part 2 of “Dead Souls” and what’s published here is part 1 plus some surviving fragments of part 2. The author underwent troubling changes later in life, dealing with ill-health and personal religious conflicts. He intended to take Chichikov on a very different journey from that of the first book, in something of an attempt to save Russia from itself, and it has to be said that our hero is a much weaker and less prominent character in the remaining chapters of part 2. It’s frustrating as a reader not to have the whole story, and I know some have thought it best to ignore the fragments and just read part 1, which certainly stands on its own as a wonderful work of art. An argument could be made for simply leaving Chichikov at the end of part 1, riding off into the vastness of Russia to fulfil his destiny, as this is a particularly strong and moving ending. For myself, I’m glad I’ve read the fragments, but I think that it is part 1 that is the work of genius.


Reading “Dead Souls” now, with so much more experience of Russian literature, it’s impossible not to see Gogol’s influence on so many later writers. Dostoevsky, of course, is an obvious example, but there are also elements in Bulgakov, and the constant references to the Devil (which also turn up in “The Master and Margarita”) just show how much of a vital force and important link between the past and modern writers Gogol was. His life was a difficult one, cut short too early, and I wish he’d lived longer to write more of this calibre. But at least we still have the short stories and “Dead Souls” and I can see that this is a book I’ll return to again.