Dead Souls Summary

Nikolai Gogol

Dead Souls

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Dead Souls Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol.

Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol, is a work of prose poetry about the protagonist, Tchitchikov, who purchases dead souls to become wealthy. The story takes place in the 1800s, in post-Napoleonic Russia. At the time, there were landowners and serfs. Landownersowned the serfs, so wealth was determined, not by the amount of land he owned, but by the number of souls he owned—the serfs. Gogol uses satire to comment on the noble class of Russian society.

As serfs perish, Tchitchikov travels through the countryside, buying dead souls. He buys dead souls because he can get them for less money, allowing him to increase his wealth and, therefore, his social standing. Tchitchikov starts out in a town referred to as “N.” Everyone in the town is excited about his arrival, because he is a stranger. His background is in academia, and no one there knows why he has come to N. The people like him immediately, and he soon receives many invitations to visit friends throughout the countryside.

The first person Tchitchikov calls on is Manilov. Manilov is so eager to become friends with the charismatic and well-liked Tchitchikov, he offers to sell him souls without putting up much of a fuss. He plans to visit a character named Sobakevitch next, but before he can get there, a storm strikes. Madame Korobotchka provides him shelter during the storm, and they get to talking. He wants to buy her dead souls, and she agrees to sell them. He sets out after that to see Sobakevitch.

Tchitchikov is delayed again when he stops in at a tavern. There he meets Nozdroyov, whom he also met in the town of N. Nozdroyov convinces Tchitchikov to visit him at his house, and he agrees. There, they eat and drink, and Tchitchikov reveals his plan to buy dead souls, but he regrets revealing his secret as soon as he says it. Nozdroyov turns rude and tells Tchitchikov that he will not sell him souls. He tries to get him to play a game of cards, and when Tchitchikov refuses, Nozdroyov tries to attack him. Tchitchikov is saved when the police arrive to arrest Nozdroyov. As it happens, he had been in a brawl a few nights before. The arrest allows Tchitchikov to escape.

When he returns to town, he is impressed with his good fortune. He now owns more than four hundred dead souls, and when the other people of N learn about it, they are impressed that he has become so wealthy. He becomes the center of society’s focus, and at a ball held by one of the townspeople, everyone is talking about him. But when Nozdroyov shows up, he begins to rant about dead souls and Tchitchikov. Everyone else in attendance is confused; they do not understand what Nozdroyov is trying to tell them.

The next day, Tchitchikov is feeling under the weather. His sickness stops him from visiting others. Madam Korobotchka comes to N, believing that he charged her too much for her dead souls. Soon, people switch from saying nice things about him to bad things about him. In addition to their talk about his buying dead souls, they spread other rumors about him. Tchitchikov flees the town in embarrassment.

After fleeing, he does not give up his mission to buy dead souls. In town after town, he meets rich friends and gets into their circles of power and money. He soon transitions into doing anything for money, not just buying dead souls. He comes up with scheme after scheme to get his hands on money, and fast, so that his influence in society can continue to grow. Finally, he stoops to stealing from a dying woman. This leads to his arrest, though because of his influential friends, he is released despite the charges against him.

A prominent theme in Dead Souls is immorality. Tchitchikov starts out doing something that some would consider harmless enough. Yes, he is buying dead souls in order to own more souls but pay less for them, but though he does not advertise his plans, the people selling the souls do not seem to mind. Gradually, as his actions come to light, people around him reflect on the immorality of what he is doing. Ultimately, he is so driven by material and societal prestige that he is willing to do anything to achieve it—even steal. He loses his morality over time, not in one quick step. The other characters lack morality to a certain degree, too, owning serfs and prizing those who own the most. Gogol satirizes this immorality in Dead Souls.

Nikolai Gogol wrote a variety of works that fall into several categories. In addition to Dead Souls, he also wrote longer works of narrative prose, short stories, and plays.