From 1826 to 1848 Gogol lived mostly in Rome, where he worked on a novel that is considered his greatest creative effort and one of the finest novels in world literature, Dead Souls (1842). It has also been published in English under the alternative title Chichikov's Journey. In structure, Dead Souls is akin to Don Quixote by the Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Its extraordinary humor, however, is derived from a unique and sardonic conception: Collegiate Councilor Pável Ivanovich Chichikov, an ambitious, shrewd, and unscrupulous adventurer, goes from place to place, buying, stealing, and wheedling from their owners the titles to serfs whose names appeared on the preceding census lists but who had since died and were, accordingly, called "dead souls." With this "property" as security he plans to raise loans with which to buy an estate with "live souls."
Chichikov's travels provide the occasion for profound
reflections on the degrading and stultifying influence of serfdom on both
owner and serf. The work also contains a large number of brilliantly depicted
Russian provincial types. Dead Souls exerted an enormous influence on succeeding
generations of Russian writers. Many of the witty sayings expressed in
its pages have become Russian maxims.
As published, Dead Souls was intended to constitute the first part of a larger work; Gogol began the sequel but in a fit of hypochondriacal melancholy burned the manuscript. In 1842 Gogol published another famous work, "The Overcoat," a short story about an overworked clerk who falls victim to Russian social injustice. In the following year Gogol made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and on his return a priest persuaded him that his fictional work was sinful. Gogol thereupon destroyed a number of his unpublished manuscripts. He died March 4, 1852, in Moscow. Gogol is ranked with such literary giants as the novelists Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the poet Aleksandr Pushkin.