Die toten Seelen : Roman

by Nikolaj Vasilevič Gogol

Other authorsPhilipp Löbenstein (Translator)
Paperback, 1992



Call number

KI 3784 S452



Zürich: Diogenes-Verlag


Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML: Dead Souls is a socially critical black comedy. Set in Russia before the emancipation of serfs in 1861, the "dead souls" are dead serfs still being counted by landowners as property, as well as referring to the landowners' morality. Through surreal and often dark comedy, Gogol criticizes Russian society after the Napoleonic Wars. He intended to also offer solutions to the problems he satirized, but died before he ever completed the second part of what was intended to be a trilogy. The work famously ends mid-sentence..

User reviews

LibraryThing member CBJames
I started off last year reading another Russian novel, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevesky which ended up being one of my favorite reads of the year. (Dakota enjoyed the book as well. She ate it last July.) I had very little experience with Russian novels, other than the first two thirds of
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Anna Karinina I'd not read anything. Besides being an excellent pyschological thriller, Crime and Punishment is a very funny book. I was surprised by how funny it was. I'd always been led to believe that Russian novels were difficult stuff.

Look at the cover of Dead Souls. Does it look funny to you? Dead souls? How could that be funny?

Nicholai Gogol wrote one of my all-time favorite short stories, "The Nose", about a man whose nose runs out on him one day to lead a life that is much more exciting and glamorous than the life it led while a part of the man's face. It's difficult to get your nose back once it's found out how much fun it can have without you. It's a very funny story.

Dead Souls is a very funny novel. The hero, Tchitchikov, is a "gentleman of the middling" sort without significant money or land. He develops a plan to become wealthy by buying up dead serfs. Serfdom in Russia was a form of slavery that lasted throughout much of the 19th century. When Gogol wrote Dead Souls the Russian government taxed landowners based on how many serfs they owned at the time of the most recent census. Since the census was only done once every ten years, if a serf died before the next census, the owner had to continue paying taxes on the 'dead soul' until it could be officially counted as dead. Tchitchikov intends to acquire as many dead souls as he can by taking them off the hands of their owners as a gracious act of kindness and then use them as collateral for a large bank loan. He'll then use the loan to purchase an estate with actual serfs on it.

Unfortunately, everyone Tchitchikov encounters is immediately suspicious of his plan. They cannot figure out why he wants dead serfs but they suspect he is up to something and they all want in on it. No one will give him their dead serfs, some refuse to sell them outright, others force him to pay high prices for them. The pattern repeats in various forms as Tchitchikov travels from town to town, estate to estate, trying to explain how much money can be saved by avoiding the tax on dead serfs if only he can have them.

Gogol intended to make Dead Souls the first part of a trilogy of books reflecting Dante's Divine Comedy. He burned all but five chapters of the second book before he died. Dead Souls is his only completed novel.

