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Literature / Dead Souls

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Dead Souls is the most famous novel by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. It tells the story of the ambitious guy Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who had an idea for a great scam.

Background explanation: In feudal Russia, major landowners had to pay a tax according to the number of serfs (measured as "souls") they owned. Said serfs were counted in special revisions, which happened rarely, sometimes less than once per decade. If during the time between two revisions some of these serfs happened to die, bad luck: their owners would still have to pay the tax as if they were alive. On the other hand, they could mortgage the estate, with souls included, to the Russian state. Now Chichikov adds two and two and gets the idea: If he buys up a lot of dead souls - which the squires probably want to get rid of - and mortgages them to the state, he'll make a fortune without hard work or risk. Well, that's the theory. In practice, the buying part alone becomes pretty hard due to the eccentricity of said squires.

Sadly, the book isn't finished, due to Creator Breakdown. What survives is the complete first volume of what was to be a trilogy, plus the beginning and end of the second. Many people have never even read the surviving parts of the second volume.

Not to confuse with Dark Souls or Yakuza: Dead Souls.


  • Affably Evil: Chichikov is very kind and polite to everyone he meets, though in the end this is just his way of endearing them so they will help him, and he's happy to sell them out when it benefits him.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Must be the case with Nozdryov, who tells a lot of bullshit, even in court. You'll have to read it to see how much he BSs.
  • Big Eater: Several characters, including Chichikov. Michail Sobakevich and Peter Petrovitch Pietukh (the latter is from the second volume) are probably take the cake and eat it in one sitting.
  • Blatant Lies: When Tyentyetnikov inquires why the harvest was so bad, the serfs claim it was the lack of rain. But even the Wide-Eyed Idealist Tyentyetnikov can't help but notice that apparently the rain happened to fall exclusively on the fields of the serfs, but not on his.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Nozdryov is a deconstruction of this trope.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Many of the squires.
  • But Not Too Foreign: Kostanshoglo is described being not a pure Russian, although he thinks of himself as Russian and doesn't speak foreign languages. He may have a Turkish ancestor, since many Turkish names end in -oglu.
  • Butt-Monkey: The story within a story that gets told about Captain Kopeikin features him as a wounded veteran who is constantly let down by the government who promises to help him.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Tyentyetnikov, Manilov.
  • Cock-a-Doodle Dawn: At the Korobochka's place. Chichikov reacts by calling the rooster dumb.
  • Con Man: What Chichikov essentially is. In the past he also was involved with government corruption (which seemed to have been endemic in Czarist Russia) and smuggling.
  • Cordon Bleugh Chef: Nozdryov's, who has an egregious approach to cooking.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Khlobuyev's rich old aunt, who owns hundreds of canaries. Of course, she is very rich, so this doesn't make her crazy, only eccentric. But quite eccentric.
  • Deal with the Devil: Chichikov definitely invokes this with the whole "buying people's 'souls'" thing, and he's a lot like the "devil as small time bureaucrat" / The Devil Is a Loser portrayal in works like The Devil and Daniel Webster and The Brothers Karamazov (both post-date this novel, but probably draw from the same idea). In fact, both Chichikov and Scratch store their souls in a box - the only difference is that Chichikov's souls are figurative.
  • The Ditz: Mrs Korobochka the widow, who hesitates selling her "dead souls" and even suggests that "you could still need them".
  • Double Entendre: Sobakevich says that he doesn't eat oysters because he knows what they look like. And by that, he means a certain part of the female anatomy. (He isn't kidding. Oysters were considered aphrodisiacs for this very reason.)
  • Do You Want to Haggle?: Sobakevitch initially demands one hundred roubles per dead soul. He even starts arguing what great workers his souls were when alive. Way better than anything this Plyushkin guy may sell.
  • Epileptic Trees: In-universe, concerning Chichikov's plans and nature. Some even think that he is Napoleon in disguise.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: When Chichikov gets the idea for his scam.
  • Extreme Omnivore: Plyushkin is so cheap, he's willing to eat moldy bread and drink alcohol in which insects have died. He even offers this food to Chichikov.
  • Food Porn: The descriptions of the multi-course meals the squires eat.
  • Foreign Cuss Word: The city people go so far to avoid saying "this glass stinks" and will instead say "this glass doesn't behave well" or so. They don't mind using stronger words in Gratuitous French, however.
  • Foreshadowing: In the first chapter the author mentions that Chichikov is able to talk about custom officials "as if he had been one of them". Much later we'll learn that this has indeed been the case - and that he tried a big smuggling operation, which almost would've made him a rich man.
  • Friendless Background: Chichikov.
  • The Gambling Addict: Nozdryov. He cheats, too.
  • Gargle Blaster: It is mentioned that the Madeira wine they sell to Russians sometimes gets "spiked" with aqua regia. Which is an acid so strong it even dissolves gold.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Kostanshoglo demands from his serfs that they work as hard as himself.
  • Gossipy Hens: The society ladies of N____, especially those two in chapter #9.
  • Greed: Chichikov's vice.
  • Heel–Face Turn: It was in the author's plans to redeem Chichikov (and, according to one Gogol's letter, Plyushkin too) in the third volume. Alas, it never happened.
