Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol
BORN: 1809, Great Sorochyntsi, Poltava, Russia
DIED: 1852, Moscow, Russia
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
The Inspector General (1836)
Dead Souls (1842)
“The Overcoat” (1842)
The Gamblers (1843)
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 masterpieces 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 institutiom 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.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Gogol's famous contemporaries include:
Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837): Russian Romantic poet, considered by many to be his country's greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. His style, which blended satire, drama, romance, and realistic speech, came to define Russian literary style.
Nicholas I (1796–1855): During his thirty-year reign, starting in 1825, Nicholas I carved out a reputation as one of the most repressive and reactionary of Russian czars.
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910): Considered one of the greatest novelists of all time, Tolstoy wrote works, particularly War and Peace and Anna Karenina, that are considered the pinnacle of realist literature.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864): Like Gogol, Hawthorne was a master of the short story. His tales focused mostly on Colonial American history, most famously his work The Scarlet Letter, a tale of hypocrisy and guilt in Puritan New England.
Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882): Considered a national hero in Italy, Garibaldi was one of the leading figures in the Risorgimento, or reunification, of Italy in the nineteenth century.
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.
Stifling Bureaucracies 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.”
Dead Souls 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.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many of Gogol's works are considered indictments of the soul-numbing effect of bureaucracy. Here are some other works that examine the power of bureaucracies:
The Trial (1925), a novel by Franz Kafka. This novel, published after the author's death, involves a man arrested, prosecuted, and executed for an unspecified crime.
Catch-22 (1961), a novel by Joseph Heller. This satirical novel takes aim at the U.S. military. The title comes from a fictional “catch” in the rule book that prevents any soldier from avoiding combat on the basis of insanity.
Brazil (1985), a film directed by Terry Gilliam. This cult classic set in a dull dystopia in the future features a hero who dreams of escape from a mind-numbing bureaucratic job.
Responses to Literature
- For over a century, beginning in the 1830s, debate raged among Russian thinkers over the role of Western influence on Russian culture and society. The two camps were called the “Westernizers” and the “Slavophiles”; Gogol was associated in his lifetime with the Westernizers. Research the two perspectives. Upon reading Gogol, would you place him in the Westernizer camp, as his contemporaries did? Could you make the argument that he was actually a Slavophile? Why or why not?
- Choose one of Gogol's shorter stories and analyze its cultural and historical elements. What does the story tell you about nineteenth-century Russian society?
- In Gogol's story “The Overcoat,” how does the point of view of the narrator affect the way the story is told? How would it have been different if the story was told in the third person? How much like Gogol do you feel the narrator is?
- The novel Dead Souls is incomplete thanks in part to the advice of a religious fanatic. Research the background of religion in nineteenth-century Russia, and what led to Gogol's decision to follow the fanatic's advice.
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.
GOGOL, NIKOLAI (1809–1852), Russian short-story writer, novelist, and playwright.
Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol was born on 31 March (19March, oldstyle) 1809 in the Poltava district of Ukraine, to a minor landowning family representative of the Ukrainian gentry's cultural hybridity: their official name was Gogol-Janowski, with Janowski signaling their partly Polish heritage (which Gogol later denied); they generally spoke Russian at home but Ukrainian at times; they corresponded in Russian but read in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish. They were loyal subjects of the Russian Empire; only after Gogol arrived in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg in 1828 did he begin to perceive a tension between Ukrainian and Russian identities. Noting the St. Petersburg craze for all things "Little Russian" ("Little Russia" being a slightly patronizing "Great Russian" name for Ukraine), Gogol exploited this fad in his first major publication, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (two volumes, 1831–1832). The Dikanka tales, all set in a traditional Ukrainian milieu, are introduced by an invented narrator (a naive beekeeper) who claims to have collected them from his fellow villagers. This figure serves in part to shield the author from critical attack, evidence of Gogol's acute and persistent anxiety about his works' reception. The tales themselves reveal tensions between traditional (oral, Ukrainian, local) cultural forms and the standards (written, Russian, imperial) of high literature.