The more you understand the subject matter, the better satire works, so I imagine that my lack of knowledge about Russian history kept me from getting all of the jokes in Dead Souls, but I enjoyed myself thoroughly none-the-less. Gogol's sense of humor is probably not for everyone, but it's right up my alley. He manages to point out the absurdity of his society without letting on how completely he is undermining it. Of course this is a man who wrote a story about a nose cutting out on a face just to spite it. And the next time someone mentions Russian novels, don't think depressing, don't thing dreary, think funny.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I am sorry I had not read Gogol before now! His writing is a blend of Dostoevsky and Dickens. Absolutely hysterical characters manage to highlight a satiric view of Russian country life in the late 1800s. The protagonist, Chichikov, manages to persuade a variety of landowners to sell him the names
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of "dead souls" or workers who have died. Certainly Gogol was attempting to make a statement about the state of his nation and it is done with such satiric wit and wonderful prose! I think, perhaps, the best way to sum up this great piece of literature is by using a quote from one of the characters, "You must love us black, anyone can love us white." No person is blameless in this life!
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LibraryThing member ctpress
Here we are presented with the russian people - and russian temperament - in all its variety. All the different people our main character visits and presents his remarkable idea. To buy dead souls. We are left to guess what's going on here. I liked the beginning of the tale - but the revelation in
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the end and it's conclusion is not very surprising or rewarding. Not a book I will read again.
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LibraryThing member cammykitty
Lovely cynical romp through serf-filled Russia, especially if you enjoy portraits of despicable people.
LibraryThing member rickstill122
I consider Gogol to be an artist first, and a writer second. It's hard to recommend him highly enough, but can we suffice it to say his fan club included Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Pushkin and Nabokov? I heard Mel Brooks raving about him in an interview once! I believe his four main powers as an artist
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are; 1) Pithy description and detail. Whether a character has a life span of eight chapters or four sentences, their image is indelible. 2) Living dialogue. The conversations of the many characters are sparkling with life. 3) A kaleidoscope of tones and voices. Fire and Brimstone Sermons, direct addresses, stand-up comedians, old fashioned yarn spinners, verbal landscape painters, whirling in a symphony of images and tones and voices. 4) The magical power to foreground both form and content simultaneously.
Also, as with all the greatest literature, I suggest reading some passages out loud to truly feel the rhythm that only Gogol could establish in a novel that jumps from brilliant to goofy and sad to hilarious, as if they were all stones within leaping distance of each other across the swirling water of a creek.
I suggest the Andrew R. MacAndrew translation.
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LibraryThing member vanjr
This is absolutely brilliant humor. Gogol is better imo than even Cervantes. I have read all of Gogol's short stories and this surpass them all. Absolute hilarity at every turn and almost everyone gets made fun of. This is absolutely on my read again list. I read the Guerney translation. I cannot
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recommend this book highly enough.
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LibraryThing member kotwcs
At times sentimental, philosopical, melancholy, and hilarious, the book follows the adventures of Chichikov, a scoundrel who wants to become a man of class and stature. So, he begins a scheme to buy up the "dead souls" --those peasants who have died but whose landowners have not yet reported as
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dead--of the barons and lords in the Russian countryside, then passing them off as living, thus making Chichikov a landowner with many tenants. Hilarity ensues. Is it legal to sell dead souls? How much are they worth? Nothing? A great deal? This book is unfinished--Gogol was working on it when he died--and there are many holes and gaps towards the end, but it's a great book. Sometimes it's published as "Dead Souls"--but it's not dark at all. Gogol's gloomy thoughtfulness and spiritual morbidity come through sometimes, but in it he includes much hearty laughter--the sort that never issued from his own mouth during his lonely, miserable life.
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LibraryThing member JimmyChanga
The parts I loved I really loved, it was very funny and insightful. But then it goes on and on in excrutiating detail and the end of the book is just fragments (it's unfinished or the manuscript was lost or something). It's kind of a frustrating read. You should read it not for the story, but for
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the little snippets or sketches of character that seem true and funny sprinkled throughout. I liked it overall but would not really recommend it. The first 150 pages or so are the best.
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LibraryThing member mattviews
Dead Souls raises the fundamental puzzling problem of literary theory: the question of an author's personal involvement in his work, meaning, of how far, Gogol's outlook on life can impinge on the lives of his protagonists (or heroes) without leading, as in Gogol's own case, to insanity and
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suicide. Dead Souls is a fragmented work that upon finishing the second volume of which Gogol fell under the influence of a priest who advised him to burn it. He regarded Gogol's literary work as an abomination to the eyes of God and admonished Gogol to lead a sequestered life at the monastery to atone for his sin. There Gogol suicidally took to his bed, refused all provisions and died nine days later.

The remaining manuscripts of Dead Souls are rather fragmented as the four chapters of the second volume are recalled and put together through the word of mouth. The first volume affords the whole scaffold and theme of Gogol's ambitious work. As Gogol's work on the novel proceeded, its theme took on more and more grandiose proportions in his mind. At first he wrote without forming any concrete plan in his head but the beginning of the first volume already contains hints of how Gogol hopes to fulfill his mission of saving Russia, which was looking up to him with eyes full of expectation. But quite soon the fact that the whole of Russia would appear in his novel (in fact the skein of characters the hero encounters does represent the whole of Russia, in their skepticism, greed, fear, paranoia) was no longer enough to satiate him. Gogol was getting all the more convinced of his messiah-like mission to save Russia and he began to regard Dead Souls as the means God had given him to intercede for his fellow comrades.

Brooding over the fate of mankind in general and of his countrymen in particular, Gogol was puzzled by man's perverse habit of straying from the road which lay wide open before and which, if he followed it, would lead him to some magnificent "palace fit for an emperor to live in", and of preferring instead to follow and chase after all sorts of will-o'-the-wisps to the abyss and then asking in horror what the right road was. But Gogol's own pursuit (to the truth and meaning of existence), was unfortunately, a will-o'-the-wisps which brought him to the abyss into which he finally precipitated himself. It was through the numerous characters, with whom Gogol intended to represent all of Russia, that all the stupidities and absurdities of all the "clever fellows" were caricatured and reflected and therefore became more apparent to us. The work is therefore highly satirical of the senselessness of the noisy contemporary world, and the deceitfulness of the illusions that led mankind astray.

