Dead Souls

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Dead Souls is one of literature’s greatest comic epics, planned as a secular companion to Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY and also as a parody of the picaresque novel, with Gogol’s hero ordinary and bland rather than racy and witty, and the book’s episodic events commonplace rather than hazardous. While the subtlety of Gogol’s humor invites comparison with Cervantes, his emphasis on provincial pettiness and paltriness, snobbery and stupidity parallels Jonathan Swift’s and Gustave Flaubert’s pessimistic views of human nature.

Chichikov is a pleasantly featureless hero, neither too fat nor too thin, too young nor too old, who begins the first part by arriving in a sleepy, dreary town and ends it by departing from that town. He ingratiates himself with a gallery of increasingly grotesque landowners, flatters them by his tactful conversation, is invited to visit their homes and, upon doing so, bargains more or less successfully for their dead souls.

His first transaction is with the sentimental, sugary Manilov, who mirrors Chichikov’s affability. Then, he interviews the mistrustful, superstitious widow Korobochka, who echoes his slyness in business enterprise. Next, he sees the lying, disorderly Nozdryov, whose deceitfulness is a variant of Chichikov’s; then the ill-tempered, brutish Sobakevich, whose calculating egotism copies the hero’s; last and most horrifying, the degenerate miser Plyushkin, who dresses in filthy rags and...

(The entire section is 552 words.)