Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In Gogol’s time, a Russian landowner could buy and sell serfs, or “souls,” like any other property. The serfs were counted, for the purpose of tax assessment, every ten years. Thus, a landowner still had to pay taxes on the value of serfs who had died, until the next ten-year census could legally record the deaths. In Dead Souls, a prose novel subtitled A Poem, Gogol’s hero, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, plans to buy the titles to these “dead souls” and use them as collateral to obtain a large loan. He comes to a small provincial town and begins to proposition the local landowners: the slothful Manilovs (the “kind-manners”), the slovenly Plewshkin (“Mr. Spitoon”), the coarse Sobakievich (“Mr. Dog”), the cautious Madame Korobachka (“Mrs. Box”), and the bully and cheat Nozdryov (“Mr. Nostrils”). These landowners are revealed to be so petty and avaricious that not even Chichikov’s amazing offer can be worked to his advantage on them. Some stall, some refuse for no obvious reasons, some promise and then renege, and others want “in on the deal.” In the end, Chichikov, having concluded that the landowners are a hopeless lot, leaves for other regions.
Throughout Dead Souls, Gogol presents Russian life as a mosaic of strangely intersecting inanities. He makes his authorial presence felt as a first-person commentator. His commentator’s stance is curiously unresolved. Though he likens Russia to the...
(The entire section is 260 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Pavel Ivanovitch Tchitchikoff arrives in the town accompanied by his coachman, Selifan, and his valet, Petrushka. He is entertained gloriously and meets numerous interesting people, many of whom insist on his visiting them in their own homes. Nothing suits Tchitchikoff better. After several days of celebration in the town, he takes Selifan and begins a round of visits to the various estates in the surrounding country.
His first host is Maniloff, a genial man who wines and dines him in a manner fit for a prince. When the time is ripe, Tchitchikoff begins to question his host about his estate. To his satisfaction, he learns that many of Maniloff’s souls, as the serfs are called, died since the last census and that Maniloff is still paying taxes on them and will continue to do so until the next census. Tchitchikoff offers to buy these dead souls from Maniloff and so relieve him of his extra tax burden. The contract is signed, and Tchitchikoff sets out for the next estate.
Selifan gets lost and in the middle of the night draws up to a house that belongs to Madame Korobotchkina, from whom Tchitchikoff also buys dead souls. When he leaves his host, he finds his way to an inn in the neighborhood. There he meets Nozdreff, a notorious gambler and liar. Nozdreff recently lost a great deal of money at gambling, and Tchitchikoff thinks he will be a likely seller of dead souls. When he broaches the subject, Nozdreff asks him the reason for his interest...
(The entire section is 1066 words.)