Nikolai Gogol Essay - Critical Essays

Nikolai Gogol Short Fiction Analysis

Nikolai Gogol combines the consummate stylist with the innocent spectator, flourishes and flounces with pure human emotion, naturalism with delicate sensitivity. He bridges the period between Romanticism and realism in Russian literature. He captures the “real” against the background of the imagined and, in the estimation of at least one critic, the surreal. Frequently, the supernatural or some confounding coincidence plays a major role in his works. His heroes of the “little man” variety imprinted the most profound impression on his readers and critics alike. These petty clerks, all socially dysfunctional in some major respect, nevertheless explore the great depth of the human soul and exhibit certain personality traits characteristic of the greatest heroes in literature.

Gogol focuses his major creative occupation on the manners of his characters; his creative energy is nowhere more apparent than in the “mannerizing” in which he describes and characterizes. His genius does not dwell in philosophical dialogues, allegory, or involved interior monologue as do the realist novels of the latter half of the century. Nor does he engender his heroes with abandon and ennui, as do his near contemporaries Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. The depth of his psychological portraiture and the sweep of his romantic apostrophes, however, remain powerful and fascinating. In his plays, speech is swept aside from its characteristic place in the foreground; the dramatic foreground is given over to the manner or mannerisms of the characters. The actions literally speak louder than words. The social satire, deeply embedded in the manners of the characters, unfolds without special machinations and with few unnatural speech acts, such as asides. It is a tribute to Gogol’s skill that his characters do not necessarily become superficial or unidimensional as a result but are imbued with certain attributes that display a wide range of human passion, particularly human dignity and the cognizance of the injustices created in social stratification.

One of Gogol’s favored narrative devices can be called the chatty narrator. This narrator, seemingly prolix and sometimes random, will supply the reader with most of the information that will ever be revealed about a character. In a typical passage, the reader will encounter a character who might say something utterly commonplace such as: “I won’t have coffee today, Praskovia Osipovna, instead I will take some hot bread with onions.” The character says little that can be used to describe himself. The reader’s attention, however, is then directed to the information supplied by the narrator: “Actually, Ivan Yakovlevich would have liked to take both, but he knew it was utterly impossible to ask for two things at the same time since Praskovia Osipovna greatly disliked such whims.” Thus Ivan Yakovlevich is described by his manners—he speaks to his wife in a formal tone that relates very little information to the reader—but the narrator, in his chatty, nosy fashion reveals much about this individual and describes Ivan’s wife, his subordinate position at home, and his struggle for dignity within this relationship at the same time. Thus, from a seeming excess of information, the reader becomes familiar with a character who might otherwise remain nondescript.

Gogol’s narratives abound in descriptions, and these tend to be humorous. Many times, humor is created by the device of metonymy, whereby a part stands for the whole. Thus, women become “slender waists” and seem so light that one fears that they will float away, and men are mustaches of various colors, according to their rank. Another humorous effect might be created by the chatty narrator’s remark about some individual in a very unfavorable light. This information that he, for some reason, knows in regard to the character informs the reader’s opinion of that character and often lends either a humorous or a pathetic tone to his or her person. Also humorous is the effect created through realized metaphors, another favorite technique of Gogol. Thus, instead of “he ate like a pig,” the person is actually transformed into a pig with all the attributes of a perfect pig, at least temporarily. In general, Gogol’s works abound with descriptions packed with colors, similes, and wayward characterizations by his narrator or actors.

Gogol’s works fall roughly into three categories, which in turn correspond approximately to three different periods in his creative life. The first period is represented solely by short stories that exhibit lush local color from the Ukraine and Gogol’s own mixing of devils and simple folk. Seven of the eight stories from the collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which appeared in 1831 (with the second part following in 1832), belong in this category, as well as the stories in Mirgorod, first published in 1835.

The second major period of Gogol’s literary life features works either centered on a locus in the imperial center of Russia, St. Petersburg itself, or surrounding the bureaucrats and petty officials ubiquitous in the provinces of the empire. This period stretches roughly from 1835 to 1842 and includes the short stories “Nevsky Prospekti” (“Nevsky Prospect”), “Zapiski sumasshedshego” (“The Diary of a Madman”), “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” the play The Inspector General, and the novel Dead Souls. The short story “Portret” (“The Portrait”), although definitely a product of this period, is singular for its strong echoes of the devil tales in the early period.

The last period can claim only one published work, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, and is typically interpreted as a reversal in Gogol’s creative development. If the analyst, however, can keep in mind Gogol’s rather fanatic attachment to his artistic life as a devotional to God, then perhaps this otherwise unexplainable curve in his creative evolution might seem more understandable.

The two volumes of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka contain eight stories. However atypical they were to become in terms of setting and subject matter, these tales of the Ukraine, with various elements of the supernatural adding terror, exhibit many of the qualities found in the mature writer of the second period. They are magical and engaging, heroic and base, simply enjoyable to read and quite poignant.

“A May Night”

An excellent example of these tales is “Mayskaya Noch: Ili, utoplennitsa” (“A May Night: Or, The Drowned Maiden”). The plot is a simple love story in which the lovers are not allowed to wed because of the objection of the man’s father. The seeming simplicity, however, is overwhelmed by acts of Satan, witches, and rusalki. (In folk belief, rusalki are female suicides who endlessly inhabit the watery depths of ponds, tempting men and often causing their deaths.) When the antics of Ukrainian cossack youths do not by themselves bring the matter to resolution, the rusalka puts a letter into the young man’s hand, which secures for him his marriage.

The characters are depicted in ways highly reminiscent of the oral folktales. Levko, the hero, sings to his beloved to come out of her house. He speaks of his “brighteyed beauty,” her “little white hands,” and her “fair little face.” All these figures of speech are fixed epithets common in folklore. He promises to protect her from detection—“I will cover you with my jacket, wrap my sash around you, or hide you in my arms—and no one will see us,”—forfending the possible intrusion three ways. Likewise, he promises to protect her from any cold—“I’ll press you warmer to my heart, I’ll warm you with my kisses, I’ll put my cap over your little white feet”—that is, a threefold protection. The reinforcement of images in threes is also quite common in folklore. Thus, clearly, Gogol is invoking folklore in his artistic works. Nevertheless, there are hints of the mature Gogol in the landscape...

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