Dead Souls by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was first published in 1842. In the author’s preface he says that he wrote the book to show commonplace types of Russian people and the vices, weaknesses and shortcomings within Russian society.
The main character Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov is a middle aged bachelor, he’s not at all wealthy but aspires to change that situation and has hit upon an idea to improve his finances. Chichikov arrives in a small town and goes on a charm offensive, buttering up all the government officials and landowners in the area. At the time the book is set in there are infrequent censuses and as landowners have to pay what amounts to a poll tax for every serf that they own it means that they end up paying tax for people who are dead. The dead serfs aren’t removed from the tax system until the next census comes around.
Chichikov plans to buy up the dead serfs or souls as they are known, at a cheap price and the landowners are only to eager to sell their tax burdens on to him, although they have no idea why he would want to do them this favour.
Chichikov realises that if he goes to a bank and tells them that he owns a large number of serfs they will advance a huge amount of money to him, basically using the serfs as collateral, which means he could buy an estate of his own, or just pocket the money.
The townspeople are naturally suspicious of a person who wants to buy up dead serfs and all sorts of rumours go around about Chichikov and eventually he has to leave the area and travels to a different part of Russia where he tries the same scam again.
In fact it seems to me that Chichikov is never going to learn anything from his mistakes, he’s just going to repeat them all again, with his lying and cheating getting worse each time. Gogol wanted to highlight the greed and corruption within middle class Russian society and government officials. He certainly managed to do that and there are parts of the book which are daftly amusing. The third part of the book was burnt by the author and so the book is unfinished, in fact it ends mid sentence, which I found very annoying. I didn’t love this book but as with many classics, I’m glad that I read it as now I feel that I’ve added to my knowledge of Russian literature.
What strikes me about the whole thing though is that at the time that Dead Souls was written Gogol was obviously happy to write this book which slags off government officials, for the enjoyment of the readers. So the Imperial Russia of 1842s was a very much easier place to write about the shortcomings of society, compared with Russia of 100 years later, as in 1942 if anyone had denigrated the Communist officials like that they would have been quickly marched off to a labour camp, if not shot.
I read Dead Souls as part of the Classics Club, another one ticked off my list. I was also reading it along with Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, and she should be blogging about her thoughts on it soon.