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 relations between Khlestakov and the provincial officials. The impression of solidarity created by the collective of officials and gentry is reinforced by their static function. Gogol originally considered the play as a parody of Judgment Day, with Khlestakov representing the deceiving conscience and the townspeople representing the passions, but the play emerged as a satirical commentary on contemporary society. The play presents a social microcosm, specifically in the sphere of public law, based on a hierarchy of rights that sanctions swindling, tyrannizing, and coercing. Gogol portrays officialdom as a tangled web of misunderstandings caused by self-satisfied philistines occupying positions for which they are ill-suited.
The theme of identity is a key to the play. The civil servants in the town are very conscious of rank—their own and Khlestakov’s. The comic treatment of character often relies on identity; in this case, Khlestakov’s ambiguous persona elicits the hidden identities of the officials, while his own identity is only partially revealed. The mayor, who...
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