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Nikolai Gogol was an initiator of the Russian naturalist movement, which focused on descriptions of the lives of the lower classes of society. Gogol himself explored contemporary social problems, often in a satirical fashion. His best-known works—the novel Dead Souls (1842), the short story ”The Overcoat” (1842), and the drama The Inspector General (1836)—are widely praised as master-pieces of Russian naturalism. Gogol is also seen by many as a progenitor of the modern short story. His fiction, written in a unique style that combines elements of realism, fantasy, comedy, and the grotesque, typically features complex psychological studies of individuals tormented by feelings of impotence, alienation, and frustration.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Boarding School, Vanity Publishing, and Friends in High Places
Born into a family of Ukrainian landowners, Gogol attended boarding school as a young boy, developing there an interest in literature and drama. After failing both to find employment as an actor and to sell his writing, Gogol used his own money to publish his epic poem Hans Kuechelgarten in 1829. When this work received only negative reviews, the ambitious young man collected and burned all remaining copies of the book. Soon after, he obtained a civil service position in St. Petersburg and began writing Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1831), a volume of mostly comic folktales set in his native Ukraine. In these stories, Gogol depicted the world of the Cossack peasantry through an engaging mixture of naturalism and fantasy. Immediately acclaimed as the work of a brilliant young writer, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka brought Gogol to the attention of celebrated poet Alexander Pushkin and noted critic Vissarion Belinsky, who had been an early champion of Pushkin and now recognized similar promise in Gogol. Pushkin proved to be Gogol’s strongest literary inspiration, and their association from 1831 to 1836 fostered Gogol s most productive period.
From Stories of Rural Life to the Alienation of the City
Mirgorod (1835), Gogol’s next cycle of stories, comprises four tales that encompass a variety of moods and styles. ”Old-World Landowners” is a light satire of peasant life, while ”Taras Bulba, often referred to as the ”Cossack Iliad, is a serious historical novella that portrays the Cossack-Polish wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. ”Viy, described by Gogol as ”a colossal product of folk-imagination, is a tale of supernatural terror reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, and ”The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich, considered one of the most humorous stories in Russian letters, details the end of a long friendship due to a trifling argument.
The three stories in Arabesques (1835) rank among Gogol s finest works. In a shift from Ukrainian settings to the more cosmopolitan milieu of St. Petersburg where he now lived, these pieces form part of what were termed Gogol s Petersburg Tales. These stories reveal the city as nonsensical, depersonalized, and dreamlike. In ”Diary of a Madman,” Gogol’s only first-person narrative, he recounts in diary form events that lead to a minor civil servant s delusion that he is the king of Spain. This story has been interpreted as an indictment of the dehumanizing effects of Russian bureaucracy and a comment on the futility of ambition. Gogol wrote against the backdrop of growing dissatisfaction with the absolute authority of the czar (the Russian monarch). In 1825, St. Petersburg had seen the Decembrist revolt (so named because it took place in December), in which thousands of Russian soldiers led by officers who were members of the aristocracy refused to swear allegiance to the new czar, Nicholas I, and demanded instead that a constitution be put in place. Czar Nicholas put down the revolt, but revolutionary fervor continued to simmer.
Dramas, Both Real and Imaginary
In 1836, The Inspector General was produced in St. Petersburg. This play, which is often considered the most original and enduring comedy in the history of Russian theater, examines the reactions of the prominent figures of a provincial Russian town to the news that a government inspector will be arriving incognito to assess municipal affairs. An impoverished traveler named Khlestakov, who is mistaken for the expected official, is bribed and treated like royalty; he attempts to seduce the mayor’s wife and daughter, becomes betrothed to the latter, and departs shortly before the town’s residents learn of their mistake and anticipate the arrival of the real government inspector. In this simple plot, constructed within the framework of perverse logic typical of his works, Gogol mocked both Russian officialdom and farcical literary conventions.
Although the play was an indictment of Russian bureaucracy, it passed the rigid censorship of the time because Czar Nicholas I had read and admired the drama. He ordered all his ministers to attend the premiere and announced, as the final curtain fell, ”Everyone has got his due, and I most of all.” However, despite the czar’s official sanction, the play was violently attacked by a number of influential people who denied that it contained a single honest character. Stung by this criticism, Gogol moved to Italy in 1836, and, except for two brief visits home, remained abroad for twelve years. Most of this time was spent writing Dead Souls, perhaps his most enduring work of all. Although he had originally planned this as a lighthearted novel, Gogol decided instead to create an epic in several volumes that would depict all elements of Russian life.
Social Critique and Death at the Direction of a Priest
Gogol’s final two Petersburg Tales, ”The Nose” and ”The Overcoat,” published as part of Sochinenya (1842), were also written at this time. They are considered among the greatest short stories in world literature. Both pieces exhibit Gogol’s subtle intertwining of humor and pathos and, like ”Diary of a Madman,” focus on the bizarre fate of petty government officials.