  • Hypocrite: Chichikov is able to talk about virtue in such a wonderful way that it makes you cry, but isn't exactly virtuous himself.
  • I Have a Family: Chichikov claims this (and is lying—again), to get a lesser punishment after one of his schemes is discovered. When he tries this at the end of the book, they don't believe him anymore.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: The pun from the title is also used in-universe. The secretary of one of the squires makes a jab at Chichikov, noticing that Chichikov's wish to buy dead "souls" (i.e., serfs) is oxymoronic, because a soul is immortal. Chichikov isn't amused.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Essentially what Chichikov actually is (rather than the Lovable Rogue he initially seems to be).
  • Insane Troll Logic: At one point, the narrator muses on it. Like with people who don't believe in God but are certain that they'll have to die soon when the bridge of their nose is itching.
  • Karma Houdini: Chichikov fakes the testament of Khlobuyev's rich aunt, and is even thrown into prison, but the influential Murayov liberates him with a complicated scheme, and Chichikov can leave the town—although Murayov also told him to change his ways. A somewhat Bittersweet Ending.
  • Large Ham: It's just a book, but Sobakevich, Kostanshoglo, Nozdryov and the general in the second book would probably fit.
  • Lemony Narrator: The narrator is very snarky and makes a lot of wry comments about the world he is profiling, as well as readers' likely reactions to the story he is telling.
  • Loan Shark: One appears in Kostanshoglo's village.
  • Lost Him in a Card Game: Nozdryov suggests that they play cards for his dead souls. Chichikov declines, being savvy enough to know that Nozdryov cheats. Then he suggests they play checkers instead. Chichikov agrees, but things end awry since Nozdryov cheats again and gets very angry when Chichikov points this out.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Plyushkin was given a derogatory nickname for his cheapness by the nearby-living peasants. The nickname starts with 'patched' and is obviously of an unprintable nature, and the narrator tells us about how it fits Plyushkin perfectly - but doesn't reveal what it actually is.
  • The Nicknamer: The widow Korobochka. The nicknames she gives to her serfs are pretty egregious.
  • The Nondescript:
    • Chichikov's whole appearance and personality is that of pleasant blandness, although as noted, he ultimately becomes very suspicious because of this.
    • Also the narrator complains about how hard it is to describe Manilov - the reason being Manilov's lack of descriptive features, both in appearance and in personality, and overall blandness.
  • Pet the Dog: Although Chichikov is a cheapskate, the author informs us that he'll always give a copper to a beggar.
  • The Pig-Pen: One of Chichikov's servants who never washes himself.
  • Plot Hole: In this case just because parts of the second half of the novel are literally missing, since Gogol originally wanted to destroy the text. Sadly, the complete story is now lost forever.
  • Potty Failure: By a baby. When visiting a family, Chichikov holds it on his arm. The fact that he doesn't take it badly helps him getting a favor by the parents, i.e. getting more dead souls.
  • Preacher's Kid: Chichikov calls one of his partners in crime a "son of a priest", in jest; said partner really is a son of a priest, but gets so insulted he spills the beans.
  • The Scrooge: Plyushkin, who owns several hundred souls, but lives as cheap as a beggar. Chichikov also doesn't like giving away money.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Manilov and his wife.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: "the district seat N_______"
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Kostanshoglo, who works hard to make his village wealthy, while one of his neighbors (Khlobuyev) wastes his money. Another one is almost as reality-impaired as Don Quixote, and the third one only thinks about his next meal.
  • Start of Darkness: Chichikov and Plyushkin started out as decent people, and there's a Cry For The Villain in revealing how both of them descended into what they are now. Chichikov is taught by his father that you can't rely on other people, not even those whom you call friends, and that little Pavel should rather rely on his money - and acquire a lot of it (because his father didn't).
  • Stern Teacher: At Tyentyetnikov's school. Sadly, this great teacher passed away before Tyentyetnikov would do his courses, which is blamed for his incompetence in life.
  • Take That!: One guy does this to Chichikov, since he takes the "dead souls" literally and pedantically points out that souls (in the usual sense) can't die but are immortal.
  • Teacher's Pet: Chichikov became this when he had a Sadist Teacher who'd give the best grades to, well, teacher's pets and bad grades to smart kids who were even a little bit unruly - or showed too much smartness.
  • Title Drop: More than once.
  • Trash of the Titans: Plyushkin's household.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Chichikov to the aforementioned teacher. The good grades and references he wrigled out of the man gave him a head start in life, but when the teacher is fired from school and sinks into poverty, and all those "unruly" students he'd been giving shit immediately chip in together to help him, Chichikov can only spare a single coin that he gets rightfully thrown back into his face.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Pretty much every single character.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Some characters, especially Manilov.
  • Villain Protagonist: Chichikov. Part of the reason Gogol had his breakdown and destroyed so much of the second and third novel is because he couldn't figure out a way to redeem Chichikov.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Tyentyetnikov tries to improve the lot of his serfs, with at best mixed results, and becomes apathetic in the end.
  • Young Entrepreneur: Chichikov started as this.