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 “fastest troika imaginable . . . racing headlong . . . inspired by God,” he seems most insistent, with his wordy, tongue-in-cheek prose, in portraying the life within its borders as inalterably superficial.