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Dead Souls

From Academic Kids

Dead Souls is a satirical novel by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The first sections were published in 1842. It was intended to form a trilogy, but only the first two parts were ever finished.

Referred by its author as an "epic poem in prose", and within the book as a "novel in verse", the plot of the story is suggested to Gogol by Pushkin. Despite having supposedly completed the trilogy's last portions, Gogol was urged by a religious fanatic to burn it. Consequently though, the novel is usually regarded as complete in the extant form, though it ends in mid-sentence.

Contents

Background

The novel was meant to be an encompassing picture of the ailing social system in post-Napoleonic Russia. As in many of Gogol's short stories, the social criticism of Dead Souls is communicated primarily through absurd and hilarious satire. Unlike the short stories, however, Dead Souls was meant to offer solutions rather than simply point out problems. This grander scheme was largely unrealized at Gogol's death; the work was never completed, and it is primarily the earlier, purely absurdist sections that are remembered today.

Vladimir Nabokov, in his 1944 study of Gogol, Nikolai Gogol, rejected the commonly held view of Dead Souls as a reformist or satirical work. Nabokov regarded the plot of Dead Souls as unimportant and Gogol as a great writer whose works skirted the irrational and whose prose style combined superb descriptive power with a disregard for novelistic clichés. In the character of Chichikov, the protagonist of the novel, Nabokov found all the attributes of "poshlust," a Russian word not precisely translatable into English but one which carries overtones of middle-class pretentiousness, fake significance and philistinism. True, Chichikov displays a most extraordinary moral rot, but the whole idea of buying and selling dead souls is, to Nabokov, ridiculous on its face; therefore, the provincial setting of the novel is a most unsuitable backdrop for any of the progressive, reformist or Christian readings of the work.

Style

The style of the novel is somewhat antique and has been compared to the picaresque novels of the 16th and 17th centuries in that it is divided into a series of somewhat disjointed episodes, and the plot concerns a gentrified version of the rascal protagonist of the original picaresques.


Plot Overview

The story follows the exploits of Chichikov, a young gentleman of middling social class and position. Chichikov arrives in a small town and quickly tries to make a good name for himself by impressing the many petty officials of the town. Despite his limited funds, he spends extravagantly on the premise that a great show of wealth and power at the start will gain him the connections he needs to live easily in the future. He also hopes to befriend the town so that he can more easily carry out his bizarre and mysterious plan to acquire "dead souls".

Although the townspeople Chichikov comes across are gross caricatures, they are not flat stereotypes by any means. Instead, each is neurotically individual, combining the official failings that Gogol typically satirizes (greed, corruption, paranoia) with a healthy set of personal neuroses.

Chichikov's macabre mission to acquire "dead souls" is actually just another complicated scheme to inflate his social standing (essentially a 19th century Russian version of the ever popular "get rich quick" scheme). He hopes to collect the legal ownership rights to dead serfs as a way of inflating his apparent wealth and power (no one is supposed to realize that his hordes of new servants are actually all dead).

Chichikov at first assumes that the ignorant townspeople will be more than eager to give their dead souls up in exchange for a token payment. The task of collecting the rights to dead people proves difficult, however, due to the persistent greed, suspicion, and general neuroses of the townspeople.

Opera

The extant sections of Dead Souls were made into an opera in the late 20th century by Russian nationalist composer Rodion Shchedrin. In the opera, Shchedrin captures the different townspeople that Chichikov deals with in isolated musical episodes, each employing a different musical style to evoke the characters' particular personalities.

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