Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066
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 help.
Tchitchikoff proves to be such a delightful guest that the people of the town insist that he stay on and on. He is the center of attraction at many social functions, including a ball at which he is especially interested in the governor’s daughter. Soon, however, rumors spread that Tchitchikoff is using the dead souls as a screen, that he is really planning to elope with the governor’s daughter. The men, in consultation at the police master’s house, speculate variously. Some say he is a forger; others think he might be an officer in the governor-general’s office; one man puts forth the fantastic suggestion that he is really the legendary Captain Kopeykin in disguise. They question Nozdreff, who was the first to report the story of the purchase of dead souls. At their interrogation, Nozdreff confirms their opinions that Tchitchikoff is a spy and a forger who is trying to elope with the governor’s daughter.
Meanwhile, Tchitchikoff catches a cold and is confined to his bed. When at last he recovers sufficiently to go out, he finds himself no longer welcome at the houses of his former friends. He is, in fact, turned away by servants at the door. Tchitchikoff realizes it will be best for him to leave town.
The truth of the matter is that Tchitchikoff began his career as a humble clerk. His father died leaving no legacy for his son, who served in various capacities, passing from customs officer to smuggler to pauper to legal agent. When he learned that the Trustee Committee would mortgage souls, he hit upon the scheme of acquiring funds by mortgaging dead souls that were still on the census lists. It was this purpose that sent him on his current tour.
He turns up next on the estate of Andrei Ivanovitch Tentetnikoff, a thirty-three-year-old bachelor who retired from public life to vegetate in the country. Learning that Tentetnikoff is in love with the daughter of his neighbor, General Betrishtcheff, Tchitchikoff goes to see the general and wins his consent to Tentetnikoff’s suit. He brings the conversation around to a point where he can offer to buy dead souls from the general. He gives as his reason the story that his old uncle will not leave him an estate unless he himself already owns some property. The scheme so delights the general that he gladly makes the transaction.
Tchitchikoff’s next stop is with Pyetukh, a generous glutton whose table he enjoys. There he meets a young man named Platonoff, whom Tchitchikoff persuades to travel with him and see Russia. The two stop to see Platonoff’s sister and brother-in-law, Konstantin Skudronzhoglo, a prosperous landholder. Tchitchikoff so impresses his host that Skudronzhoglo agrees to lend him ten thousand rubles to buy the estate of a neighboring spendthrift named Klobueff. Klobueff says he has a rich old aunt who will give great gifts to churches and monasteries but will not help her destitute relatives. Tchitchikoff proceeds to the town where the old woman resides and forges a will to his own advantage, but he forgets to insert a clause canceling all previous wills. On her death, he goes to interview His Excellency, Alexei Ivanovitch Lyenitzen, who tells him that two wills were discovered, each contradicting the other. Tchitchikoff is accused of forging the second will and is thrown into prison. In the interpretation of this mix-up, Tchitchikoff learns a valuable lesson in deception from the crafty lawyer he consults. The lawyer manages to confuse the affair with every public and private scandal in the province, so that the officials are soon willing to drop the whole matter if Tchitchikoff will leave town immediately. The ruined adventurer is only too glad to comply.