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madbkwm

madbkwm

Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol, Robert A. Maguire So this isn't so much a novel as a work of philosophical commentary. Gogol wrote it in the mid 1800s and it is purported to be incomplete. Volume 1 is done, Volume 2 is patchy (and just stops) and Volume 3 (rumors of it a trilogy abound) does not exist. Personally, I'm not sure what can be missing.

Volume 1 does not hold much of a plot, it promises lots, but ends up just cataloging prototypes. Chichikov (our hero) is a mysterious chameleon who charms the pants off everyone he meets. Basically he travels around the Russian countryside buying up (oftentimes at no real cost) dead serfs. It is not until the very end of Volume 1 that we get Chichikov's story which is that he is going to mortgage these souls to raise funds to buy an estate. We also discover that he has always been a con man and expends quite a bit of effort in his schemes. At this point, the promise is that Volume 2 may have some more plot or entertainment value, but instead Volume 2 is just a continuation of Chichikov's journey and acquisition. There is some redemption in Volume 2, both because we meet two good characters (more on that below) and because Chichikov seems to have remorse. However, one can assume that in Volume 3 Chichikov would have just ended up doing his old tricks again. Certainly we see the evidence of his worldliness and greed as he has a second fabulous suit made prior to leaving town (despite warnings that he must flee immediately).

As a novel, the book lacks much interest; the work is considered important because of it's social commentary. We meet many caricatures of Russian people: Manilov is the over polite, generous host that is ulitmately taken advantage of by Chichikov; Korboschka is the cautious and suspicious old lady who is convinced that she has been ripped off; Nodrev is the flamboyant, lying, gambler who picks a fight with everyone and ultimately brings Chichikov's scheme to light; Sobakevich is the good bargainer and businessman who has the successfully running estate (but is shrewd and unliked); Pliushken is so frugal and miserly that his estate has gone to ruin (reminder of the inability to see the forest for the trees).

In Volume 2, Chichikov meets even more characters without any redeeming qualities: Petr Petrovich is a complete glutton who has mortgaged everything and will continue to spend until it is gone; Hlobuev is one who has already spent it all (his wife and children are most fashionably dressed but he can't afford to feed them and the estate is in ruin) and is so lazy as to insist that he is incapable of any constructive activity; Planov is too depressed to be of any use to anyone; and Koshkarev is a completely crazy bureaucrat who has created fictitious bureaus within his crumbling estate. Luckily, we also meet Skudrovhoglo and Murazov who provide positive role models. These two are industrious and tout solid work ethics. They are a bit extreme themselves (everyone in the book is more of a caricature than a character), but they give examples of how we should live.

I'm not one for the religious overtones, but on a personal level I have frequently commented on the importance of industry; without industry and productivity one will become depressed. Murazov's conversation with Hlobuev was particularly appealing to me (again without the religious component). "It is impossible for anyone who keeps on going not to arrive at some destination; there is hope that he will eventually come upon the right path. But how is one to come upon any path when one remains idle? For the path will not come to you. And how can one live without any work?...Take even a stone, and it, too, is in this world to be put to good use--and is a man, the most intelligent of all beings, to remain useless? Is that a right thing?"

Modern American middle class society is remarkably similar to mid-1800s Russian upperclasses and the commentary on consumerism and laziness are timeless and valuable. Definitely some good comments, but I'm not sure that I agree with the idea that this was comedic, or really a novel.