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Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol: Characters & Quotes

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Nikolai Gogol's 'Dead Souls' has a cast of characters who all contribute to the plot. As the protagonist, Chichikov stands out from the crowd. A number of other characters also have a great impact on the outcome of the story.

A Large Cast of Characters

It goes without saying that most Russian novels overwhelm the reader with a large cast of characters. Perhaps adding to the difficulty of keeping these characters straight are the many different forms in which the names might appear. To some extent, Nikolai Gogol refers to his characters by their last name, thereby reducing the stress of having to remember all the names along with their diminutives. Gogol's Dead Souls does keep the practice of introducing a long line of characters.

How does one discern which characters are important, especially when new characters keep appearing? Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov maintains his presence throughout the novel as he searches for landowners willing to sell their dead souls to him. It is within these interactions that one might become confused as to who is important and who isn't. This lesson will explain why certain characters have more importance, and therefore, are more relevant to the plot of Dead Souls.

Chichikov

Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov is the protagonist of Gogol's novel. Chichikov has this idea that if he can buy a large number of dead souls, that is, serfs who are listed on the census of a landowner's estate, but who have since passed away, he can ''obtain a position in society.'' If he records these souls, he will give the appearance ''that he is neither more nor less than a millionaire.'' With this perception, he will attain his goal and have access to the wealthiest people. This is how Chichikov plans to get rich quick.

How did Chichikov get to be this way? When Chichikov's father drops him off at boarding school, he tells him to ''please your teachers and your superiors.'' He also reminds Chichikov that a kopeck ''is the most reliable thing in the world.''

Chichikov takes this advice to heart and practices it to perfection while at school. He learns ''how to behave accordingly to his superior's desires.'' He develops his main pursuit in life from these experiences. Chichikov wants ''a life of every comfort, of every prosperity.'' So, he sets off to accomplish this.

Having learned long ago how to please others, Chichikov uses his talent to ingratiate himself with local landowners. He broaches the topic of dead souls carefully and then proceeds with negotiations. Of extreme importance is knowing to walk away. Otherwise, the landowners might take advantage of his generosity of buying up these dead souls. When Chichikov cannot sufficiently answer why he wants to buy dead souls, the landowners begin to question his motives, which eventually leads to the revelation that Chichikov is a fraud.

The Sellers

Chichikov meets a number of purveyors of dead souls. Nastasya Petrovna Korobochka is the first who agrees to sell the dead souls of her estate to Chichikov. She is reluctant only because she ''fears...he might somehow hoodwink her.'' The sale bothers her, and she goes into town to ask questions. She mentions to others what Chichikov did, indicating that he took advantage of ''an inexperienced, helpless widow.'' Her pursuit adds to the gossip about Chichikov's intentions and the eventual discovery of his true motives. Because of this, Nastasya stands out as a relevant character of the novel.

Nozdryov also creates problems for Chichikov. After difficult negotiations, Nozdryov proposes to ''sit down and play checkers.'' Nozdryov cheats and Chichikov refuses to play further. Nozdryov becomes incensed and strikes Chichikov. As matters become more intolerable, Nozdryov is arrested for a previous assault charge. Does he bear responsibility for these misfortunes? No. He blames Chichikov, and announces quite publicly at an evening ball that Chichikov ''deals in dead souls!'' He questions Chichikov's motives, which in turn leads others to question. Nozdryov instigates the fall of Chichikov from societal heights.

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