There are quite a few intertextual references in Nikolai Gogol's Taras Bulba, such as Romeo and Juliet, and the Bible. What do you think the significance is for the text as a whole, and are there any other intertextual references I may be missing?
It would be a far simpler task to identify the influences of Nikolai Gogol on those who came after him than to identify intertextual references in his work, including Taras Bulba. Such was the stature that Gogol would come to hold in Russian and Ukrainian literary circles and among the public, who saw in his writings both sympathetic indictments of bureaucratic ineptitude and the nationalistic pride that made Taras Bulba so admired among both of those nationalities. That said, the main intertextual references in Gogol’s story are, as the student’s question noted, biblical and Shakespearian. Taras Bulba is a seriously anti-Semitic story – a phenomenon made all the sadder by the story’s accurate representation of Russian and Ukrainian perceptions of the Jewish people during the period in question. That anti-Semitism, however, owes a debt to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The character of Zhid Yankel is a thinly-veiled cousin to Shakespeare’s character of Shylock. Just as Shylock exhibits the most derogatory mannerisms and character traits that Shakespeare could imagine, without dehumanizing this tragic figure, Gogol’s Yankel is portrayed as a craven, money-obsessed mercenary. The money-lending motif that lies at the heart of The Merchant of Venice similarly informs Gogol’s depiction of Jews, as evident in the following passage:
“Touching the matter in question, gentles, none know better than yourselves that many Zaporozhtzi have run in debt to the Jew ale-house keepers and to their brethren, so that now they have not an atom of credit.”
The religion theme in this deeply religious story similarly informs Gogol’s characterizations. Just as Moses came down from the mountain to witness the Jews celebrating the golden calf, Taras Bulba returns to the spot where he had left Yankel only to find this clever Jew predictably engaged in commerce:
“As he passed through the suburb, Taras Bulba saw that his Jew, Yankel, had already erected a sort of booth with an awning, and was selling flint, screwdrivers, powder, and all sorts of military stores needed on the road, even to rolls and bread. “What devils these Jews are!” thought Taras.”
To Yankel, the business of money-lending – one of the most prominent stereotypes of Jews – is all-consuming. Nothing else matters. So wide-spread and pernicious is this stereotype that Yankel is able to exploit it to his and Bulba’s advantage:
“I looked, and in command of the rearguard was Cornet Galyandovitch. He is a man well known to me; he has owed me a hundred ducats these three years past. I ran after him, as though to claim the debt of him, and so entered the city with them.”
“You entered the city, and wanted him to settle the debt!” said Bulba; “and he did not order you to be hung like a dog on the spot?” “By heavens, he did want to hang me,” replied the Jew; “his servants had already seized me and thrown a rope about my neck. But I besought the noble lord, and said that I would wait for the money as long as his lordship liked, and promised to lend him more if he would only help me to collect my debts from the other nobles.”
Ukrainian and Russian Cossacks were brutal, malicious raiders whose reputation for protecting the borders of their nation resided in no small part from their profession of fealty to the Russian Orthodox Church. They rode in the name of Christ, and Gogol’s story is replete with references to the role of Christianity in legitimizing these avaricious insurgents. In the following passage, Gogol describes his protagonist’s justification for the violence he and his colleagues visited upon all those unlike themselves:
“He and his Cossacks executed justice, and made it a rule that in three cases it was absolutely necessary to resort to the sword. Namely, when the commissioners did not respect the superior officers and stood before them covered; when any one made light of the faith and did not observe the customs of his ancestors; and, finally, when the enemy were Mussulmans or Turks, against whom he considered it permissible, in every case, to draw the sword for the glory of Christianity.”
Several more examples that constitute intertextual references specific to the Bible involve, first, the Jewish character Mardokhai (Mordecai), who is viewed by the other Jews as Solomonic in the depth of his wisdom:
“Mardokhai approached Taras, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, ‘When we set to work it will be all right’ Taras looked at this Solomon whom the world had never known and conceived some hope: indeed, his face might well inspire confidence. His upper lip was simply an object of horror; its thickness being doubtless increased by adventitious circumstances. This Solomon’s beard consisted only of about fifteen hairs, and they were on the left side. Solomon’s face bore so many scars of battle, received for his daring, that he had doubtless lost count of them long before, and had grown accustomed to consider them as birthmarks.”
Next, the treachery exhibited by Taras Bulba’s youngest son, Andrii, is met with derogatory references to the Biblical Judas who, of course, betrayed Jesus, leading to the latter’s crucifixion. Andrii’s actions in siding with his people’s enemies, and betraying his father, is clearly intended to convey the image of the last days of Jesus, which leads to a final example of intertextual references related to the Bible. The aforementioned crucifixion is replayed in Gogol’s story with the capture and execution of Taras Bulba. Condemned to be burned alive, he is tied to a tree in a manner suggestion crucifixion of this brave, loyal and righteous leader:
“There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot.”
The Bible and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are the principle literary influences on Gogol’s story. The history of the Cossacks provides no logical justification for such a disproportionate role in Taras Bulba of Jews. That Gogol’s presentation of his subject matter reflected the common stereotypes of the time could suggest that no debt was owed the long-dead Englishman who penned many-a-story centuries earlier. The parallels between Shylock and Yankel, however, are striking, and the influence of the New Testament on Gogol’s story clearly suggests a lack of fealty to those who adhered only to the volume that preceded it.