Serfs in Russia were often referred to as souls which provides for literal meaning to the story. The symbolic meaning of title is easy to guess – people whose conscience is dead (in the story, they are mostly landlords)
The first part reads as a light satire on Russian landlords and society. The tone is of gentle humor and conversational nature (often referring to ‘reader’ and ‘author’) and makes a fast read. Almost all landlords in the book are caricatures of their personality type – and so there are sentimentalists, stupid old widows, spendthrift bullies who are prone to lying, misers, intellectual without common sense, beautiful damsels just out of school with golden hair and cheek dimples and so on. NG often leaves off telling-story to talk about a particular subject (servants, women, government offices, highways, horses, Russia etc) but mostly it is something humorous. Although it fails Bechdel test, it makes up for that by giving enough space to servants … And not to forget horses.
It is when NG finally started analyzing his hero, Chichikov that the book earned the fourth star. Chichikov much like other characters refused to get painted in black or white. He is opportunist and butt-kisser to point of fault. Gogol refuses to judge him –arguing sometimes it is the only way to rise in life:
“That he is no hero compounded of virtues and perfections must be already clear. Then WHAT is he? A villain? Why should we call him a villain? Why should we be so hard upon a fellow man? In these days our villains have ceased to exist. Rather it would be fairer to call him an ACQUIRER. The love of acquisition, the love of gain, is a fault common to many, and gives rise to many and many a transaction of the kind generally known as “not strictly honorable.” True, such a character contains an element of ugliness, and the same reader who, on his journey through life, would sit at the board of a character of this kind, and spend a most agreeable time with him, would be the first to look at him askance if he should appear in the guise of the hero of a novel or a play. But wise is the reader who, on meeting such a character, scans him carefully, and, instead of shrinking from him with distaste, probes him to the springs of his being. The human personality contains nothing which may not, in the twinkling of an eye, become altogether changed—nothing in which, before you can look round, there may not spring to birth some cankerous worm which is destined to suck thence the essential juice.
…. and Chichikov himself see no faults in whatever ways he adopt in getting rich. I simply loved above passage.
Who really are dead souls?
Just before ending part 1, NG picks up directly with readers and asking them if they themselves have sit alone and thought about morality of their actions:
“ Yet which of you, when quiet, and alone, and engaged in solitary self-communion, would not do well to probe YOUR OWN souls, and to put to YOURSELVES the solemn question, “Is there not in ME an element of Chichikov?” For how should there not be? Which of you is not liable at any moment to be passed in the street by an acquaintance who, nudging his neighbor, may say of you, with a barely suppressed sneer: “Look! there goes Chichikov! That is Chichikov who has just gone by!”
In the end, readers themselves might be like the dead souls they are searching for in the book.
Gogol also answers in advance the criticism from‘pseudo-patriots’ who will probably criticize him for Russia-bashing.
NG wasn’t only writing to criticize, he had solutions to offer. The book was supposed to be divided into three parts mirroring the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy but NG died before finishing it, he even tried to burn it – fortunately, without much success. The unfinished work that we have includes Part 1(mirroring inferno) and a few chapters of Part 2 (Purgatory) before it comes to abrupt end.
In whatever of part 2 stayed with us, Chichikov had already come across honest ways to be wealthy. The second part actually seemed more focused on methods to improve agrarian economy. Unfortunately, those solutions will remain unknown for most part.
Imperfect characters, detailed character descriptions, the insistence to look at a character’s childhood to properly understand him, questioning existing morality standards and cliches – you could see how the book might have inspired Fyodor Dostoevsky.