Toward the end of his life, Gogol became increasingly convinced that his works should spiritually enrich his readers. Selected Passages of Correspondence with My Friends (1847), a collection of didactic essays and letters, which many of Gogol’s previous admirers condemned as reactionary, reflects this growing religious and moral interest. Following the critical failure of Selected Passages from Correspondence with My Friends, Gogol recommenced composition on a second section of his novel Dead Souls, a project he had previously abandoned due to a nervous breakdown. By this time, however, Gogol had fallen under the influence of Matthew Konstantinovsky, a maniacal priest who insisted that he burn his manuscript and enter a monastery. Gogol agonized over the decision but finally complied, convinced that this act would save him from damnation. At Konstantinovsky’s insistence, Gogol undertook an ascetic regimen in order to cleanse his soul. He began a fast that weakened his already precarious health and died shortly thereafter. Following his death, a small portion of the second part of Dead Souls was discovered and published, but critics generally agree that the sequel does not demonstrate the mastery of the first section. Taken as a whole, Dead Souls is one of Russia’s great abolitionist texts, focusing Gogol’s satirical lens on the absurdities of the system of serfdom in Russia, which functioned as more or less a mode of slavery. While the first section of Dead Souls concentrated on the problems of the system, the unfinished second section was originally intended to offer solutions. As it happened, though, the manuscript went into the flames and the institution of serfdom was not abolished in Russia until 1861, well after Gogol’s death. Though Gogol’s critical appeal had waned during his final years, his funeral still brought out thousands of mourners. Commenting on the throngs, a passerby asked ”Who is this man who has so many relatives at his funeral?” A mourner responded, ”This is Nikolai Gogol, and all of Russia is his relative.”
Works in Literary Context
Nikolai Vasil’evich Gogol is the father of Russia’s Golden Age of prose realism. Later nineteenth-century Russian authors wrote in the shadow of Gogol’s thematics and sweeping aesthetic vision, while even twentieth-century modernists acknowledge Gogol as an inspiration. Many readers compare Gogol’s genius with that of Miguel de Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, and James Joyce. Gogol’s work shows an extraordinary capacity for the manipulation of language, a confusion of the ridiculous and sublime, and a conflicted desire to capture in verbal images the cultural essence of Russia.
Social Realism or Spirituality in Decline?
While most readers of Gogol’s day construed ”The Overcoat” as an example of social realism, believing that the author displayed deep sympathy for his beleaguered hero, later scholars have viewed the story from a psychological perspective, asserting that the overcoat symbolizes a mask that enables Akaky to disguise his spiritual destitution. Others have taken a metaphysical viewpoint, interpreting the ironic loss of the coat and Akaky’s futile pleas for help as indicative of humanity’s spiritual desolation in an indifferent cosmos. Despite such diverse views, critics have consistently noted the resonant irony and lyrical power with which Gogol invested this story.
In many of his works, Gogol focused on characters employed by governmental bureaucracies. This is true of the mysterious Inspector General in the play of the same name, and of Akaky Akakyvitch in ”The Overcoat.” There as elsewhere, Gogol focuses on how different levels of bureaucrats are treated by those around them, and how they fit into the rest of Russian society. The author depicts bureaucracy as a trap of sorts, in which a person’s true desires and goals must be suppressed in order to fit in as a productive part of the governmental machine. In this, there was an implicit—though generally not explicit—critique of the czarist system that produced such bureaucracies in the first place.
The Overcoat behind Modern Russian Literature
Gogol’s influence on Russian literature continued into the twentieth century and is most evident in the poetry of the Russian Symbolists. Such poets as Andrey Bely and Aleksandr Blok cite Gogol’s rich prose and ”visionary” language as embodiments of supreme fantasy. Yet many critics maintain that Gogol’s mixture of realism and satire has proved most influential and remains his greatest achievement. Dostoyevsky acknowledged Russian literature’s vast debt to Gogol by stating simply, ”We all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.”’
Works in Critical Context
Despite praise and recognition from his critics and readers, Gogol has been one of the most misunderstood writers of the modern age. The swarm of seemingly irrelevant details, inconsistencies, and contradictions that characterize Gogol’s life and work have misled readers who look for monolithic purpose or truth. In his critical biography of Gogol, Victor Erlich says that ”we are still far from agreement as to the nature of his genius, the meaning of his bizarre art, and his still weirder life.” Vladimir Nabokov calls Gogol ”the strangest prose-poet Russia has ever produced.”
Liberal Russian critics called Dead Souls a true reflection of life, and gave Gogol the title of ”supreme realist.” Realism, according to Belinsky, required a simple plot, a faithful representation of everyday life, and a humorous exposure of the negative aspects of Russian society. Belinsky saw in Dead Souls the embodiment of these ideals, and considered it a plea for Russian writers to fight for civilization, culture, and humankind. More recently, Guardian reviewer A. S. Byatt has suggested that Gogol ”resembles [Charles] Dickens in the way in which everything he started to imagine transformed itself and began to wriggle with life,” and that Dead Souls ”has that free and joyful energy of a work of art that is the first of its kind, with no real models to fear or emulate.”
- Debreczeny, Paul. Nikolay Gogol and His Contemporary Critics. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1966.
- Fanger, Donald. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.
- Fusso, Susanne. Designing ”Dead Souls”: An Anatomy of Disorder in Gogol. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.
- ”Gogol, Nikolai (Vasilyevich) (1809-1852).” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- ”The Government Inspector.” Drama for Students. Ed. Elizabeth Thomason. vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 2001.
- Maguire, Robert A. Exploring Gogol. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.
- Milne, Ira Mark, ed. ”The Overcoat.” In Short Stories for Students. vol. 7. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
- O’Connor, Frank. Gogol’s Shoe.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- Rydel, Cristine A., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 198: Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Grand Valley State University. Detroit: Gale, 1999.
- Sobel, Ruth. Gogol’s Forgotten Book: ”Selected Passages” and Its Contemporary Readers. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981.
- ”Study Questions: ”The Overcoat.” EXPLORING Short Stories. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- Woodward, James B., The Symbolic Art of Gogol: Essays on His Short Fiction. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1982.
- Zeldin, Jesse. Nikolai Gogol’s Quest for Beauty: An Exploration into His Works. Lawrence.: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.
- Byatt, A. S. ”A Poll Tax of Souls,” in Guardian Review, October 30, 2004.
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