Last night I finished up reading Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. So far, this has been my favorite novel for my reading challenge. Dead Souls is a bit unique in that it’s not a complete novel. Many sentences and chapters are incomplete near the end of the second part of the novel. Gogol intended to write a third part, but sadly died before his masterpiece was complete. Gogol himself was unsatisfied with the novel, and even burned a majority of the manuscript’s second part. Despite that, Gogol’s Dead Souls exhibits the genius of the author.
I’ve had a fascination with Russian literature since I first read Anna Karenina for the first time in high school. My boyfriend bought me Dead Souls for Christmas because of this. Although the title sounds morbid, Dead Souls started out quite tame and very slow. Honestly, I had a hard time getting into the book to start, but Gogol is an excellent observer of environment and of characters. Four or five chapters in, I was hooked.
The plot focuses on Chichikov, who travels around to various landowners across Russia in order to buy dead souls (dead peasants). Again, the idea seems a bit morbid, but Chichikov is foremost a business man, and in buying dead souls buys the name of the peasant, as that is what is counted for the population census of landowners. At first, it seems Chichikov buys the peasants in order to relieve the land owners from paying taxes on the dead peasants, but eventually ulterior motives are revealed.
Although the plot of Dead Souls is unique, the greatest part of the novel is Gogol’s ability to capture the Russian spirit within the novel. Russian authors, more so than any other group, seem to be preoccupied with an idea of one man embodying all of Russia, and Russia embodying all that man is and all that man can be. In some ways, Russia is a character within Gogol’s novel, and that concept is intriguing to me. Through the narrative of Chichikov, Gogol also explores the soul of not just a Russian man, but every man/person. Every glimpse of Chicikov’s soul shows the pain, the joy, and the resilience of all souls.
On that same note, the title Dead Souls is almost ironic when looking at the larger picture of the novel, which is to capture the essence of the very much alive soul that dwells within Chichikov. The depth and breadth of human nature that Gogol captures is extraordinary, really.
Although I read this book more casually, it could easily be read and analyzed in an academic environment.
Also, Dead Souls is available in PDF format from Harvard University: http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/gov2126/files/gogol_dead_souls_1996.pdf