Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol — Reviewed by Guy Portman
Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov is travelling around provincial Russia, visiting landowners. His purpose is to purchase papers relating to their serfs who have died since the last census. By doing so Chichikov relieves the owners of the tax burden these ‘Dead Souls’ are continuing to accrue. What our protagonist does not divulge is that he plans to take out a vast mortgage against the deceased serfs, in order to buy himself a large estate in Russia’s Far East. But some of the landowners are suspicious as to Chichikov’s motives, making his mission more difficult than he had envisaged.
Published in 1842, Dead Souls is an uncompleted, satirical novel that parodies Imperial Russia and provincial Russian life. Targets for ridicule include the gentry and rural officials. The text provides some interesting insights into the feudal nature of society in the country during the period.
This reader appreciated the author’s sardonic humour, satirical observations and the eccentric nature of the book’s characters. However, this is a dense and ponderous work which becomes increasingly tedious, turgid and incohesive. Unlikeable and tiresome protagonist Chichikov exacerbates these factors.
Rife with archaic and obsolete words, this translation (Wordsworth edition) is according to many reviewers an ungainly effort that fails to do justice to Gogol’s poetic prose style.