In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners were entitled to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, and could be bought, sold or mortgaged, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word "soul" was used: e.g., "six souls of serfs". The plot of the novel relies on "dead souls" (i.e., "dead serfs") which are still accounted for in property registers. On another level, the title refers to the "dead souls" of Gogol's characters, all of which visualise different aspects of poshlost (an untranslatable Russian word which is perhaps best rendered as "self-satisfied inferiority", moral and spiritual, with overtones of middle-class pretentiousness, fake significance and philistinism).
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