Notwithstanding all that remains of the second volume of Dead Souls is a number of various fragments of four chapters and one fragment of what appears to be the final chapter, the plot deduced from the context is nothing but discernible. But no final judgment of the complete second volume (and maybe another volume that was utterly lost) of Dead Souls can be based on what has been crudely recovered. Simple and uneventful the plot might have been, the essence of the book simmers on the ground that injustice cannot be rooted out by punishment and that the only way of restoring the reign of justice in Russia was to appeal to the inbred sense of honor that resided in every Russia's heart.

The plot is simple. Collegiate Councilor Pavel Ivanovich Chichiknov arrived in the town N. to buy up all the peasants who died before a new census was taken for the landowners were obligated to pay taxes for these dead serfs. With a subtle resourcefulness and perspicacity, he purchased these dead serfs for resettlement in land that was distributed for free. Was he to acquire them at a considerably lower price than what the Trustee Council would give him, a great fortune would be in store for him. Under the pretext of looking for a place to settle and under all sorts of other pretexts and chicanery, he undertook to scrutinize all parts of Russia where he could buy most conveniently and cheaply the sort of peasants he wanted. He did not approach any landowner indiscriminately, but selected those with whom he could negotiate such deals with the least difficulty, trying first to make their acquaintance and gain their confidence. Conducting himself with the utmost decorum and discretion, he was extremely meticulous in find out all the leading landowners and the number of dead souls each of them owned. But the thought that the serfs were not real serfs was never absent from his mind: a pricking thought that rendered him anxious to settle the tricky business soon as possible.

But the purchase of dead souls soon became inevitably a topic of the town's general conversation, in which views and opinions were expressed regarding whether serfs should be purchased for resettlement. No one was not astounded by the news of Chichikov's purchase. Some demanded an explanation but paradoxically the affair seemed to be deprived of any proper explanation. Readers might have raised the same question: What was the meaning of these dead souls? There is no logic in dead souls. How can one buy dead souls? Others quailed at the possible outbreak of mutiny so vast a number of rowdy peasants Chichikov contrived to transport. The vague identity of Chichikov also added to the public's paranoia.

Whether Chichikov's tricky business succeed or not, Dead Souls positions itself as Gogol's judgment of mankind, being a similitude to or even an inspiration to Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. Dead Souls offers a quasi-biblical solution as Gogol brings about his protagonist's spiritual regeneration: think not of dead souls, but of one's own living soul and follow a path with God's help.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
I found the first book a lovely and satiric view of Russian provincial society, with richly described characters and landscapes. the main character is a lovely scoundrel, and the narrator's address to the reader lent a dramatic depth, almost a proscenium arch, to the already theatrical scenes.

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second book, which is alas unfinished, introduced new characters in a more pastoral setting, and it is clear that Gogol is turning to a more exhortatory critique of Russia and her faults. I'm not sure it's a pity that he didn't finish the three volumes, as I think he was heading for a rather somber conservative call to work and religion as the engine of Russian salvation.
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LibraryThing member Clurb
Dead Souls suffers from being so incomplete and disjointed but the first half at least offers an amusing plot and some wonderfully crafted characters which together give an insight into Russian society at the time.
LibraryThing member tzelman
Pt. I good; Pt. II in fragments, unrewarding, pointless--perhaps worth another try since it's been 25 years since I read it
LibraryThing member jennyo
When you think of Russian novels, you probably think of doorstop weight ones like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. Dead Souls feels downright slim compared to those. And considerably more lighthearted as well. It took me a long time to read the book, but that's not Gogol's fault; I've just
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had my mind on something else lately and have found it hard to concentrate on much of anything. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of Pavlov Chichikov and his quest to buy dead souls from local landowners.

The characters in this book and the situations in which Chichikov finds himself are a hoot. I think my favorite was Nozdrev, the compulsive gambler and liar, who ends up being the one to expose the truth about Chichikov to the community.