Dikanka's success established Gogol's reputation, although his provincial origins and his deeply eccentric personality kept him from full participation in the capital's sophisticated literary salons. In the story cycle Mirgorod (1835), chatty village narrators are replaced by a single and more authoritative voice. The swashbuckling tale "Taras Bulba" draws on Cossack history to imagine an epic past. The story "Old-World Landowners" evokes the old-time Ukrainian gentry in terms both warmly nostalgic and permeated by complex irony. This elusive irony, which makes it all but impossible to pin down the author's point of view, anticipates the stories known as the Petersburg tales: "Nevsky Prospect," "The Portrait," "Diary of a Madman" (published together in the 1835 collection Arabesques, which also included essays on history and art), "The Nose" (published in a journal in 1836), and "The Over-coat" (published in Gogol's 1842 Collected Works). In these tales the slightness and absurdity of the plots often serve to draw attention to the narrators' virtuoso performances: in "The Nose" when a bureaucrat's body part runs off and impersonates a government official, the narrator's commentary intensifies readers' bewilderment: "how was it that Kovaliov did not understand that he couldn't advertise for his nose in a newspaper office? Not that I would think it too expensive to advertise:…I am certainly not a mercenary person: but it's improper, awkward, not nice!"
In Gogol's comedy The Inspector General (1836), provincial town officials mistake a dimwitted young visitor for a government inspector. The townspeople's energetic lying, fawning, and bribing inspire the visitor to improvise his own fantastically comic lies about himself and life in the capital. The play was well received but Gogol felt that it was not fully appreciated. His dissatisfaction with the public's response helped convince him to leave for Rome, where he spent much of the rest of his life. Here Gogol wrote Dead Souls (1842), a novel about a confidence man pursuing a scheme that involves buying dead serfs. The title evokes not only these serfs but also the grotesque puppetlike landowners who populate the novel and the grim stasis of its provincial Russian setting. The narrative's interest derives less from plot or psychology than from linguistic and stylistic play, as well as from mysterious hints that readers should seek in it a profound hidden message about Russia. Dead Souls provoked much controversy; readers eagerly awaited the second volume, which would, the author promised, clarify all the ambiguities of the first. Gogol labored for years over this sequel, but he succumbed to a psychological and religious mania that finally led him to burn the manuscript. His last published work, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847), provoked outrage with its bizarre mix of religious homily and reactionary diatribe. Gogol wrote little in his final years, dedicating himself to a regimen of spiritual purification and fasting that led to his death in Moscow on 4 March (21 February, old style) 1852.
Nineteenth-century criticism generally represented Gogol as a realist who exposed social injustice; early-twentieth-century critics began to emphasize instead his work's surreal and grotesque qualities. Soviet critics attempted to categorize Gogol as a realist, although this required them to play down his spirituality and his conservative politics. While contemporary critics have accorded new attention to Gogol's religious thought, overall the modernists' emphasis on Gogol's stylistic innovation still informs most readings of his work.
Gogol, Nikolai. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 14 vols. Moscow, 1937–1952. Authoritative Russian text.
——. Letters of Nikolai Gogol. Edited by Carl R. Proffer. Translated by Carl R. Proffer and Vera Krivoshein. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1967.
——. Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. Translated by Jesse Zeldin. Nashville, Tenn., 1969.
——. The Theater of Nikolay Gogol. Edited by Milton Ehre. Translated by Milton Ehre and Fruma Gottschalk. Chicago, 1980. Reprint, as Gogol: Plays and Selected Writings, Evanston, Ill., 1994.
——. Arabesques. Translated by Alexander Tulloch. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1982.
——. The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Edited by Leonard J. Kent. 2 vols. Chicago, 1985.
——. Dead Souls. Translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney. Edited by Susanne Fusso. New Haven, Conn., 1996.
——. The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York, 1998.
Fanger, Donald. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.
Gippius, V. V. Gogol. Edited and translated by Robert A. Maguire. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1981. Reprint, Durham, N.C., 1989. Originally published, 1924.
Maguire, Robert A. Exploring Gogol. Stanford, Calif., 1994.
Maguire, Robert A., ed. and trans. Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays. Princeton, N.J., 1974.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol. Norfolk, Conn., 1944.