- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; New edition edition (10 Sept. 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0192818376
- ISBN-13: 978-0192818379
- Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 2.5 x 13 cm
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1 customer review)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,165,371 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Dead Souls: A Poem (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 10 Sep 1998
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A socially adept newcomer fluidly inserts himself into an unnamed Russian town, conquering first the drinkers, then the dignitaries. Everyone finds him amiable, estimable and agreeable, but what exactly is Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov up to? Something, it transpires, that will soon throw the town "into utter perplexity".
After more than a week of entertainment and "passing the time, as they say, very pleasantly", he gets down to business--heading off to call on some landowners. More pleasantries ensue before Chichikov reveals his bizarre plan. He'd like to buy the souls of peasants who have died since the last census. The first landowner looks carefully to see if he's mad, but spots no outward signs. In fact, the scheme is innovative but by no means bonkers. Even though Chichikov will be taxed on the supposed serfs, he will be able to count them as his property and gain the reputation of a gentleman owner. His first victim is happy to give up his souls for free--less tax burden for him. The second, however, knows Chichikov must be up to something, and the third has his servants rough him up. Nonetheless, he prospers.
Dead Souls is a feverish anatomy of Russian society (the book was first published in 1842) and human wiles. Its author tosses off thousands of sublime epigrams--including, "However stupid a fool's words may be, they are sometimes enough to confound an intelligent man," and is equally adept at biting satire: "Where is he," Gogol interrupts the action, "who, in the native tongue of our Russian soul, could speak to us this all-powerful word: forward? who, knowing all the forces and qualities, and all the depths of our nature, could, by one magic gesture, point the Russian man towards a lofty life?" Flannery O'Connor, another writer of dark genius, declared Gogol "necessary along with the light". Though he was hardly the first to envision property as theft, his blend of comedy, the fantasy and morality is sui generis. --Kerry Fried
About the Author
Robert A. Maguire is Bakmeteff Professor of Russian Studies at Columbia University, New York. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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The hiatus was of some problem, but a good edition offers the chance to patch up the missing pieces at the end. As some other review mentioned, the ultimate irony is the fact that Chichikov is the true dead soul, devoid of morality, blinded by greed, and chastised by the very travesty of justice--a crippled system that is manipulated by dead souls such as Chichikov. Indeed, this is a piece of literature that makes one ponder long after the last page is turned. There are just so many hidden switches that trigger the senses and tantalizes one's security about our world. Gogol's vision still holds true for today, a highly materialized world, maybe this classic will offer some seemingly antedeluvian advice on our very modern problem of ambition. After all, there is a dead-soul dealer in all of us, and Chichikov is far from the villian (as Gogol calls him "our hero").
Documentation that Gogol was working on Dead Souls comes in a letter to Pushkin, whom Gogol greatly admired, dated 7 October 1836. In this letter, Gogol informs Pushkin that, "I have begun to write Dead Souls. The plot has stretched out into a very long novel, and it will, I think, be extremely amusing. But now I've stopped it on the third chapter. I'm hunting for a good slanderer with whom one can become intimate. I want to show all Russia--at least from one side--in this novel." This is the first indication that Gogol was involved with something longer than his usual short stories, or as is the case with Taras Bulba, a novella.
Only the first part of Dead Souls was actually completed by Gogol. The second part (some chapters of which are published with the first) is a recreation of what Gogol might have done with the continuation of his work; he actually burned the second part only nine days before his death.
Dead Souls was originally published as The Adventures of Chichikov since religious censors at the time objected to the phrase "dead souls" as being theologically contradictory.
As Dead Souls opens, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov is traveling through the Russian countryside on business. He is, however, my no means, an idle wanderer.
The situation from which Dead Souls develops is based upon a scheme which was theoretically possible in the Russia of Gogol's time. The government had a policy of loaning money to landowners, however, lands owned were measured, not in acres, or hectares, but by the number of "souls," i.e., serfs, residing on them. The government would accept the serfs as collateral for a loan to the owner.
