In the High Peaks

Friday, October 9, 2015

Russian Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls

Quite frankly, I'm very glad that I read Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. I read it without knowing much about the author other than the era in Russian history in which he wrote it. I trusted my knowledge of Russian history and literature to help guide me through. I wanted the text to speak for itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the sometimes pompous, sometimes bombastic, and at other times overly humble people of the middling and lower nobility in provincial Russia. What a crazy, wild scene!!

What's interesting is that Gogol was born in the Ukraine, not Russia--the son of a low-to-lower middling landowner. He seems to have had an excellent education, which may have been due to the fact that he was the oldest son of supposedly doting parents.

Throughout his writing career, he was known to be a wild fantasist--writing plays, dramas, short stories, and folklore adaptations. But it's clear from viewing his history that Gogol was not a stable individual by any means.

Dead Souls was supposedly a prose poem--a genre that I must admit I cannot understand. It read like a novel to me, in other words. Volume One of Dead Souls was very well received by the public. Gogol moved on to write Volume Two, but his health declined and he began to suffer from deep depression and religious obsessions. He continued to write, with tremendous difficulty. Then at the age of 42, Gogol began a fast to purify his soul, according to the accounts I've read. His decline was swift, largely because Gogol had always been unusually small and never a robust person.

Despite encouragement from friends and clergy, he continued to starve himself during which time he decided to burn as much as he could of Volume Two of Dead Souls as well as some of his other works that had disappointed him. His depression and self-enforced starvation caused his death in 1852.

Many Russian writers, including Tolstoy and many other more modern authors, credit Gogol's realism and confrontation with Russian society and psyche as having been an inspiration to their work.

I can see clearly that Gogol's recreation of provincial Russian society and its strangling bureaucracy made a satire that would have fully entertained the better-educated middle classes. Knowing Russian history, and even if I hadn't known it, his characterizations were very amusing and enjoyable to read. It's a shame about Volume Two, however, though I would still recommend the book to readers interested in Russian writers of the nineteenth century.


  1. It's not my favourite Russian book but it is one of those ones that I'm glad I read it. At least now I know what it's about and I find it interesting that he was able to poke fun at all sorts of official government types. I read somewhere that the Tsar loved it.

  2. I totally agree with you, Katrina. It wasn't my favorite Russian classic, but I'm so glad I read it just the same. And the Tsar loved it??!! How interesting. I suspect he was bored with the lot of the petty bourgeoisie as well.