First things first: Was your mouth watering every time you read they were having "cabbage soup"? Not that cabbage soup is something to lust over but because Gogol can make it so. (Why, Gogol can make a vegetarian crave for a "sucking pig".)
Now, Dead Souls: What an incredible satire on Russian character and tradition!
When I read Gogol's stories, The Madman's Diary, The Coat etc. I called him "a crazy person". I meant it as a compliment. I was referring to his creativity, his choice of odd subject matters and characters, his unique ability to reveal problems in bureaucracy with hilarious satire. I did not know that he eventually really went mad, in the more common sense that we use the term.
Dead Souls has two parts. First part is complete (and published in Gogol's time) and as good as a satiric novel can get. Second part is interrupted with many notes by the editor such as: "Part of the manuscript is missing here". What a shame!
According to an explanation on the cover of the book, the first part of Dead Souls had taken Gogol eight years to write. While writing the second part of the book, Gogol expands his vision and the goal of the book. He imagines a great book consisting of three parts in which he will get to tell the story of Russians from all walks of life.
It is interesting to note that Balzac, who was Gogol's contemporary (Balzac: 1799-1850, Gogol: 1809-1852), also envisioned a similar massive work. From Herbert J. Hunt's introduction to Balzac's "Lost Illusions":
"By about 1830 he had already conceived the idea of presenting the social and moral history of his own times in a complex series of novels and short stories: he also intended it to be an interpretation of life and society as he saw it, ..."
The only difference between Balzac's and Gogol's ambitious grand projects was that Gogol's was going to have one character (Chichikov) that would connect all the sub-stories and essentially consist of one book (of three volumes), whereas Balzac's was going to contain many independent pieces combined under the title "The Human Comedy" but could be read as individual books.
It killed them both. Balzac literally worked himself to death. Gogol, obsessed with his to-be masterpiece, `a palace of colossal dimensions', he imagined to solve Russia's problems and with his work losing its boundaries, he lost his mind, burnt most of what he had written after the publication of part one, and committed suicide.
The idea of Dead Souls was initially Pushkin's. According to what Gogol has written in his "Author's Confession", Alexander Pushkin had given his own subject to Gogol and had said that he would not have given it to anyone else. I am sure all literature lovers are grateful to Pushkin for this. Nobody else could have done justice to Chichikov and nobody else could have given us such a magnificent black humour book filled with hilarious dialogues and observations of the absurd.
I can open the book up at random, and read a hilarious scene or a dialogue, and what I read will be ridiculous but true. Gogol was a very intelligent observer. He only needed to exaggerate just slightly to get the comic effect. Take for instance the episode where Chichikov's three-horse carriage gets tangled up with a six-horse carriage. Can't you just visualize the racket that followed? Uncle Mityay and Uncle Minyay trying to untangle the harnesses with an entire village shouting and giving advise? Ridiculously funny and ridiculously real.
Towards the end of the book, Gogol leans towards solving Russia's problems by choosing villages over towns, a simple existence over an educated one, and religion over everything else. This doesn't work of course, but doesn't take away from the brilliance of the book. In the character Kostanjoglo, we see Gogol idolizing the perfect landowner and the solution to all of Russia's problems. Here, it is hard to say if Gogol is pulling the reader's leg or if he is being serious. We know that Gogol was not against serfdom, which, one can easily argue, was the root of many of Russia's problems, but if Gogol is seriously offering us Kostanjoglo's philosophies as solutions, then why does he make him as comic a character as anyone else? Does he want us to take Kostanjoglo seriously, a man who doesn't believe in any advancement, any education, any new technology, any progress?
After Kostanjoglo, comes the religious solution in the shape of Murazov. In these fragmented parts of the book, we clearly see the religious obsession that took hold over Gogol and eventually caused him to burn the rest of his manuscript. Had Gogol finished his book (or had he not burnt the manuscript), then maybe Dead Souls was not going to be as immortal (pun intended) as we accept it to be today. Gogol was capable of ruining this masterpiece with pro-serfdom, anti-progress and religious "solutions".
However, regardless of Gogol's declining sanity that is being reflected in the last bits and pieces of the book, Dead Souls remains a masterpiece and Gogol a genius. I think if he had continue to do what he does best, observe acutely and narrate hilariously, he might have indeed be capable of solving all of Russia's problems.
Don't let the fact that this is an incomplete book stop you from reading it. Just think of it as typical Gogol, because even before going mad and burning manuscripts, Gogol had the habit of leaving his stories in the middle. One of his short stories start with a warning: "This story is missing the end." And Gogol is not kidding. When you get to the end, you find out that the end is missing.