Monday, June 26, 2017

Sly Remarks from the Author: Dead Souls

by Nikolai Gogol

Inspired by the course on Russian literature I listened to last year, I decided to purposefully read through some Russian literature. This critical edition was recommended in the course notes. I debated about reading the essays but decided in the end that I wanted to challenge myself and think deeply on the material which was more likely if I spent some time reading what others thought about it. It took much longer to get through the essays than the book!

Gogol's book is an episodic tale of a man who is traveling around the Russian countryside buying "dead souls," serfs who have died since the last census but are still taxed as if they were alive. He has a plan to purchase them inexpensively, then use them as collateral to procure a loan and buy property. The plot allows Gogol to introduce new characters frequently and thereby portray different ways of life and living.

Everything is humorous. I particularly loved this description of women dressed for a ball, so much so that I read it aloud to Kansas Dad.
They had gone to unusual trouble to think out and plan all the items of their attire; their necks and shoulders were left bare just as much as was necessary and no more; each one revealed her possessions to the point only where she was convinced that they might prove the downfall of man. The rest was hidden away with extraordinary taste: either some light ribbon or a neckband, as dainty as the pastry known as 'kisses', ethereally encircled the neck, or tiny crenellated edges of fine batiste known as 'modesties' peeped out from under the dress at the shoulders. These modesties concealed in front and behind that which could not bring about man's downfall but which made one suspect that the road to perdition lay precisely there.
The book is disjointed, purposely unfinished I think. I enjoyed reading it but am quite sure I didn't understand all of it. The essays provided in this edition convinced me even the experts are still mining the text for meaning (and jokes). Alexander I. Herzen in "Diary Entries on Dead Souls" writes what is probably the clearest sentence in the essays.
Dead Souls--the title itself bears something that evokes horror. Gogol could not name it otherwise; not the dead serf-souls, but all these Nozdrevs, Manilovs, and all the others like them--these are the dead souls, and we meet them at every turn.
My intention is to read a work of Russian literature each year, along with my annual Chesterton, Austen, Dickens, and Berry.


  1. Try Everyday Saints and then Laurus! The first helped me appreciate Laurus better because it chronicles the lives of several Russian Orthodox monks.... Very interesting read for me being Roman Catholic and gaining insight into their faith, culture, and famous humor in the most melancholy situations. Highly recommend both! Happy reading, Susan

    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Susan!


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