This comedy, a high point of Nikolai Gogol’s work, represents an effective protest against the fumbling, venal bureaucracy of Russia’s small towns. The situation, which is credibly presented, makes this comedy work. The Inspector General builds almost entirely on the simple device of the mistaken identity of its hero. Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov is not a typical hero. Like many of Gogol’s characters, he lacks positive qualities and is instead defined by his absence of intellectual and spiritual traits. He appears a mixture of fool and rogue, hero and villain. Throughout the play, he remains passive, guided primarily by vulgar epicureanism and the imagination of town officials. As a social being, Khlestakov is not exceptional. He is a minor civil servant from a landowning family of modest means. The comedy, however, hinges precisely on his status as a nonentity. As an inert, indeterminate character, rather than a confidence man, he participates in the collective fantasy of the town and shares their fear of being unmasked.
Gogol never tries to convince the town members or the audience that Khlestakov could be the inspector; he instead flaunts the incongruity of Khlestakov’s demeanor and the interpretation of the town. The comedy concentrates on the town as a collective persona. The town officials, who originate and confirm the rumor of the inspector’s arrival, are terrified of being exposed. The mayor heads the group and establishes...
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