Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol: Summary & Analysis

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 novel, ~'Dead Souls,~' analyzes the ways in which the main character's travels showcase the nobility's arrogant attitude and expectations as well as the deception and corruption that penetrates every corner of life.

Chichikov Comes to Town N

Everyone has heard the phrase that hard work is the path to success. Not everyone abides by this sentiment. There are always examples of people who try to succeed through the path of least resistance. In Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, the protagonist, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, tries to take the easy path to success but finds it fraught with difficulties.

Chichikov isn't the only person in the novel trying to make easy money. The landowners, who own the serfs, or servants, haven't worked a day in their life. The serfs care for the land and it is their work that earns the landowners money. When these serfs die, they are considered dead souls, yet still count among the living on the census. Chichikov tries to help the landowners by purchasing these dead souls.

Chichikov arrives in a town that Gogol simply calls ''N''. Chichikov plans to buy dead souls and then collect them for his own eventual gain. Basically, he wants to create the illusion that he is wealthy. Although these transactions prove comical, it is also demonstrates how greedy people can be. There is nothing to be gained from selling these dead souls (or buying them) other than to remove them from their census. The landowners, however, are compelled to extract every last cent possible from their estates.

Nikolai Gogol
Gogol

Buying Up Dead Souls

Chichikov engages with a number of landowners, all of whom show some level of greed. The first is Nastasya Petrovna Korobochka, who is hesitant to sell to Chichikov. She suspects he is trying to cheat her. She tries to sell him other items, but he is only interested in the dead souls. He eventually provides her with a contract to conclude their sale.

Chichikov later learns of other prosperous landowners. First is Nozdryov, ''the young man with whom he had dined at the public prosecutor's.'' This attempt goes poorly from the start. Chichikov is questioned as to why he wants to buy them. Chickhikov explains that he wants to marry but the bride's parents want a suitor who has 300 souls, or serfs, on their estate. Nazdryov won't sell, and instead challenges Chichikov to a game of checkers.

The game is a farce from the beginning. Chichikov is accused of cheating. Police arrive and arrest Nozdryov for a prior assault charge. Chichikov slips away during the commotion, and ventures off to Sobakevich. The negotiations here are tedious. Sobakevich continually haggles for more money. Chichikov stands firm and eventually pays 2.5 rubles for each soul. He later buys dead souls from Plyushkin, but at the paltry sum of 32 kopeks for each.

One matter that seems to be overlooked during all these transactions is the amount of work Chichikov puts into this scheme. He endures lots of haggling and suspicion. He even has his life threatened. It would likely be easier to have an office job, but Chichikov would rather pursue his goal his way, even if he has to put up with greedy and untrustworthy landowners.

Rumors and Ruination

When Chichikov arrives at the government office to file an application ''for matters related to sales'', he encounters misdirection, misinformation, and disinterest. Chichikov realizes he won't get anywhere without offering a bribe. After making his contribution, everything proceeds smoothly. What does this accomplish? The recording of these sales gives the appearance that Chichikov ''was neither more nor less than a millionaire.''

Rumor quickly spreads around town that Chichikov is wealthy. Trouble soon appears. Madame Korobochka inquires about the going rate for dead souls. Nozdryov announces loudly at a formal ball that Chichikov has been purchasing dead souls. For all the deception and corruption that pervades the town, all eyes fall on Chichikov. His stock begins to plummet.

He is accused of wanting to marry the president's daughter, of whom he actually is fond. This develops into a case that is ''brought before the high court.'' Nozdryov offers to help him marry the president's daughter, but only if Chichikov lends him ''three thousand rubles.'' All his plans ruined, Chichikov, decides to avoid these accusations and relocate to different part of Russia.

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