Nikolai Gogol has been working on this work for 17 years. According to the writer's plan literary work was to consist of three volumes. Gogol himself had repeatedly reported that Pushkin had offered him the idea of the work. Alexander Pushkin was also one of the first listeners of the poem. The work on Dead Souls was difficult. Writer changed the concept for several times, reworked different parts of it. Only the first chapter, which was published in 1842, has been writing for six years. A few days before his death the writer burned the manuscript of the second volume. Only the first four chapters, and one of the last ones survived. The third volume wasn’t even started.
Initially Gogol considered Dead Souls as a satirical novel, the author intended to show "All Russ". But in 1840 the writer got seriously ill and was healed miraculously. Nikolai thought it was a sign - the Creator demands him to create something that would serve for the spiritual revival of Russia. Thus, the idea of Dead Souls was rethought. An idea was to create a trilogy on the type of the Divine Comedy by Dante. Hence the genre definition of the author, a poem, arose.
Gogol believed that the first chapter was necessary to show the decomposition of feudal society and its spiritual impoverishment. In the second one – to give a hope for the cleaning of "dead souls". In the third - revival of the already new Russia.
The basis of the plot of the poem was the scam of an official Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. The gist of it was the following. The serf census was carried out every 10 years in Russia. Therefore, the farmers who died in the period between censuses, according to official documents (register-tale) were considered as alive. Chichikov’s purpose is to buy up "dead souls" for a low price, and then lay them out in the Board of Trustees and get a lot of money. The scammer is counting on the fact that such a transaction is beneficial for landlords: it is not necessary to pay the taxes for deceased to the next revision. Chichikov travels around Russia searching "dead souls".
This plot allowed the author to create a social panorama of Russia. The first chapter the auhor acquaints us with Chichikov, and then describes his meetings with the landowners and officials. The last chapter is devoted to the speculator again. The image of Chichikov and his purchase of dead souls unite storyline of the work.
Landowners in the poem are typical representatives of the people of their circle and time: wasters (Manilov and Nozdryov), hoarders (Sobakevich and Korobochka). Completes this gallery a waster and hoarder in one face – Plyushkin.
Officialdom in Dead Souls is a mercenary company full of thieves and crooks. In urban bureaucracy system writer draws the image of "jug snout" ready to sell his own mother for a bribe. Police chief and prosecutor alarmist, who died of fear because of Chichikov’s fraud, are not better.
The protagonist is the rascal, who has some of the other characters’ features. He is polite and is prone to posturing (Manilov), petty (Korobochka), greedy (Plyushkin), enterprising (Sobakevich), and conceited (Nozdryov). Pavel Ivanovich feels confident among the officials, as he has gone through all the universities of fraud and bribery. But the hero is smarter and better educated than those with whom he was dealing. He is a great psychologist: enthralls the provincial society, skillfully leads bargaining with each landowner.
The writer has put a special meaning in the name of the poem. It is not only the dead peasants who are bought by Chichikov. By "dead souls" Gogol understands emptiness and lack of spirituality of their characters. Nothing is sacred for money-grubber Chichikov. Plyushkin has lost all his human likeness. Korobochka does not mind digging out graves for a profit. Only dogs have a good life in Nozdryov’s home, his own children are abandoned. Manilov’s soul sleeps soundly. There is not a drop of decency and nobility in Sobakevich.
Dead Souls is a reflection of Russia in 30s of the 19th century and a remarkable gallery of satirical images, many of which have become common words. Dead Souls is a striking phenomenon in Russian literature. The poem opened a whole new trend, which was later called "critical realism."