An individual possessed the number of "souls" recorded in the most recent census, with a new census being taken every ten years. In Dead Souls, Chichikov schemes to buy from the serf holders a number of "dead souls" who had, indeed, died, but were still counted as living until the next census. Once Chichikov had enough of these souls, he intended to apply for a loan and buy an actual country estate.
Chichikov's business dealings with the landowners, like every facet of the novel, serves as a measuring stick for his own observations of Russian life. No two business dealings are alike, however. One of Gogol's greatest artistic achievements is that a recurring topic or theme never becomes predictable or boring. Each business transaction is different and impossible to predict: with the character Manilov, it is easy; with Sobakievich, it is tough going; with Nozdryov, the quintessential Russian peasant, impossible.
Dead Souls is told by a narrator who is at times omniscient and at other times, not. The overall tone of the book is one of both humor and irony, although Gogol does become increasingly melancholic and lyrical near the end.
While the narrator outwardly shows the characters and their actions great respect, he still manages to illustrate their folly, their coarseness and, at times, their ugliness.
Gogol also revealed much about the characters in their names. This may or may not be apparent to the reader, depending on which translation he is reading, but the book can be enjoyed without knowing the irony behind Gogol's play on names.
A continuing leitmotif in Dead Souls is that of marriage. We see in the various landowners their attitudes towards marriage and family life, none of which is particularly complimentary, although it is, at times, hilariously funny. Even Chichikov, himself, is a contented middle-aged bachelor. "What makes women so repulsive?" he, at one point, asks the world at large. Yet, even this contented bachelor, as we soon see, is not immune to the charms of a pretty face.
Gogol introduces five landowners in the novel's first seven chapters, then moves away from the countryside back to town where Chichikov now plans to register the "deeds" he has purchased. His descriptions in this part of the novel are reminiscent of the situations and characters in The Overcoat and The Inspector General.
An unexpected, but logical twist, occurs at the end of volume one in Chichikov's wild troika ride, with bells tinkling, signifying the glorification of Russia's own fast ride in history.
Dead Souls is the epitome of what Gogol did best. It introduces a multitude of characters, varied settings, multitudinous detail and a scope grand enough to allow this amazing and very funny writer to elaborate on the very heart of Russian life to his own soul's content.
TITLE: Dead Souls
AUTHOR: Nikolai Gogol
TRANSLATOR: Christopher English
PLOT: Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov has been dismissed from civil service, but not all hope is lost. He decides to stroll across the Russian countryside in order to reach his goal. And that goal involves deceased citizens of every kind.
CHARACTERS: Chichikov almost creeps me out (he's like a Russian Sweeney Todd). He can be calm on the outside, but impatient on the inside. The mystery of his goals affect his friends and his servants as they start to have an urge on why he wants to collect the names of `dead souls'. Nozdryov is particularly a memorable supporting character. At first he's kind to his good companions, and then, as he thinks boredom strikes, he aggressively defends their friendship. Selifan and Petrushka, Chichikov's servants, provide a bit of comic relief for their parts. Khlobuev is very likeable as he helps Chichikov in dire need near the end.
PACING: Part One of "Dead Souls" has an almost perfect pacing. There are never too many descriptive narratives nor does it have too little. The journeys of Chichikov almost never drag, and the introductions of supporting characters won't make you throw this book away. It's Part Two that slows the whole story down. The introductions to new characters are much more descriptive, and the narrative paragraphs seem to last forever.
THE WRITING ITSELF: Christopher English's English translation is a mixed bag. For the good side, he perfectly selects adverbs and adjectives. He also makes sure that Gogol's dramatic language remains in his own. For the bad side, I think he might've ignored much of the ironic/satirical humor, as some passages didn't make me smile at all. But I guess it's just me, and maybe other people have enjoyed this rendition as much as Robert Maguire's rendition.
And finally, it's a good thing that the supposedly `final chapter' is included here. We would get to know how Gogol wanted to start on a non-existent Part Three.
OVERALL: Despite a mediocre translation, "Dead Souls" is a comic classic in Russian literature. It's as anti-heroic as Lermontov's "A Hero of our Time", and as lyrical as Pushkin's poem "Eugene Onegin". It's a must-read. B+