I'd definitely read Gogol again, but I may save him until the future when I can pay a little closer attention to his work.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I was recommended this book by a friend, and I'm very glad she did. It's a marvellous, though unfinished, study of Russian country society in the nineteenth century - their characters, their characteristics, their foibles and their concerns. Running through it all is the quest by the protagonist to
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purchase the so-called dead souls of each estate he passes through, so as to claim for a mortgage based on how many people he reports as his. It's all very clever, and twisted too, in that typically Russian way.
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LibraryThing member Diotima12
The first book of "Dead Souls" is picaresque and wonderful, but the remnants of the second book are just outstanding. The depth displayed in the fragments of Book 2 elevate Gogol from a cheeky, vicious satirist to a real humanitarian artist.
LibraryThing member celtic
A great idea that provides us with an unpredictable story both funny and tragic. Great character studies and lots of good 'stories within the story'.
LibraryThing member wonderperson
Gogol has some really important points to say but I found myself getting disinterested in it in parts despite it's potential to be a radical text.
LibraryThing member blake.rosser
Interesting without being captivating. Coming to the novel, I had expectations of satire and humor based on reading his short stories, but I had no idea how the book/story would take shape. It turns out that my expectations were met, as it was a very humorous and satirical volume with little in the
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way of story. Gogol's descriptions of the hypocrisy of the Russian nobility and life in provincial Russia are masterful. His observation of the reality beneath the surface was penetrating and scathing, and his manner of expressing it beautiful and poetic. That said, it got to be too much for me at times, and there wasn't enough plot to keep me really excited about picking the book up. I think it would have worked better as a short story, or perhaps in a larger context (for example, if he had completed the planned trilogy of which this book made up the first "Inferno" installment).
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LibraryThing member jddunn
A rollicking, farcical road tale set in Russia in the first half of the 19th Century. Follows Chichikov, a petty bourgeois con man… a man who is “not too fat, and not too thin” in the words of the author, on a trip around the country to buy up “dead souls,” which are peasants who have
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died but are still counted as living until the next census happens. Chichikov hopes to make his fortune by charming lots of landowners into giving them away for nothing, and then mortaging them under new regulations that allow Russian landowners to mortage their estates to the treasury at roubles-to-the-soul. Gogol uses the misadventures of our antihero to paint a humorous and loving picture of Russian life in the first half of the 1800s. Kind of reminds me of Tristram Shandy.
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LibraryThing member .Monkey.
I very much enjoyed this book. Gogol made me laugh out loud several times, and smile and chuckle on quite a few more occasions. His writing clearly demonstrates how intelligent and observant he was, along with his sharp wit. Gogol's style is very much his own, and I am eager to read more of his
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For some reason though, I had a very hard time getting sucked into this, even though I enjoyed it and never once thought anything truly negative about it. Hence my essentially leaving it aside for several months somewhat past the middle, before finally picking it back up and reading the last couple hundred pages. I really couldn't say why. I didn't find the pacing too slow, or really any fault with it. It just didn't grab me.

That said, I would still highly recommend it to those who love a good classic. Even though it didn't grab me, it was surely an enjoyable read.
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LibraryThing member Samchan
In my effort to read more classics, Dead Souls was the perfect entry point back into the works of the Russian greats. Although I haven’t compared it to older translations, I found this one by Rayfield to be terrific. The language is easy to understand, but also manages to capture the poetics of
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prose wonderfully. Right off the bat, I was completely enchanted by the tone of the story as we follow our protagonist, Chichikov, around town as he goes about meeting with different landowners in a seemingly bizarre quest to buy their dead serfs, serfs whose deaths hadn’t yet been recorded by the tax authorities. Each encounter with these characters beats the previous encounter in terms of the surreal and absurd. We see how these landowners and government officials are silly, selfish, greedy, and corrupt, reflecting a society that’s become morally vapid. Gogol strings us along for a while before we find out the purpose of the dead souls, but instead of becoming impatient, I was happy to be strung along in a satire that has whimsy, a charming wink-wink tone, but also earnest exhortations to really examine the perilous path towards which society was headed.

Dead Souls in an unfinished manuscript and I was afraid that I’d be dissatisfied with the lack of true resolution at the end. Yet, even when the manuscript ends in the middle of a sentence, it luckily worked well. There’s a gathering in which a prince begins to issue a call to reform the nation, a kind of “call to arms.” The nation faces two choices (as does Chichikov, who gets punished and keeps getting second chances): to keep perpetuating the moral decay or turn over a new leaf. It seemed a very cinematic ending even though we don’t see which choice the nation (and Chichikov) opted for.
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LibraryThing member grheault
A parable of enron and ken lay; buying and selling what exists only on paper -- dead souls.
LibraryThing member Rincey
It took me a while to chug through this one, but it definitely was worth a try. Some of the characters are hilariously ridiculous, which is what I think the highlight of the story is. I was kind of hoping for a slightly more exciting reason behind the collection of dead souls, but I did like the
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story overall.
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LibraryThing member xtien
Imagine your a Russion nobleman but you're poor, you can't afford to own people. But you must own people in order to "count". So what you do is buy the papers of dead farmers, promising the previous owner to properly take care of the paperwork. At one point, a lady gets suspicious, suspecting that
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he makes money from these dead farmers, so she refuses to sell him her absolutely worthless dead farmers papers.
The plot is brilliant, the writing is entertaining like most older Russion novels.
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LibraryThing member RamzArtso
I loved this book, especially the end, for some reason. This book creates an inimitable atmosphere.


Original language


Original publication date

1842 (Russian)
1884 (English)


3257203845 / 9783257203844

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