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  • Elisabeth Gaiganis

Book Review: Dead Souls

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Nikolai Gogol's 1842 Quixotesque novel of two parts follows the story of Chichikov, a middle-aged Russian man who, "though not handsome, was not ill-favoured, not over-fat, and not over-thin. Also, though not over-elderly, he was not over-young." He wanders Russia in search of landlords who will sell him their dead serfs, who exist on paper only, as a sort of 'get-rich' scheme.

Throughout Gogol's epic poem in prose, we explore Russia during the tsardom of Nicholas I, an era characterised by wars and citizen revolts, aristocracy and peasantry. In Dead Souls, the reader is taken on an extensive journey: we attend high-society balls and experience rural peasant life. On a political level, the book uncovers the flaws of the 19th century Russian mentality while simultaneously exposing sects of the Russian government as elitist, concluding with Chichikov's grand speech railing against government corruption. Gogol magnificently sweeps the reader into a complex mysterious story and masterfully retains our attention throughout, despite an initial lack of answers to our inquiries. Gradually, we become acquainted with all sorts of characters: the sentimentalist, the economic man, the bully, and even with the cryptic Chichikov himself.

Within his satirical novel in verse, the Ukrainian-born author subtly comments on many matters, including the intricacies of language, and the legitimacy of storytelling. The story is abounding in political and social nuances - and should interest anyone concerned with social and political class in a historical context. That said, this book is certainly not for the everyday man. Though it was intended to be, Gogol's incessant self-criticism and initial commercial failure drove him to a state of near madness which compelled him to burn later parts of the novel, a madness that is evident in his writing. The ceaseless descriptive narration and absence of any conclusion may prove too much to bear for some readers, or you may simply find it too long.

Nonetheless, Dead Souls is a true Russian classic of a long and complex nature, and an essential read if you do happen to be enticed by Russian literature.

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