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On one of its usual relaxed and dreamy days, the town commander of a remote Russian country town (in Gogol's days, that is the first half of the 18th century) informs some fellow members of the local elite about an utterly confidential letter that he just got from a close relative: the government has sent a "revisor" to inspect the town. It is a secret mission. The spy is already on his way.
The spreading of the news about the confidential letter causes commotion, window dressing and quick cover ups. The town commander is especially worried about the possible submission of complaints by craftsmen, tradesmen and shopkeepers and orders the head of the post office to open all letters, which, he now learns, is already done for years and requires no fresh measures. Not much later two landowners arrive stumbling and puffing with the message that the spy has been spotted in the inn. He must be the one, because he has a nice face, goes nowhere, just sits, does not pay his bills, and his post-horses are issued for Saratow. He is already here for a fortnight.
A fortnight! "O holy fathers!", the town commander exclaims. "In that time I have beaten up the wife of a non-commissioned officer! And the prisoners got no food! And the street looks like a pub, a terrible mess! A shame! An embarrassing performance!"
Meanwhile the innkeeper has ceased his supply to the suspected spy who turns out to be a non-paying guest Cheslakow with a servant called Ossip. They are hungry and Cheslakov demands food. Some bad soup en old chicken is brought as final. Now money first. At the climax of the struggle around payment and food-supply, the town commander enters the inn, dressed at his best. Impressed by his spy's disguise as a noble young spendthrift devoid of means -even pretending fear to be imprisoned- he pays his bills, invites him to stay in his own house, in order to keep a better eye on him, and heads for an excursion to the the hospital quickly cleaned from both dirt and most patients, and claimed to be so quiet "because we cure the sick even before they even have the chance to lay down", accompanied by a thorough verbal account by the town commander of a town commander's ethics of being a town commander, focusing on the ab-so-lu-te abstinence from bribes.
Then time has come for dinner, with strong drinks to extract some truth out of the spy's head. The spirits inspire Cheslakov to an elevated fantasy of his high life in Petersburg, his card games with the ambassadors of France, England and Germany, and the balls held in his house. The town commander switches to the title "excellency" and starts to feel, as he confesses to his wife, "like standing on top of a bell tower", or "as if they put a rope around your neck", but both his wife and his daughter are haunted by excitement.
One by one the members of the elite visit Cheslakov to find out how they can please him and thus avoid a bad report concerning the exercise of their responsibilities. The offering of a fair amount of roubles is the obvious but most dangerous thing to do: will the revisor accept them or arrest the donor for offering bribes? Cheslakov, who now fully understands he is mistaken for someone else, has no problems to guide them to the right alternative and collects over a thousand roubles as "loans".
Finally, the town's tradesmen find their way to Cheslakov too and complain about their systematic extortion by the town commander who has no problems to use his police, army and prison for the purpose. "A shame", Cheslakov holds and collects their contributions.
Then time has come for Cheslakov to head for the women. The town commander's daughter is the first one to seek his company, but, not yet arrived beyond the stage of desiring him to write a poem in her album of verses gets offended by his speed of advancement. Her mother, finding them, Cheslakov on his knees apologising and testifying his true love, judges the situation unworthy of Cheslakov and sends her daughter away. Cheslakov's deep feelings of love shift to the mother so quickly that he does not even need to change his kneeled position. The charmed mother declares she's married. But when the daughter reappears he finally finds himself, still kneeling, still before the mother, asking her daughter's hand. That fills everybody with the greatest happiness: mother dreams of life in Petersburg, and father of his promotion to the rank of general.
The tides have turned. The town general can safely crack down on the disloyal tradesmen and they know it, as well as he knows how they should pay: a lot will be needed for this high society marriage!
Meanwhile Osip has convinced his master not to postpone the departure to tomorrow. They pretend urgent business, and to be back "tomorrow or the day after".
Finally the head of the post office reads to the celebrating town elite an intercepted letter by Cheslakov to a Petersburg journalist, revealing the embarrassing truth.
There is little time for dismay, because a gendarme enters with a message: "an official, just arrived from Petersburg at the orders of the Emperor, summons you to come to him immediately."
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