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Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich


(18091852), short-story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist.

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, whose bizarre characters, absurd plots, and idiosyncratic narrators have both entranced and confounded readers worldwide and influenced authors from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Franz Kafka to Flannery O'Connor, led a life as cryptic and circuitous as his fiction. He was born in 1809 in Sorochintsy, Ukraine. His father was a playwright; his mother, a highly devout and imaginative woman and one of Gogol's key influences. By no stretch a stellar student, Gogol showed theatrical talent, parodying his teachers and peers and performing in plays.

In 1828 Gogol moved to Petersburg with hopes of launching a literary career, His long poem Hans Kuechelgarten (1829), a derivative, slightly eccentric idyll, received only a brief and critical mention in the Moscow Telegraph. Dismayed, Gogol burned all the copies he could find and left for Lübeck, Germany, only to return several weeks later. In 1831 he met the poet Alexander Pushkin. His first collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (18311832), folk and ghost tales set in Ukraine and narrated by beekeeper Rudy Panko, reaped praise for its relative freshness and hilarity, and Gogol became a household name in Petersburg literary circles.

Gogol followed the Dikanka stories with two 1835 collections, Arabesques and Mirgorod. From Mirgorod, the "Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich" (nicknamed "The Two Ivans"), blends comedy with tragedy, prose with poetry, satire with gratuitous play. Describing the two Ivans through bizarre juxtapositions, the narrator explains how the fatal utterance of the word gander (gusak ) severed their friendship for good.

Gogol's Petersburg tales, some included in Arabesques, some published separately, contain some of Gogol's best-known work, including "The Nose" (1835), about a nose on the run in full uniform; "Diary of a Madman" (1835), about a civil servant who discovers that he is the king of Spain; and "The Overcoat" (1842), about a copyist who becomes obsessed with the purchase of a new overcoat. In all these stories, as in the "Two Ivans," plot is secondary to narration, and the tension between meaning and meaninglessness remains unresolved.

In 1836 a poor staging and mixed reception of Gogol's play The Inspector General precipitated his second trip to Europe, where he stayed five years except for brief visits to Russia. While in Rome he wrote the novel Dead Souls (1842), whose main character, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, travels from estate to estate with the goal of purchasing deceased serfs (souls) to use as collateral for a state loan. Chichikov's travels can be considered a tour of Gogol's narrative prowess. With each visit, Chichikov encounters new eccentricities of setting, behavior, and speech.

In 1841 Gogol returned to Russia. There he began a sequel to Dead Souls chronicling Chichikov's fall and redemption. This marked the beginning of Gogol's decline: his struggle to establish a spiritual message in his work. His puzzling and dogmatic Selections from Correspondence with Friends (1847), in which he offers advice on spiritual and practical matters, dismayed his friends and supporters. Various travels, including a pilgrimage in 1848 to the Holy Land, failed to bring him the strength and inspiration he sought. Following the advice of his spiritual adviser and confessor, the fanatical Father Matthew, who told him to renounce literature, he burned Dead Souls shortly before dying of self-starvation in 1852.

See also: dostoyevsky, fyodor mikhailovich; golden age of russian literature; pushkin, alexander sergeyevich


Karlinsky, Simon. (1976). The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maguire, Robert. (1994). Exploring Gogol. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Nabokov, Vladimir. (1961). Nikolai Gogol. New York: New Directions.

Senechal, Diana. (1999). "Diabolical Structures in the Poetics of Nikolai Gogol." Ph.D. diss., Yale University, New Haven, CT.

Diana Senechal

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