Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552
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 hoards any and all trash for the sheer greed of senseless, sterile accumulation thereby representing the shadowy side of Chichikov’s acquisitiveness.
Gogol’s denunciation of Russia’s social and moral meanness of soul dominates this book. Yet he occasionally interrupts his portraiture of emptiness and damnation with remarkably lyric digressions on his native land’s future prospects for greatness among nations.
Fanger, Donald. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. An interesting consideration of the relationship between Gogol and his readers. Evaluates Gogol’s commentary on literature within his texts and explores the road as the dominant metaphor of Dead Souls.
Gippius, V. V. Gogol. Edited and translated by Robert Maguire. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1981. This classic treatment of Gogol’s life and works is enhanced by glosses on contemporary figures. The book treats Gogol’s literary influences in detail. The chapter on Dead Souls considers the structure of the novel as a gallery of caricatures and explores Gogol’s reformulation of the picaresque novel.
Griffiths, Frederick, and Stanley Rabinowitz. Gogol, Dostoevsky, and National Narrative. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1990. Places Gogol’s work within the framework of the epic tradition. Evaluates stylistic aspects of the text, such as Homeric similes and hyperbole, that create the mock-heroic mood of Dead Souls.
Maguire, Robert, ed. and trans. Gogol from the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. A collection of well-known Russian essays. These varied approaches to Gogol’s work include a consideration of Gogol as a realist depicting provincial life, a psychoanalytic evaluation of his prose, and a stylistic analysis of his wordplay. The introduction provides a thorough overview of the criticism.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1944. The clever tone of Nabokov’s book mirrors that of Gogol’s prose. While the stylistic analysis is eclectic and brilliant, the primary focus is on banality. Gogol’s genius is his attention to the absurd in everyday life.