When Nikolai Gogol began work on Dead Souls in the 1830’s, he developed a picaresque anecdote, initially suggested by poet Alexander Pushkin, that was crudely satiric. Eventually the concept grew into a “poema,” or an epic, signaling its broad scope, patriotic flavor, and symbolic content. Although the censors forced him to alter the “Tale of Captain Kopeykin” in the tenth chapter of the novel and to change the title “Dead Souls,” with its blasphemous and politically charged implications, to “The Adventures of Tchitchikoff,” the work drew universal admiration. By the time the work was published in 1842, Gogol anticipated two more volumes describing the moral rebirth of Tchitchikoff and the ideal state of the Russian nation. Gogol’s consistent dissatisfaction with the draft prevented him from publishing the continuation. The five chapters of volume 2 did not appear until three years after his death in 1852.
Gogol’s contemporaries emphasized the accuracy of his portraits of Russian life, his realism. Some critics viewed Gogol’s Russia as a faithful copy or justified the negative portrayals as necessary for a balanced depiction of Russia, while others objected to his cruel depiction of Russian life. The novel was interpreted variously from purely satiric to morally uplifting. Although Gogol’s work was frequently discussed as a commentary on the unjust institution of serfdom, Dead Souls instead emphasizes the imperfections of government bureaucracy and satirizes officials working within that system. Gogol focuses his attention primarily on the middle class, rather than the high nobility, noble landowners, urban bureaucrats, or the peasantry. The provincial setting allows, however, for ample presentation of varied social groups. Dead Souls develops generalizations about Russian manners, speech, characters, and spirit within episodes of comic and lyric digression.
The first six chapters of the novel establish Tchitchikoff’s mirrorlike amiability as he visits a series of Russian landowners: the vapid and obliging Maniloff, the suspicious Madame Korobotchkina, the misanthropic Sobakevitch, the hyperbolic Nozdreff, and the miserly Pliushkin. In order to buy the legal titles to recently deceased serfs, he mimics the dominant obsession of each. Gogol manages to sustain the enigma of Tchitchikoff through these shifts of behavior. Only near the end of the novel does Gogol flesh out his hero by supplying his biography and preparing him for the next stage on the road. The late inclusion of the biography makes it apparent that...
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