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 “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.
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 in dead souls. For every reason Tchitchikoff gives, Nozdreff calls him a liar. Then Nozdreff wants to play at cards for the souls, but Tchitchikoff refuses. They are arguing when a police captain comes in and arrests Nozdreff for assault on a man while drunk. Tchitchikoff thinks himself well rid of the annoying Nozdreff.
Tchitchikoff’s next host is Sobakevitch, who at first demands the unreasonable sum of one hundred rubles for each name of a dead soul. Tchitchikoff finally persuades him to accept two and a half rubles apiece, a higher price than he planned to pay.
Pliushkin, with whom he negotiates next, is a miser. He buys one hundred twenty dead souls and seventy-eight fugitives after considerable haggling. Pliushkin gives him a letter to Ivan Grigorievitch, the town president.
Back in town, Tchitchikoff persuades the town president to make his recent purchases legal. Since the law requires that souls, when purchased, be transferred to another estate, Tchitchikoff tells the officials that he has land in the Kherson province. He has no trouble in making himself sound plausible. Some bribes to minor officials...
(The entire section is 1066 words.)