Gogol's "Dead Souls" is an amazing, if incomplete, novel. I would say it is about a fellow named Chichikov, but that would not be true. The novel is about Russia. In "Dead Souls" we see that Gogol loved Russia so much, it drove him mad trying to find a way to save it. The novel is entrancing, moving seamlessly between minute particularity to epic scope, as it takes all of Russia under its gaze. At times, the tone is satirical, angry, comic, even desperate - but always with a wistful fondness that should be apparent to the observant reader.
Chichikov, the hero of Gogol's epic poem, shows the influence of Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," a novel with which Gogol was familiar. Like Shandy, we know little about Chichikov until well into the novel. This narrative indirection allows us more insight into the other characters and the conditions of Russia after the Napoleonic wars. Chichikov is a minor gentleman, who, having served in various government positions, decides to pursue the life of a land-owner. His scheme is to traverse Russia, gathering the legal rights to serfs who have died on estates since the last census. By turning an accumulated list of these 'dead souls' over to the government, he plans to make a small fortune, which he will use to buy an estate.
While Chichikov may appear to be a morally questionable swindler, like Herman Melville's "Confidence-Man," he does have noble motivations, despite his methods. Chichikov seeks what each person seeks, according to Gogol - to have a family, to do honor to one's country. Although his plan can seem to be a ludicrous, last-ditch sort of effort at establishing himself, Chichikov is, throughout, extremely level-headed about it. Chichikov knows how to speak and carry himself so that he will be accepted by everyone he meets. From the noble, efficient land-owner Kostanjoglo to the wild, hilarious liar Nozdryov - Chichikov mingles with and exposes us to "the whirligig of men."
Gogol points out throughout the novel that the written text is inadequate to convey the actual experience - the air, the sights, the smells, the people of Russia. He tries, then, to give us "a living book" - a testament to a way of life that was soon to change. Like Melville's "Confidence-Man," which was published shortly before the American Civil War, Gogol's "Dead Souls" came out only a few years before Marx's "Communist Manifesto" which would change and determine the fate of Russia in the first decades of the 20th century.
Read the lyrical "Dead Souls" - if you like his short stories, like "The Nose" or "The Overcoat," - you will find a wonderfully complex and sophisticated, and deeply involved intellect at his best.